Moving season for the IPL
Since its inception, the IPL has never been sold or bought in half-measures. Its approach has always been full-throttle, top-volume. Appropriately, then, an assessment of season four must avoid waffling around the half-empty or half-full. Is 2011 to be remembered for the fireworks on the final night at the Yellow Sea of Chepauk? Or the acreage of empty stands at the Wankhede three nights in a row, representative of the general spectator turnout of six weeks? The dazzle of Chris Gayle? Or the Shane Warne-Sanjay Dixit skirmish? Or even more, the dramatic drop in TV ratings from last season? Or should it be the clues sent out to the world by the BCCI and Indian players over next month's tour of the West Indies?
Regardless of what its own "stakeholders" choose as the flavour of their season - sagacity or smugness - 2011 will be regarded as the IPL's "Moving Season". If "moving day" in cricket and golf are about momentum swings and the emergence of contenders, IPL's Moving Season will dictate the future course of the event.
They can, of course, opt for the old "if it ain't broke...", and there's much about the IPL that ain't broke. It still remains cricket's golden goose, with generous salary packets for over 200 overseas and Indian players. The IPL's largest financial deals, starting with franchise ownerships and TV revenues, are tied in for another six years. It features the involvement of some of India's largest corporate houses, men and women with deep pockets and both a love of the limelight and a nose for profit. The IPL can still produce several moments of eye-catching cricket - individual blinders, crafty bowling plans, impossible catches, delicious UltraMotion replays of on-field action.
The IPL also spawned several copycat Twenty20 leagues in Indian state cricket (Karnataka, Maharashtra, Jharkhand and Orissa, to name a few). Its effect is also being felt overseas: Sri Lanka Cricket will launch its own Sri Lanka Premier League (SLPL) to take place this July-August, controlled entirely by its board. Australia's remodelled Big Bash League will feature an expansion of its field, from six to eight, adding two privately owned teams, one each in Sydney and Melbourne.
Yet 2011 will still be Moving Season because it also put under direct light the IPL's own flaws: that the existence of 10 teams has sucked out the talent pool to a level close to shallow. Even the trimmed number of games - 74, down from a gluttonous dream of 94 - are far too many. It has all led to too few close games, a certain distancing even by India's TV audience from its beloved "cricketainment", and most damningly, empty stands during the playoffs. Even Ravi Shastri found himself all hyped-out when, before the Mumbai-Bangalore qualifier game, he asked one of the captains at the toss, "Your last game was a good, tight one against ... whom did you beat?"
It's not his fault. So much had happened during the 2011 IPL: helicopters landed in Osama Bin Laden's backyard, Indian parliamentarians and corporate honchos went to prison, and most European nations decided it was time their football seasons actually ended.
What happened inside the IPL, though, as Sanjay Manjrekar wrote on Sunday, was the arrival of Indian cricket's saturation point. We now know that, after a season of 11 Tests and 25 ODIs, including a euphoric World Cup, even the Indian cricket fan's seemingly inexhaustible appetite cannot swallow 74 Twenty20 matches. Reducing the number of matches or altering the format will infuriate franchises, who were promised 14 games each every season. To not do so, though, is to risk inviting a tipping point. The IPL's governors may well believe that the World Cup victory is the excuse for the 2011 IPL's flat line, but the businessmen are bound to start getting tetchy anyway. This fourth season of the IPL was to be the year the original eight teams had always believed they would at last begin making profits.
Whatever the post-season numbers indicate for the IPL's investors, the full impact of this season on Indian cricket itself will also begin to reveal itself within a month's time, at the ICC's annual conference in Hong Kong. The BCCI will formally show its hand in the post-IPL era at this meeting, because it is where the next round of the Future Tours Programme (FTP) will be decided.
In an ideal world, the BCCI could draw up the IPL calendar according to the Indian team's itinerary. It could formulate a carefully balanced schedule, keeping in mind important international events and physical demands on the players. In the real world, though, already the BCCI has demonstrated that it is the IPL's calendar around which the Indian team will play. So the first tour of the new world champions and the world's No. 1 Test team sees the side go in without the majority of their ODI first XI, most of whom are either injured or fatigued. Not so much by the World Cup but surely by what followed it. The Test team will compete without Sachin Tendulkar.
Moving Season will also mark the direction the rest of world cricket must take with regard to the IPL. Already there is unrest between the West Indian board and its IPL-magnet players, which has enraged the team's fans. Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan have indicated that England's players actually have the power to keep all their options open. If English county circuit was once considered the world's best first-class cricket school, the IPL has now become the game's most lucrative freelance assignment. To players from the smaller cricketing nations, like the West Indies, Sri Lanka and New Zealand, the IPL has made club v country nothing but a debating society argument. Lasith Malinga has answered many questions. Yet the ten-team 2011 IPL has proved that the tournament needs its overseas players as much as those players believe they need IPL contracts.
The IPL, though, is not all that concerned about that whole "future of cricket" argument. It was built around bling and bottomline. Part of that bling comes from Bollywood stars, the other from its packed stands and manic fans. By season three, escalating ticket sales had turned grounds into heaving party venues, adding to returns off television, the oxygen tent of the event. All that bellowing on TV is actually the medium sending out a message: See! Movie stars! Cricket stars! Thousands! All packed in! Fours! Sixes! Dancing! This is where it's at! Keep watching! It's like being there!
Shah Rukh Khan waving at Eden Gardens' empty stands doesn't send out that message. Nor does a live band or cheerleaders in a studio do that. Doubling the price of tickets, as was done for the better part at the Wankhede Stadium during playoffs, most certainly won't.
Another kind of message was sent to fans at that ground on playoffs nights: that a Rs 4000 ticket in the North Stand comes with a free constant drizzle of mud, dirt and cement pebbles from the tier. One spectator was clunked on the head with large, heavy chunks of cement not once but twice. In the US, he could have sued the stadium, the event, the franchise. In India, he will vote with his feet and not show up again.
The IPL will have to reinvent its vibrancy in season five and start with aiming to fill the stands up again. Franchise loyalty is still in its infancy. Two new teams have just got going, not very successfully. Spectator loyalty is what the fifth season of the IPL will have to generate afresh, with no half-measures. If the Indian spectator finally gets his due through the IPL, then enduring Navjot Sidhu on TV for 51 days would be worth it.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo