No reward for coming first
In just over 48 hours, a team that lost nearly 50% of its league matches could be crowned champions of the inaugural Indian Premier League. A competition spanning six weeks, nearly as long as the much-criticised World Cup in the Caribbean, will finally reach its climax at two venues that none of the four semi-finalists call home. The Rajasthan Royals, perfect over seven games in Jaipur, go into their semi-final against the Delhi Daredevils with no reward whatsoever for that pristine home record. The fact that they won four more games over the regular season also counts for nothing. So, what sort of league are we talking about here?
Traditionally, there are two kinds. The classic variety, still found in European football, has the teams playing a fixed number of matches, home and away. The team that accumulates the most points is crowned champions. If there's a tie, goal difference settles it [England] or it goes down to your head-to-head record [Spain]. Either way, the best team invariably wins.
The second kind is the American league, and the dedication to Mammon dictates a convoluted finale that involves wild-cards and play-offs. Even there though, there's a sense of fairness, and reward for excellence during the course of the regular season. The teams with the best records get home-field advantage throughout the play-offs, and only in the case of American Football's Superbowl is the final game played at a neutral venue. The chances of a mediocre team coming through to upset a champion side are slim to non-existent, though once in a generation you'll get a Joe Namath or an Eli Manning inspiring a David outfit against the heavily favoured Goliath.
Unfortunately, the IPL offers no sort of protection to the best teams in the competition. Rajasthan and Punjab have clearly been the pick of the eight teams, and there would be no complaints at all if they were to contest the final. Instead, two teams, Chennai Super Kings and Delhi, who lost six of their 14 games could slip in through the back door thanks to the semi-finals being one-off games played at a neutral venue.
It doesn't help that the event was hopelessly compromised by the initial bidding process for the franchises. Whoever bid most [it happened to be Reliance shelling out $111.9 million for Mumbai] also won the right to stage the semi-finals and the final, while the second-highest bid won Vijay Mallya and the Bangalore Royal Challengers the opening game.
In the larger scheme of things, the opening ceremony, however many lasers, dancers or cheerleaders you muster up, is an irrelevance. That certainly isn't true for the semi-finals and the final. After beating Mumbai in Jaipur last Monday, Shane Warne was understandably worked up about the possibility of Mumbai sneaking into the last four. "If Mumbai sneak in, they get a home semi-final, despite having scraped through," he said. "I can't see any advantage for finishing on top.
"The top two sides should have home-ground advantage." No one, certainly no one that matters in the IPL, was listening though, and so it is that Rajasthan will play out their last-four clash 1000km removed from the passionate support that was such a factor in that perfect home run.
Warne's views were echoed by another antipodean legend, Martin Crowe, chief cricket officer of the Royal Challengers. If anything, his suggestion was even more radical. "With an eight-team format, I would look at the top team going into final and second and third-placed teams playing off on the home ground of the second-placed side," he said. "The Rajasthan Royals have won the league, they might get smashed in the semi and I think they deserve to be in the final. And with television, it's been condensed to have the semis and the final at one venue, back to back. That doesn't make sense to anyone except the television people."
Few events are perfect at the first time of asking, and we can only hope that this eyesore is fixed in time for next year. If not, you might just get the very ugly sight of a team that lost six or seven regular-season games walking away with the big trophy. Under the watchful gaze of the floodlight towers, that really would be daylight robbery.
Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo