SLPL will give provinces a place in the sun
Before the tournament has even had a chance to begin, the ubiquitous Sri Lanka Premier League billboards above Colombo's concrete chaos already seem outdated. Many of the advertisements feature an intense Kumar Sangakkara; others a grinning Chris Gayle. A fractured finger will keep Sangakkara out of the tournament until the very end - if at all - and Gayle's groin strain has ruled him out completely. For a domestic Twenty20 tournament supposedly of the cash-cow variety, the SLPL's birth has been long and laboured. After a false start in 2011, and a failure to convince the BCCI to release its players for the second year running, the growing list of high-profile withdrawals has become yet another complication for a tournament that has not yet seen the light of day.
But while the SLPL may so far have lacked in execution - sometimes through no fault of its own, as with player injuries - it has not skimped on vision. The SLPL will be played at a provincial level, with teams representing fans from every corner of the island - a dramatic change from the domestic diet of Colombo-centric club cricket and a school competition that is largely the preserve of the elite. Many regions famed for their love of the game have not had a team to support since the demise of the short-lived Inter Provincial First-Class tournament in 2010. With the club competition also set to be shrunk substantially, they are unlikely to have a team outside the SLPL in the near future.
"A provincial cricket tournament allows you to reach out wider," says Sandeep Bhammer, CEO of Somerset Entertainment Ventures (SEV), who have handled much of the organisation and the marketing for the SLPL. "There are no clubs across the country, so with a provincial tournament you can basically encompass the whole country."
Organisers have also attempted to drive up interest in the provinces through the shrewd placement of icon players. Naming Lasith Malinga as the icon for the Ruhuna franchise is an obvious move, but having Muttiah Muralitharan, a Kandyan by birth, captain the team representing a largely Tamil Uthura province aims to win over a northern population that has been unable to produce a star of its own thanks to the Civil War. Angelo Mathews, who went to school in Colombo, serves a similar purpose in the eastern province of Nagenahira. The role cricket must play in the post-war reconciliation process has been highlighted by many, including Kumar Sangakkara in last year's Cowdrey Lecture, but as the only tournament that gives the North and Northeast a stake in domestic cricket, the three-week long SLPL may be all that is fulfilling that mandate at present.
The process of building cricketing infrastructure and developing young players from outstation is a long one, however. The local players have largely fallen into franchises befitting their provincial background, and though Bhammer speaks of the SLPL's potential to identify new talent in the provinces, there are no structures in place to foster the game outside the main centres.
"Development depends on how the board and the authority handle [the SLPL]," says Sri Lanka's former vice captain Aravinda de Silva, who has been a campaigner for provincial domestic cricket in Sri Lanka since the early 2000s. "It could help in provincial development, but I think it's quite a way off. First the cricket board has to make it a viable venture for the franchises and maybe they will be interested in developing cricket in the future. The board needs to take responsibility for that."
The SLPL's provincial ambitions are also hamstrung severely by its use of only two venues. Fifteen of the tournament's 24 matches will be played at the Premadasa Stadium in Colombo, with Pallekele Stadium, just outside Kandy, hosting the remaining nine. All of the teams' practice sessions are held in the two cities, and it's unlikely they will stray far into the provinces, save when travelling in between venues. "For a tournament like this I would have expected that they would have had at least three or four venues. In addition to the two they are using, Dambulla and Hambantota could have been looked at," de Silva says.
Dambulla, though, which is still hours away from the North and East provinces, is no longer able to host day/night encounters because its lights have been deemed too dim by the ICC, and the logistics of broadcasting the tournament, Bhammer says, allow only two venues. "It takes about two days to rig a stadium, in order to make it production friendly. If you have a tournament that's 15 days [of play], and you have four venues, eight days are just going in the rigging process. It becomes a very, very long tournament because there also have to be reserve days in case of sporadic rain. You don't have a 30-day window to play a tournament like this.
"What we can do in future is experiment with different venues. So if one year we play in three venues, in the next year we can play in three different venues. It's a small tournament so that's what we are looking at."
The overseas player pool however, has not started out small, even if it has been thinned significantly by the withdrawals. Fifty-six foreign players were contracted initially, including Shahid Afridi, Richard Levi, Tamim Iqbal, Ryan Harris and Albie Morkel, in addition to Gayle and Shakib Al Hasan, who have since pulled out. The coaching staff come with their own profiles, with Waqar Younis coaching Ruhuna and former Sri Lanka coaches Tom Moody and Trevor Bayliss in charge of the Uthura and Wayamba franchises respectively.
"From an opportunity point of view, the SLPL gives the local players a chance to interact with the international players and develop in that way," de Silva says. "It's something that we dreamt about when we were younger and wanted to play for English counties. When you play with international players, you realise your own talent. You see that they are also human and they make mistakes and that's something that helped me in my own career."
For the SLC, the SLPL is shaping to bring slight relief to a debt of almost $70 million. Their partnership with SEV has insulated them from the tournament's vast promotional costs, and ensured $2.1 million in revenue from the franchises each year for seven years, as well as $350,000 in licensing fees per tournament. If the SLPL succeeds over seven years, the SLC will also be able to tender the tournament at a higher price, once their deal with SEV ends.
"There are costs for us in terms of anti-corruption, security and the other expenditures involved when playing cricket at this level," treasurer of SLC, Nuski Mohamed says. "But we're expecting to spend about 70 million rupees during the tournament ($540,000) and the rest (approximately $1.6 million) is profit." A failed SLPL might further dent a reputation already drowned in disaster, but financially, they stand largely to gain from the venture. It could become their first significant boon since the 2011 World Cup that kicked off their financial calamity.
Bhammer's company meanwhile, must rely on the first few SLPLs being successful, just to break even. SEV has spent well in excess of its first years' revenue to market the tournament according to Bhammer, and even the franchises may be in line for a first year loss. "The [franchises] come on board with deep pockets and they realise that in the first year or two, the tournament may not be economically viable for them. But because they are cricket lovers, they want to be part of the whole process."
Despite the unavailability of Indian players (this time around because of a scheduling clash with New Zealand's tour of India) the major financial clout for the SLPL, comes from India. Five of the seven franchises are owned by Indian corporates, most of whom currently operate, or are intending to begin business in Sri Lanka. The Indian title sponsor also sees the country as a key market.
The SLPL is the latest in business-driven, domestic Twenty20 tournaments vying for global attention, but at home, it is the only cricketing outlet that caters for the entire population, and one of the few sizeable windfalls for an impoverished board. It's dividends, both for invested businesses and for cricket in Sri Lanka may be years in coming, but for now it is fueled by potential, and for that reason, Sri Lanka can hardly afford for it to do badly.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka