September 9, 2012

Low expectations make SLPL a moderate success

The first season of the Sri Lanka Premier League ticked a fair few boxes - mainly because few expected it would

By the time the fireworks erupted above the R Premadasa Stadium after the Sri Lanka Premier League final late last week, most of the 26,000 fans who had braved the evening's weather had filtered out.

It had been a long night. The pyrotechnics had been planned to coincide with the lifting of the trophy, but it was too wet to hold the presentation outside. This final act of the SLPL fit the tournament perfectly. The audience was small and it was 1am, but the fireworks still went off in the damp, at times spectacularly. Those who saw them enjoyed the show. The disgruntled and the apathetic would have felt they hadn't missed out on much.

Earlier in the evening, Angelo Mathews had played an innings he rated his best T20 knock and Dilshan Munaweera confirmed himself one of Sri Lanka's most exciting prospects. It had been a match that had the makings of a great final, but couldn't quite deliver a satisfactory climax.

Perhaps it was the SLC's carousel of embarrassments in the preceding 15 months as well as the SLPL's stuttering birth, but almost everyone approached the tournament with low expectations. "It was good to see it get off the ground at all," former Sri Lanka cricketer and commentator Russel Arnold says. "With the false start last year and the problems leading up to [the SLPL] this year, it went much better than expected, and the fact that it happened was positive." The bar had been lowered to such an extent that even the mildest success became a resounding victory. In the tournament organisers' own words, the SLPL "over-delivered" on what had been anticipated, primarily because before the tournament it had been difficult to find someone who was not a skeptic.

Each of the SLPL's accomplishments, though, came with significant disappointments, the most conspicuous of which were the poor crowds. Of the 16 evenings on which cricket was played, only five nights were well attended. The cheapest tickets cost less than a loaf of bread, and partway through the tournament, organisers began to let people in for free, but still, apart from three nights in Kandy, the first semi-final (the other was rained out) and the final, the stadiums remained largely vacant.

"When you play in the same ground for a week, it's going to be tough to fill it up," Arnold said. "Also with the World T20 coming, the SLPL was sharing that market. People were probably looking ahead to that and this wasn't in their plans. The small crowds were understandable, but next year they will need to get the logistics right so the crowds can come in."

The fact that not enough buzz had been built around the tournament before it began did not help attendance either. There were plenty of SLPL billboards around Colombo, but beyond knowing of the tournament's existence, most people were unaware of the specifics. "Oh it's like the IPL?" "Who is playing then?" "When is the next match?" Even Colombo tuk-tuk drivers, who can usually cram a 40-minute ride with their opinions on the game, were unable to speak knowledgably about the SLPL until two weeks in, when they had begun to match players with the correct franchises.

The few games that did enjoy good support, though, were notable for their lively atmosphere. "It was like an international match, maybe even better," Arnold said, echoing a sentiment several players had already expressed. The music, dancing and horsing around associated with cricket in Sri Lanka were all on show even before the stadiums began to fill, but when the number of partakers grew, so did the party.

"In the later on stages of the tournament, the atmosphere really rocked," says Salim Shaikh, co-owner of the Uva Next franchise. On the night his team upset Wayamba United to go through to the final, the contrasting emotions you would expect at any high-level knockout match were on display at the Premadasa. The Wayamba fans who had been brought in from their province in 15 packed buses were stunned to see their side reduced to 27 for 7. The Uva supporters in the upper tier screamed themselves hoarse. "The crowds didn't shoot up as much as we thought during the tournament, but when they came, you could see that it was very enjoyable for everyone," Shaikh says.

The local TV station that broadcast the SLPL reported that viewership never matched that for an international game, but that it was good enough for advertisers to remain interested and for the broadcast to be profitable. The channel in Bangladesh that aired the tournament could hardly speak more highly of it. They had jumped to second in the ratings from seventh, and they credited the SLPL for providing much of that boost. Interest was good in Pakistan too, given the heavy involvement of Pakistan players in the league, though in India, where organisers had advertised, the SLPL only barely registered. An official YouTube channel showing half a million hits perhaps sums up the tournament viewership: the numbers were not extraordinary, but they were not pathetic either.

In terms of the cricket played, the SLPL provided a platform for local players to perform, and featured several thrilling spells and ravishing innings, but the exciting finishes often seen in other T20 leagues were in short supply. Of the 22 completed matches, only one came down to the last delivery, and perhaps two more were decided in the final over. In preparing sporting pitches conducive to seam movement with the new ball, the tournament missed out on the high-octane innings and tense endings synonymous with the format. One good burst from an opening bowler could burn through the top order and make it difficult to compete. With even the older ball moving around at times, the late-order blitzers were often blunted.

"The standard of cricket has been good, but I won't say great," Uva Next coach Robin Singh said. "The understanding of the format is lacking. When I speak to many of these young players, they have played little of T20 cricket, so they have not understood the game. It's not just slam bang - you need lots of skill as well to play this format. That's why you have seen lots of panic and batsmen getting out."

The poor fielding also left a sour taste. Boundaries were waved through widespread legs, sixes were palmed over the ropes, catches were spilled regularly, and the half-chances rarely came off. In one match in Pallekele, the Nagenahira Nagas dropped four straightforward catches in eight balls to reprieve Mahela Jayawardene, who went on to make the tournament's highest score.

"There is a gap between the IPL and SLPL," Singh said. "The IPL is in its fifth year. The Indian local players have been exposed to a lot more cricket. Even the international pool is bigger in the IPL. The quality is different. You have good international players in the SLPL, but not the best players, for various reasons - board clearance, injuries and so on."

The tournament will take steps towards closing that gap if it proves itself a reliable paymaster, which the star players the first edition lacked will count in the SLPL's favour when deciding whether it is worth their time in future years. Only one franchise fell behind the payment schedule, but this was sorted out before it affected the cricket - though players' organisations say the funds were only transferred after players had threatened withdrawal. A week after the tournament finished, it appears that all players have been paid, though again players' associations are yet to receive confirmation of this.

For now, though, the players and the SLC are the only ones making money from the SLPL, with the board putting its profit at around US$1.6 million. The franchises have collected hefty losses, having paid the tournament organisers and their players, as well as having incurred numerous other operational costs. But despite the lack of returns, they seem largely content. Wayamba United CEO Gaurav Modwel said he saw "potential for growth" in the inaugural SLPL. "The end product was better than what we expected, and we're in it for the long-term, so we're happy with how it went." The same went for Shaikh, who said his franchise would look at transporting even more fans from their province to matches next year. "I think the SLC has to take more of an initiative in the provinces and really make the people aware of the SLPL there," Shaikh said. "But other than that, I think it will be a tournament that will take off in the next few years."

Crucial questions still remain about the SLPL's future. The first season threw up plenty of awkward hurdles, though amongst the myriad problems there was also some good cricket. The league is yet to prove itself profitable, even if investors are willing to stick around in the hope of eventually breaking even. The audience also has not yet given its wholehearted approval, particularly at home, and also in cricket's biggest marketplace, across the strait. The SLPL survived its first foray thanks partly to low expectations, but if it is to make good on its global ambitions and command the IPL-like demand it aspires to, it must attract bigger stars and bigger crowds despite its limited resources. When it returns next year, it will still be a tournament on trial.

Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka