Drowned out by the hype machine
Drat. It's that time of year again, when us bad-news brigade types step forward to perform our dual roles of being both eyesore and light bulb. Pitted against the IPL's One Direction-inspired, high-volume hype machine, they don't make for much of a performance. Nor have any more impact than a mobile ringing at a Metallica concert.
Regardless, we do what we have to. Every time. Like those flight-safety demonstrations, so that in case of turbulence seatbelts are fastened and the location of airsickness bags is known. The last 11 months - between the tailend of the 2013 season and this one - have been turbulent enough to turn innards to water.
The hype machine, however, remains poised and perky in a stratosphere of detachment, continuing to whirl around the axis of its central argument: the cricket remains great, the crowds turn up, and there's enough ka-ching to keep everyone happy. The machine rumbles: stop being party poopers, dudes, get a life, and learn to have some fun. As Quiet Riot would say, come on, feel the noise.
It is usually enough to shout down every dissenting voice but IPL2014 follows a nightmare year for the governors of cricket's richest league. The shenanigans of season six - spot-fixing, betting, arrests - have made previous dramas like the Lalit Modi ouster of 2010, frequent franchise wrangles and player-centric scandals look like kindergarden skits.
As the new season arrives with its usual giddy grins and clashing cymbals, it contains an dark undertow of what has gone by and what truths may still lie concealed. Opening night will take place hours after India's Supreme Court conducts another hearing on how the league's administrators handled - or mishandled - its biggest scandal. Over the course of the last 11 months, what has gone under is the idea of the League's integrity and its credibility as an event which, along with its popularity, also happens both clean and plays by the rules.
The league now has a court-appointed head in the form of insider-and-outsider Sunil Gavaskar, whose one telling move was to rope in a respected name from corporate India as his advisor and troubleshooter. The introduction of Deepak Parekh's name itself appears to be a first attempt to regain credibility.
It does not help, though, when India and Chennai Super Kings captain MS Dhoni replies to the question "How will you ensure a clean game of IPL this year?" by saying, "We'll try the laundry, that's good, will keep us clean." A funny line, but as his only one on the corruption scandal, it is a bit too glib. It is as if there is a deep disconnect amongst the high rollers of Indian cricket between the reality of what has transpired - arrests, prison, Supreme Court investigations, the use of the word 'nauseating' around Indian cricket - and the distraction of the Big Noise and the big pay cheque that comes with it.
To hear Chennai coach Stephen Fleming say, "There's a lot going on, I won't lie. There are a lot of distractions", was relief of sorts. To be fair, there are many, there are many people who are uneasy about what has gone on but have neither authority or control and are tangled up in the grip of the League's riches. "Officially, we're in front of the camera, talking up the event," said one such. "At the back of our minds we're thinking, so much has happened, a case is in court, this needs to be sorted out."
The majority of IPL franchises will not admit it in public, but in private they talk about selling inventory at lower rates. Some have struggled to seal shirt sponsorships. All prospective clients, they say, "want more out of less". Some advertisers on television held out as long as they could to try and grab the lowest rates. The compensation to franchises for playing 20 matches out of 60 outside India has not been formally revealed. While there are official announcements about the rush of ticket-buyers and sponsors, the IPL's website shows a title sponsor and three partners. One of those partners happens to be the BCCI's media-rights holder for all other cricket played in India. When the league began, along with the title sponsor, there were spots for between four and six associate sponsors/official partners.
In the light of the corruption scandal, moving the event to Sharjah, Dubai and Abu Dhabi is so rich in irony that every expression of outrage is a laugh wasted. It is understood the UAE government convinced the BCCI with the promise that the hosts would ensure a clean environment, free of shady characters. Yes, Sharjah cricket has a somewhat insalubrious past and Dubai is the haven of the illegal cricket betting industry. We must remember however that the one entity which requires 'cleaning' and was under the BCCI's control was the League itself. And they have made a mess of it.
In 2010 there was much celebration when the UK-based consultancy Brand Finance declared the IPL's value had doubled in 12 months to $4 billion. The figure was believed in and revelled in. Three years later, it is only fair to pay attention to Brand Finance's current assessment. It is arrived at by starting with governance standards, marketing excellence and cricketing performance, and taking into account stakeholder relationships and trust flows, to give a "holistic perspective of asymmetric risks prevalent in any business", says Brand Finance's global strategy director M Unni Krishnan. The risk is assessed in the manner in which Standard & Poor's, for instance, allots its credit ratings - from AAA to the dreadful D.
In the space of four years, the IPL, according to Krishnan, is now at "unprecedented risk". There were no words minced: "The nature of unrest, unravelling of stakeholder relations and alignment have proved beyond doubt that the IPL ecosystem has entered uncharted and treacherous waters. It is at the moment at what we can very much term as catastrophic risk." The present situation has arisen due to what Krishnan called a "blind to our own blindness" pattern of behaviour of the sort seen in financial service companies before they crash.
While "catastrophic risk" is a phrase that can shake a stock market, the IPL may not yet be at a point of no return. A turnaround can come from the body blow of a truth delivered by an outsider or a shake-up driven from the inside. Don't hold your breath, though. At its darkest hour, the IPL has chosen siege over rescue. It is blowing trumpets and championing its properties, instead of tackling a festering core.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo