Finally, the IPL comes back to the cricket
Ever thought you'd be sitting around in the first week of April 2011, thinking, "Sober up now, everyone, the IPL is here"?
It is what six weeks of the "Cup that counts" have done. Give or take three decades, the World Cup has produced India's best-ever display of 50-over cricket and fireworks, followed by an outbreak of national euphoria. All of which has led to a lingering hangover. Kindly stop the tuk tuk because after the World Cup victory, India has gone quite giddy.
Suddenly it's the IPL that must throw the switch, and it can only be calculated later, whether that ends up on or off. Indian cricket and its vast audience must now answer the anxious queries of the IPL's marketing men and advertisers. Can India move seamlessly from the not-so-fuddy-duddy and now suddenly meaningful 50-over format to the snap, crackle and pop of Twenty20? Can a country set aside a deep, intoxicating national loyalty and once again indulge in somewhat scripted dancing in the aisles for clubs created out of commercial enterprise?
IPL 4 must prove that India's appetite for cricket is insatiable. That even after a six-week drama that had the happiest of endings for India, the country can still consume more cricket for another 74 matches over six weeks. Everyone involved in the IPL must find a way to make the League the primary option of choice for all summer-night entertainment, over soaps, news and all other sport. (Getting past the soaps should not, truthfully, be difficult.) Actually that's a dilemma the IPL organisers, its chief patrons, the BCCI and their sponsors, wouldn't exactly mind. At least it's about asking what the IPL's cricket can do and whether its sponsors' investments will eventually be worth it.
Anything will be better that what's happened with the IPL in the last 10 months. Everything will need to be better than what happened as the Season 3 drew to a close. In between last season's ceaseless cycle of matches, came a storm that wouldn't stop. It began with a tweet that led to the resignation of a cabinet minister and moved on to other things: Lalit Modi's banishment from his disreputable Eden, a raid across IPL franchise offices by the Income Tax Department, questions from the enforcement directorate about the routing of broadcast and sponsorship deals, the Kochi franchise's tangled web of ownership, Bombay High court battles against Rajasthan Royals and Kings XI Punjab, and, a few months ago, the grumbling of the franchises about the auction process.
The IPL's most precious assets, apart from the stars that take part in it, are its bottom line and its brand value. In 2010 a most public of beatings dented its image and the jury will stay out until the end of Season 4 as to whether that has in any way affected profits. The one way the IPL could get the gloss back onto its "brand" is by staging an efficient, watchable and scandal-free season four.
It will be a season of many firsts: the first with 10 teams rather than eight, the first with a newly shuffled player pool across teams, the first without after-parties and perhaps even cheerleaders, the first without the once-foremost Mr Modi. The man's Twitter bio defines him as "Founder and architect of the Indian Premier League and Champions League T20". The day before the IPL began, he told us all at 7:29pm IST that he "supports Anna Hazare totally" and then philosophically mused at 7:52pm, "The show must Go on. IPL is a world class tournament. It's for the fans globally. Each Game will be riveting."
The 10 franchises must be ready to host this "world class tournament" amid some third-class organisation, whether over-ticketing, crowd control, security or hospitality. Here is where franchises run into trouble every season as they conduct matches in venues they do not own or have any control over. Given the uneven nature of Indian state cricket administration, the franchises work to put out a 21st century event (or "product" if you prefer) with a 1970s delivery system. A Rs 20,000 IPL ticket must somehow become an experience worth the expense, even if the grounds have no parking or kitchen or storage / refrigeration facilities. It is what the ICC ran into a few times during the World Cup and all those old issues - ticket sales versus VIP passes, sponsors' demands versus local association quotas - will once again come into play. At least seven times, if not more, per franchise.
Out in the market, the word is that ticket sales have actually climbed in this fourth season and franchises in the major metros can look to pull in more than the Rs 20 crore (US$ 4.5 million approx) they did over seven games in the previous season, on ticketing alone. The advent of 10 teams means that the sponsors' honey pot will have more gathering towards it. Smaller advertisers may find themselves fatigued after the World Cup. Yet, no matter how severe the government inquiries or bitter the court cases, there was no shortage of cash when the player pool was put into auction again a few months ago. Never mind its non-governing Governing Council or conflicted interests, the IPL is a pie of which the cricket business still wants more than a mouthful.
This season, however, IPL 4's future significance and (shock, horror) brand image will be decided in India's living rooms and the capacity of its audience to get addicted. Cricketers may sometimes choose to make the contest between club and country a little murky, their audience always has more definite answers. Never mind ad spots or strike rates or brand valuations, IPL4's most telling numbers will come from its six-weeks of TV ratings.
Predictions from the living room couches says it may take a while to get used to IPL4, where rival World Cup finalists like Sachin Tendulkar and Lasith Malinga will celebrate the fall of MS Dhoni's wicket. It will take a while but the IPL will succeed for the same reasons it did when it was first launched. Those with large stakes in it will simply not allow it to flounder.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo