The IPL earns its cricket cred
On a steamy Chennai night, IPL 5 had a finish that it could not have dreamed of or prayed for, with all the good bits of an entire season coming together in symbolic representation.
Major finals tend to be flat and forgettable because the occasion ends up too big, the teams too tense. The 2010 World Cup football final will be remembered for a boot in the ribs, the 2011 World Cup rugby final was a dour, defensive struggle that the All Blacks endured. The World Cup cricket final a year ago ended splendidly for India but left its audience so emotionally exhausted that IPL 4 was played to vast tracts of empty stands and dipping TV ratings.
After 2012, however, the IPL lives again, breathes again and makes some good news again. On Sunday, there was a full stadium at Chepauk for the first time since the World Cup, a new champion, a successful chase of 191, nine needed off the last over, players sweating buckets, spectators sweating anxiety.
If anything has rescued the IPL from its turkey of a 2011, and lifted it, regardless of a frequency of allied scandals, it is its cricket and its crowds.
Over seven weeks, the IPL's presence spread through its audience like the heat of a genuine Indian summer. An annual league that takes far longer than the football, cricket and rugby world cups actually produced memories that may just survive the season. Dale Steyn bowling pure poison in four-over bursts, the pure bafflement caused by Sunil Narine, Ajinkya Rajane's clean strokeplay and Chris Gayle's fiercest statements of independence - this even before Bisla and Kallis snatched the trophy eastwards.
There was enough of the Twenty20 format's madness in there too. Even before the final week, as many as 22 - or 30% - of the total 72 matches ended in the last over. Not including the final, there were 18 last-over victories to batting teams, seven chases ending on the last ball - all, it must be said, in the batting side's favour.
The IPL's popularity in the global cricket village, due to its enormous financial rewards for two months' work, is well known. Its cricketing advantages are much advertised. Yet what underscored the league's sustainability after a dry run in 2011 was the crowds who turned up at every venue. Every franchise can now have ticket sales as a genuine source of income beyond the BCCI's media rights handouts - which will begin to shrink in size as the league gets older - and shirt sponsorships.
The idea of an evening's entertainment through cricket - eight matches over two months in a city near you - was bought into by a very wide Indian demographic. A media industry executive finds the IPL "more inclusive than going to a Test match". The league, she says, is Indian cricket's "baby pool" and its "shallow end" where "you can paddle around and be happy". The sight of casually dressed stars, with Nita Ambani "sitting in the stadium with the guy who has bought the cheapest ticket … that has something that connects with India".
The IPL has been given the healthiest signs of relevance and, with it, profitability by the cricketer and his fan. Now there is an opportunity for payback, for Indian cricket to give to its spectators what has been owed to them for decades: gratitude and appreciation at their presence, and the chance to make a trip to a high-profile match in India worth the trouble.
What remains to be calculated, though, is the earnings from television. The IPL's TV coverage matters, not because it is central to the IPL's cricket but because it is central to the IPL's financial success. In two of three parameters - ad rates and TV ratings - there have been dips, which the experts are calling "course correction". The ratings fell from 4.81 in 2008 to 3.27, when a count was done at 68 matches, in 2012. The surge in crowd figures at venues did not translate on to the TV screen, the 3.27 being down even from the 3.39 of 2011.
According to the Hindu Business Line, the ad rate that began at Rs 5 lakh (US$9000 approx) for a 10-second advert dropped by 25%, though Rohit Gupta of Set Max told the paper it had only dropped "5-10%". The parameter being most widely circulated is that of the cumulative reach of viewership - from around 102 million in 2008 to just under 160 million in 2012. It means more people are watching the IPL, but for shorter periods of time.
It could have something to do with the coverage. Unlike the standard of cricket, which may have risen over five seasons thanks to better-prepared players and smarter backroom moves, the quality of the pre-game show Extraaa Innings and the live match coverage has continued to nosedive.
Extraaa Innings is handled by the TV producers Set Max, a Sony network channel in India that normally airs Hindi movies. The match coverage is directly under the control of the organisers IMG, who in turn are watched by the BCCI, which controls the panel of presenters and commentators for the IPL. So if there are fingers to be pointed, they must point at both the parties involved. Sadly, the commentary and studio chatter undermined the high-quality camerawork - with Ultra Motion, Spider Cam and HD-TV, the game can come much closer to its audience.
Every game had commentary in English but the pre-game show lapsed frequently into Hindi - a new push that is believed to be the result of a massive survey conducted by Set Max, but most of it, it appears, in the part of India called "the Hindi heartland", which speaks the language of the soaps televised on Sony. Yet of the nine franchises, six come from outside that Hindi-speaking belt. Go figure.
The studio experts approved by the BCCI included Ajay Jadeja, whom it had banned for five years (overturned by the Delhi High Court in 2003) following the Madhavan Committee report on match-fixing, and perhaps the two loudest people on cricket television: Navjot Sidhu and Danny Morrison. It was as if Twenty20 in itself was declared not "entertaining'' enough unless the commentariat started shouting.
In the league's fifth season, this strategy ends up preaching to the converted: India loves Twenty20, breakaway leagues have flourished at state level blessed or cursed by regional cricket associations, the audience loves the party, can generate its own noise and will wave any flag given free. Ramping it up with stand-up comedy, film and TV promos, and cake-consuming crassness is overdoing it. The IPL's audience in India was given a great gift in some very tawdry packaging.
The IPL's defence has always been its money talk. So, if it is ready to buy into one set of figures, it is only fair that those figures hold over time. Brand Finance India, whose UK arm had valued the IPL at$4.13 billion in 2010, has now said the league is now worth $2.92b. Whatever the numbers may be, the consulting firm's conclusions tell another story: when judged on cricketing excellence, corporate governance, and marketing and commercial strategies, it was the second element that was considered the league's weakest link.
The very idea of the BCCI and "corporate governance" in the same sentence is ambitious. In the IPL's fifth year, the wriggling between an old-fashioned, opaque, patriarchal organisation and its new 21st century revenue-generating 'property' with nine high-profile investors/participants remains evident and constant. The scandals are the least of it.
An industry insider says the public response has been rather blasé because the general positioning of the IPL was of a "tamasha". So the sting operation, Shah Rukh Khan's bust-up, the Pomersbach saga, "all of this kind of stuff just adds to the tamasha. People see it, they accept it. The scandal is going on in society, not in the IPL. I don't think people are shocked, for them it's another tamasha." Tamasha translates as 'a grand show, performance, representation, entertainment'.
On Sunday, Anil Kumble was heard saying on television that the credibility of the IPL would rest on "more discussion about off-field issues". In his mind, young domestic cricketers needed tending in how to cope with two months in the blinding spotlight. Given that the IPL's sporting quotient is expected to be authentic, the tamasha could become par for the course. Of the entire set of scandals that erupted in the space of a week, the sting operation that was centred around spot-fixing and black-money transactions required the most attention; the rest - SRK v MCA, Pomersbach and the rave party raid - were reflective of a culture of high-earning, high-spending celebrity entitlement now commonly found in Indian public life.
In its fifth season, the IPL is a creature of multiple personalities: to start with, the Indian board's own definition of it as a "BCCI sub-committee". Which to the public eye is actually a cricket event. Which to its lucrative media vehicles means a summer entertainment show on TV. In 2012, the cricket event showed itself off in the glittering lights. The other two need some personal reinvention - much like the Kolkata Knight Riders required before they eventually won the IPL.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo