SLPL slowly generates its own identity
Considering the sheer number of complications the SLPL has suffered since its inception, it may not be unfair to say that if the SLPL had been a baby, its parents would probably have put it up for adoption. If it had been a racehorse, it would already be glue. If it had been the Millenium Falcon, we may never have even discovered that that small moon was really a battle station.
The tournament's biggest overseas drawcard withdrew before the commencement; the SLPL's website was hacked and defaced during the opening ceremony; a tape alleging corruption in one of the franchises had emerged; the tournament has failed to attract decent crowds, and has largely been boycotted by the local media who have opposed it for being 'too Indian'; and most recently, allegations of sexual misconduct between an employee of Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) and one of the organisers have added yet another serving of tournament kryptonite. In just over two weeks, the SLPL has combined the criminality and scandal of The Sopranos, with the viewer interest of Halle Berry's Catwoman.
Yet, halfway through its 24-match schedule, the tournament rolls on, apparently unconcerned. The cricket, which has largely been watchable, even compelling, may as well be happening on a parallel universe untouched by the match-fixing allegations and media antagonism. The pitches have been sporting - spinners, swingers and dashers have all enjoyed success in equal helpings. Sides like the Nagenahira Nagas have strung together impressive results, despite the lack of superstars, homegrown or foreign. And though the catching has sometimes veered toward awful, Sri Lanka internationals, who seemed burnt out in the ODI series against India have contributed heavily, and seemed rejuvenated in fierce provincial clashes against their usual team-mates. Thilan Samaraweera even played two type-busting scoop shots that both flew to the boundary.
The overseas talent, which reads a little like a who's who of cricketers who have played for Pakistan in the last half decade, has perhaps been the most disappointing aspect of the tournament. Shahid Afridi and Brendan Taylor have failed to fire, and Kyle Mills and Scott Styris have not been at their best either. Brad Hogg is yet to even get a game. But amid a majority of underwhelming imports, there have been a few stellar foreign performers. Sohail Tanvir is swinging the ball as far as it's likely ever been swung in Sri Lanka, and has been the key to Kandurata Warriors' resurgence after a poor start, Kamran Akmal and Tamim Iqbal have formed a dangerous opening pair for Wayamba United, and Mushfiqur Rahim has been a crucial cog in the Nagenahira's success so far.
Even the crowds have finally begun to show. Hundreds of Wayamba fans, all in team shirts, amassed in two large blocks at Pallekele International Stadium on Sunday, before their noise and presence was taken up by a large group of Uva Next fans for the second match of the evening's double header. Some have even come hundreds of kilometres and taken time off work to partake.
"Where I live, we don't get much of a chance to see the domestic cricketers play," says Keerthi Jayatilleke, who has traveled from the coastal town of Wennapuwa to Kandy. "I can support my team (Wayamba United) who are doing well, I can see some of the promising stars for Sri Lanka like Dilshan Munaweera, (Akila) Dananjaya and Shaminda Eranga and I can have a good time."
Good times have indeed been had at the SLPL, even before the spectators arrived in numbers. The hired papare bands have helped create a sense of atmosphere, even if it is the canned version, rather than the real thing, and the few fans who have come have drunk, sung and danced their way to a good night out. The IPL-style cheerleaders (covered up to suit Sri Lankan sensibilities of course), have at times been outdone by hundreds in the stands, who lack the cheerleaders' choreography, but more than compensate in the limbs-flying-everywhere-spastically stakes. Large groups of teenage boys have even begun gathering behind the cheerleaders at each corner of the ground, and mass-mimicking the dancers' moves - seemingly in caricature, but partly, surely, in veiled adulation. Though plenty have moaned that Indian sponsors, Indian franchisees, Indian organisers and Indian gimmicks have rung false in a Sri Lankan domestic tournament, by yelling, partying and generally behaving like hyperactive maniacs in the stands, the public have restored some 'Sri Lankan-ness' to the occasion.
The expatriate reaction has also been good, if YouTube hits and internet forum buzz are any indication. Each match is being streamed with a 10-minute delay on YouTube, and the official channel is already approaching 200,000 hits. "Even if it's not a tournament that gets a lot of crowds in Sri Lanka, it gives the thousands of Sri Lankan cricket fanatics who live elsewhere the chance to actually see some of the young players coming through," says Dilan Silva, who has been watching the tournament online from Oslo. "Otherwise, we read these guys' names on websites and newspapers, but have never actually seen them in action. It's good to see them rubbing shoulders with international players from all over as well, and it's nice that even if it's just T20, that Sri Lankan domestic cricket gets this kind of exposure."
The SLPL has also taken on added significance not simply as a warm-up for the World Twenty20, for which R Premadasa Stadium (Colombo) and Pallekele are the two main venues, but as a proving ground for players on the cusp of selection for Sri Lanka's final 15, as acknowledged by the SLC when they requested an additional week to finalise selections. Akila Dananjaya has had four matches as good as can be expected for someone who has never played first-class or List A cricket before, and Ajantha Mendis has bowled himself firmly into contention as well. Others like Chathuranga Kumara (Wayamba) and Dushmantha Chameera (Nagenahira) are players to watch.
Whether the crowds will continue to improve when the SLPL returns to Colombo for its pointy end remains to be seen, and with the cloud of a corruption investigation hanging overhead, it may be that at least one more major difficulty is still in the works for the tournament. For the moment though, the SLPL appears to be gathering speed. It loses authenticity by attempting to match the IPL for glitz, but at least by putting domestic players in the limelight and finally attracting interest from the public, its benefits to Sri Lankan cricket are becoming clearer.
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka