Cricket braces for a rollercoaster ride
Over the next few weeks the fate of cricket, that quintessentially British sport often seen as a sleepy throwback to a bygone era, will be in the hands of the Indian Premier League, a radically new six-week tournament. The IPL, in which the world's best players play a new, charged-up form of cricket, begins on Friday; its success - with US$2 billion at stake, no one is contemplating the possibility of failure - could end up changing the way cricket is played, viewed and governed. It could become faster, more commercial, with less time for the its traditional mystifying rituals and subtleties; it could - whisper it - become more American.
Whatever happens, every step in any direction is likely to attract controversy - as the IPL has since it was unveiled last September. In the seven months since, national cricket boards have expressed alarm at its possible impact; the game's leading voices have warned against letting the IPL - and all it stands for - take over cricket; one respected writer called it "local hooch" to the Scotch of traditional cricket; a former World Cup-winning captain called it "instant noodles". A journalist in New Zealand, a country particularly threatened by the league, said it is to cricket "what diarrhoea is to dodgy curry houses - an unfortunate by-product." The Beijing Olympics has probably received better press in recent times.
And all this for a mere sporting event that lasts less than two months, takes place in one country - India - and even has the blessings of cricket's global administrator, the International Cricket Council. What's the fuss all about?
For nearly 150 years, the centrepiece of cricket has been contests between countries; for the first time the sport is about to see a contest among clubs and featuring the world's top players - who, paid nearly ten times more than their international match fees, could contemplate a career outside the strictly regulated international game. Scyld Berry, one of the game's most respected writers, calls this the "fourth age" of cricket.
Cricket's stereotyped "Empire" image - an elegant game played in pristine whites at a nonchalant pace over five days, with frequent breaks for lunch, tea and drinks - was first altered 30 years ago by the Australian media tycoon Kerry Packer, who picked up the nascent one-day version of cricket, added coloured clothing, floodlights and catchy slogans ["Big boys play at night"] and made it a TV-friendly spectacle. His World Series Cricket, deemed unofficial by the establishment, also gave the players more money so when peace was finally made the players and the game were left better off than before.
The IPL has taken that process to a logical conclusion, at double speed and with a few significant twists. First, it employs cricket's latest version, Twenty20, which is short on time - matches are over in three hours, one-tenth the time of a regular international match and not much more than a football or basketball game - and big on entertainment and hype. The compression takes away a lot of the game's subtlety; the dice are loaded in favour of the batsmen - the batters in cricket - who are encouraged to hit as many sixes, or home runs, as possible. Traditionalists see it as a brazen perversion of the game, but its format is designed to attract newer, younger audiences - especially those hooked on European soccer and Formula One racing - and provides cricket the best opportunity for growth.
Next, it replaces the traditional "national" element of cricket, where at the highest level teams represent countries, with city-based franchises owned by, among others, India's wealthiest man, Mukesh Ambani; its biggest film star, Shah Rukh Khan; its flashiest businessman, Vijay Mallya [owner of the Whyte & Mackay distillery and the Force India Formula 1 team]; and Rupert Murdoch's son Lachlan. These teams have on their rosters the best players from across the world so, instead of India taking on Australia, you will have Sachin Tendulkar, the game's biggest star, playing for his Mumbai team alongside Shaun Pollock, from South Africa, and Lasith Malinga of Sri Lanka; they could be taking on a Bangalore side featuring India's current and past captains, Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid, and top players from Australia, West Indies, New Zealand and South Africa.
It is similar in some respects to England's domestic cricket league, where some of the world's best players have traditionally played for the county cricket clubs during the April-September season. The difference, though is that the county clubs, like the clubs in all top European soccer leagues, were established on a geographical basis with fixed fan following; the IPL's franchises are sold to the highest bidder, divorced from the notion of geographical or local support.
This is at once the league's strength and weakness. By selling the eight franchises, for which it made $723 million when the ten-year rights were auctioned in January, the IPL has freed itself of any liability risk; it is now up to each franchise to cover its costs through ticket sales, local advertising and minimum guarantee returns from the IPL. However, the concept of franchises goes against the average Indian cricket fan's idea of the game as it should be played and is in defiance of the fact that Indian cricket's support base is focused almost purely on the national team. So it's difficult to gauge how a fan of the Hyderbad team will appreciate Shahid Afridi, a Pakistani batsman, targeting the universally worshipped Tendulkar.
All of this is fuelled by a financial outlay the likes of which the game has never seen, from billion-dollar television deals to ten-fold increases in player wages. The IPL sold the ten-year TV rights for $1 billion - a stunning amount for a largely untried format and a virgin tournament. Put into perspective, the ICC sold the 2007-2015 rights to its tournaments - some of cricket's biggest events, including two World Cups - for around $1.1 billion.
At the player auction - another first for cricket, though more familiar to American sport - last February, 75 players were signed up by the eight franchises for a total of $36 million. That's an average of around $500,000 for each player, for 44 days' work - with the rest of the year free to earn money through international cricket. At the top, India's Mahendra Singh Dhoni will earn $1.5 million this season; that is six weeks' wages for Cristiano Ronaldo, arguably the world's best soccer player at the moment, and not much less than what Derrek Lee or David Ortiz earned over the same period in 2007 while playing for the Cubs and the Red Sox. And this with a salary cap in the first year: From Season Two, when the caps are off, it's anyone's guess how high the pay scales can go.
The wealth is spread all round. Ishant Sharma, a rookie bowler [pitcher] in his first season, will earn $950,000, largely on the back of a hugely successful tour of Australia earlier this year. Australia's Andrew Symonds will earn $1.35 million, at least 20% more than he is likely to get playing a full year for Australia. The knock-on effect is easy to spot - national cricket boards are now planning pay hikes at various levels, which can only be good for the game.
There is a large element of self-preservation in what those national boards are doing, however, because the IPL has the potential to set up a parallel cricket structure with its power to offer a player more money in one season than he can earn in five years of regular cricket. Right now the IPL operates in a 44-day window squeezed into an already packed calendar tightly regulated by the ICC, so minimising the risk of players forfeiting their national or other pre-arranged commitments for the new league. It has also largely kept out players from England, the one country whose regular season overlaps with the IPL's. There is no guarantee the IPL will be so accommodating in future, and that is a huge source of concern - will the game's top players place cash over country? It's a particular concern for the smaller countries such as New Zealand, where cricket is not the most popular sport. And will the IPL, which is based on Twenty20 cricket, force out the traditional form of the game, which requires very different skills?
There's one more significant difference between the IPL and all that cricket has seen in the past: Where once the sport was governed, like the Empire, out of London, the IPL - and everything it stands for - is controlled entirely by India. The IPL is owned by the Indian cricket board, the BCCI, and is the brainchild of Lalit Modi, a vice-president of the BCCI and the man who has, in the past three years, raked in billions of dollars in television and endorsement deals by the simple expedient of regulating the control of a game that has near-religious status in a booming economy. It is no secret that 70% of cricket's economy is generated by India; now, that muscle has a mind of its own.
In many ways, Twenty20 cricket is perfect for the IPL. It is short, and so able to slot into primetime television programming, the base on which it rests. Indian fans have grown tired of cricket's longer versions - the five-day matches are sometimes played in near-empty stadia and, though the one-day game is a sellout, it is beaten for sheer impact and entertainment by Twenty20. And, in a most happy coincidence, the launch of the IPL last September was followed, weeks later, by the national team winning the inaugural world championship. Since then it has become a whole new ball game.
Yet it won't be an exaggeration to say the BCCI stumbled on the IPL. Twenty20 cricket had been around for a few years, finding spectacular success in England, where it was created in 2003 to take advantage of the long summer evenings. Matches would begin after working hours, enabling the average cricket fan to unwind with his friends, family and a few beers. It caught on, for the same reasons, in Australia and South Africa, and in West Indies where the Texan billionaire Allen Stanford built a small township and bankrolled an entire tournament.
It left India cold, however, largely because there was no apparent planning. Before winning the world championship in South Africa, the Indian team had played one Twenty20 international and the domestic tournament had been a largely forgotten affair. One seminal turning point was the World Cup in the one-day format a year ago, a tournament in which India fared disastrously, losing to unfancied Bangladesh and crashing out in the first round. Within days, the Indian media czar Subhash Chandra, who had fallen out with the BCCI over a telecast rights deal, had announced the Indian Cricket League (ICL), a Twenty20 tournament featuring international players - mainly those on the fringes of international cricket or those who'd just retired - spread among six teams.
All this while, it later appeared, the BCCI had been working towards such a league but, seemingly caught unawares by the ICL, responded by saying it would not recognise the league and that those who played in it would not be able to avail of any benefits. The ICC too said it would not recognise the ICL, followed by every major national cricket board. This effectively meant the ICL was an unofficial or rebel league and those who joined it would not be eligible to play any other, official, form of cricket.
The second part of the BCCI's response was to fast-track its own league, which was duly unveiled by Modi, its commissioner, in September. Modi had spent the past couple of years building up the BCCI's portfolio of record-breaking deals, commercialising every aspect of cricket - television rights in India, overseas, and in neutral countries, shirt sponsorships, unprecedented endorsements. The IPL, though, was the icing on the cake.
The Americanisation of cricket - the concept of franchises, a "commissioner" in charge of the league instead of the usual chairman or president, player auctions, the subsequent draft picks for rookies, salary caps, the direct references to the major American sports leagues in the IPL's prospectus - has its roots in the years Modi spent in the US, as a student at Duke in the 1980s where he spent his free time watching sports on TV. He says he was "fascinated" by the manner in which professional sport is run in the US, and the fact that someone could make his living out of sport. Returning home, Modi - born into a wealthy business family - sniffed opportunity in the way cricket's TV rights deals were signed. His Modi Entertainment Network worked with ESPN to buy the rights in the major cricket-playing countries, in most cases beating Rupert Murdoch and often getting bargain prices.
From there to the free-market concept of the IPL was a relatively short journey but there is a long road ahead of the IPL, many unanswered questions, several doubts. Is it sport or entertainment? Franchises have been given a free hand to bring in revenues and it is a no-brainer that Bollywood will play a large role to attract the crowds. Shah Rukh Khan, Bollywood's biggest star, owns the Kolkata franchise; another star, Preity Zinta, is a co-owner of the Mohali [Punjab] team. Other teams have launched TV promos featuring local heroes.
The issue of revenues is a grey area. The only guarantee is what the BCCI has earned - close to $2 billion, including TV rights, bids for franchises and other endorsement deals. Part of the TV rights money will be ploughed back to the franchises, every year, as will the prize money. There are no other guarantees - not for the advertisers, the franchises, the TV channel [Sony] that bought the rights. Ticket sales is an issue at the time of writing, four days before the start of the league - Shah Rukh, whose Kolkata team plays at the 100,000-capacity Eden Gardens stadium, says he is disappointed at slow ticket sales and having "sleepless nights" over his involvement with the franchise.
Those anxieties don't hold a candle, of course, to what cricket outside of the IPL is feeling - or fearing. An exodus to the IPL could severely destabilise the game, at the very least forcing a reworking of international schedules. Over the longer term, if the league is a success, it could simply become a magnet for young talent favouring its direct power-play over the game's traditional subtleties and complexities. That, given the IPL's genesis, would be a fitting transition.
Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo in India