March 12, 2010

Crunch time for the IPL

Will the fans vote with their cash? Will the games be mind-numbing run-fests? What are the players in it for?

When the New Orleans Saints bucked conventional wisdom to win the Super Bowl last month, it completed one of the most remarkable stories in sport. Once a team used to dwelling in the lower reaches of the National Football League, they had been forced into exile by Hurricane Katrina. After years of rehabilitation in Texas came the move back home and the steady improvement that resulted in Drew Brees and friends pulling off one of the great gridiron upsets.

It's a story that the Deccan Chargers will relate to. Hopeless and winless at home and bottom of the log in the inaugural IPL, they were galvanised by the tournament moving to South Africa last summer. Despite a mid-season blip, following Fidel Edwards' return to international duty, the Chargers wrested a semi-final place and then blew away the Delhi Daredevils, the tournament favourites, on the back of Adam Gilchrist's stunning 35-ball 85.

Anil Kumble, another storied veteran, may have upstaged Gilchrist in the final, but Andrew Symonds' dazzling all-round skills were enough to seal the narrowest of victories. The league's return to India, though, hasn't ended the Chargers' exile, with political uncertainty over the creation of a separate Telangana state forcing them to stage all their home games on the road. After the tournament opener at the DY Patil Stadium tonight, Cuttack and Nagpur will be their citadels. Given how both venues attract fans for one-day internationals, selling them out shouldn't be a problem.

This is a crucial year, and not just for the Chargers. Will we see the fanatical support that many of the owners would have hoped for when they sank vast sums of money into an unknown enterprise? The face-painted, replica-shirt-wearing hordes will be out in force early on, but what happens once a team starts losing? Will they bother to turn up and shout themselves hoarse in week five if a semi-final place has already proved to be nothing more than a chimera?

For every Burnley, who are a source of pride for a small town, there's a Middlesborough, who played in front of vast empty stands at the Riverside in their last season in the English Premier League. Even in 2008, there were Kings XI Punjab games that were not sold out. If the people of Chandigarh don't turn up in force, as they did for the recent Punjab Gold Cup hockey, then it doesn't take a big stretch of the imagination to see the franchise seeking pastures new. If the NFL's Colts could give up their glorious Unitas past in Baltimore and move to Indianapolis, there's nothing anchoring Kings XI to a venue that has consistently failed to sell out even when India play.

It's all very well to aspire to be bigger than the English Premier League. The first task, however, is to not become a misadventure, like the NASL

With all player contracts to be re-negotiated before next season, there's also an end-of-era feel to this one. Will the likes of Shane Warne and Gilchrist be back for more next year? Will Sourav Ganguly and Rahul Dravid still retain an appetite for a format they didn't grow up with? The aim of having a level playing field, salary caps and all, is a laudable one, but asking franchises to start from scratch could well be a recipe for disaster. Surely some compromise will be worked out that involves teams being given the option to retain a core group of players on improved contracts, while releasing others into the auction pool.

The IPL in South Africa also worked because it was played at the fag end of their domestic season, which produced pitches that weren't conducive to monotonous slam-bang cricket. Given how small some of the Indian stadiums are, it goes without saying that lots of sixes will be hit. But if the curators can give bowlers a smidgen of hope, it will provide for a far greater spectacle. A smattering of grass and it could be immense fun to see the likes of Shaun Tait and Kemar Roach running in to bowl at nearly 100mph.

Given the lukewarm crowd response and TV ratings for the Champions League last year, it's also imperative from a business perspective that India embraces the league as it did season one. With an expansion to 10 teams and 94 games next season - the phrase "golden goose" has been mentioned frequently in this regard - a drop in viewership figures and signs of audience fatigue will see some very nervous stakeholders. It's all very well to aspire to be bigger than the English Premier League. The first task, however, is to not become a misadventure, like the NASL, which Pele, Franz Beckenbauer and George Best graced in the 1970s.

As ever, though, once the hype and hoopla die down, it will be about the players. For the younger ones like Manish Pandey, Abhimanyu Mithun, Kieron Pollard and Steven Smith, it's a time to knock on the selection door or to consolidate the gains made in the previous 12 months. The Twenty20 World Cup is just seven weeks away. There may be a couple of players who care for pots of gold above all else, but for most, no amount of zeroes on the signing-on fee can ever be a substitute for the glory that comes with a national cap. The man who leads the Mumbai Indians on to the field on Saturday afternoon could tell them that. You simply can't put a price on 93 centuries in national colours.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo

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