The inaugural Sri Lanka Premier League begins on Saturday afternoon at the Premadasa Stadium in Colombo, when the Nagenahira Nagas play the Ruhuna Royals. It's the most high-profile tournament of its kind in the country and, despite severe teething troubles - including an aborted start last year and the withdrawal of top players in the past few days - could be the facelift and morale-booster the beleaguered SLC needs.
The board is currently mired in debt - $70 million at last estimate, thanks largely to World Cup 2011 cost overruns - but stands to make around $1.6 million in profit from the $2.45 million revenue. The seven franchisees will pay a total $30 million to the SLPL over seven years, with 50% of that going to Somerset Entertainment Ventures, the company marketing the tournament. "We're expecting the SLPL to be a positive in our books. The money coming in should definitely outweigh our costs," SLC treasurer Nuski Mohamed said.
On the field, the league features several quality international players, including Shahid Afridi, Albie Morkel, Kemar Roach and Ryan Harris, and all top Sri Lankan cricketers (or those fit enough to play). The coaching staff is equally high-profile: Waqar Younis is in charge of the Ruhuna Royals franchise, while ex-Sri Lanka coaches Tom Moody and Trevor Bayliss will coach the Uthura Rudras and Wayamba United respectively.
"Overall, the SLPL will help Sri Lankan cricket, " Younis said. "Because we've seen that wherever league cricket has been played, young cricketers have blossomed and given them confidence and a lot of courage and opportunities to play with the greats of the game. I think this will do exactly the same to Sri Lankan cricket."
The tournament comprises 24 matches played over three weeks in Colombo and Kandy, with teams allowed to field up to four foreign players per match. That's similar to the rules of the IPL and the Bangladesh Premier League but, unlike those tournaments, selections for the SLPL were made by draft rather than auction. Although 56 overseas players were initially contracted to the SLPL, several high profile signings - including Chris Gayle and Shakib Al Hasan - withdrew over the past week through injury.
The broadcast rights are with ESPN Star sports*, who will air the SLPL in 80 countries worldwide, while it is also being streamed with a ten-minute delay on YouTube. "Broadcasting our tournament on YouTube allows us to reach fans of cricket anywhere in the world," SLC president Upali Dharmadasa said. "Sri Lankans and non-Sri Lankans who are interested in watching the SLPL will have access to it."
Having been initially announced for 2011, the first edition of the SLPL was postponed when the BCCI refused to issue no objection certificates for the participation of Indian players, around whom much of the sponsorship had revolved. The BCCI also denied Indian players permission to play in the 2012 tournament, citing upcoming international cricket against New Zealand as an obstacle, but SEV CEO Sandeep Bhammer says this year's SLPL will be financially viable nonetheless.
"We don't need Indian players for this tournament, because even without them, interest in India will be high," Bhammer says. "Sri Lankan cricketers are very much known to Indian fans and are popular there. You can see that in the way Sri Lankans are elevated in the IPL teams."
*ESPN STAR Sports is a 50:50 joint venture between Walt Disney (ESPN, Inc.), the parent company of ESPNcricinfo, and News Corporation Limited (STAR)
Andrew Fernando is ESPNcricinfo's correspondent in Sri Lanka