It’s just not cricket

Four years on from the creation of biggest Twenty20 cricket league in the world, looks at the pros and cons of the IPL and whether expectations of its success has marred its development

Kevin Pietersen for Royal Challengers

Kevin Pietersen for Royal Challengers

Cricket has redefined India, and India has redefined cricket. But this hasn’t exactly been a harmonious relationship from the start. Whether you like cricket or not, the intricacies of this extraordinary cultural and sporting phenomenon are shaping the future more than we think.

For the average English schoolboy, cricket moulds itself into a musty stereotype. Middle aged men, the occasional crack of leather on willow, and hours, several long, long hazy hours of pointlessness have a tough time fitting into the world of dynamic modern sports. Today we want our afternoons faster, brighter and filled with up to date analysis.

For fans and critics alike, 2008 saw the solution: the Indian Premier League (IPL) cast away the dreary stereotype with an explosion of noise and colour, passion and pace. It reflected a perception of the vibrant Indian subcontinent, bright and bustling. A country that easily accommodates teaming crowds and infectious energy.

The new league, with its 20 over, one innings format meant a shorter game, where a bigger score meant bigger hits, more dismissals, more risk and more running. It saw the creation of franchises owned by Bollywood stars, the inception of major city based teams with cricketing heroes from all over the world. Cricket was re-born out of its tame ashes into a searing spectacle.

The IPL’s launch saw a fit of blog writers, each optimistically claiming with more patriotic gusto than the next, that the IPL would act as ‘a goldmine’ for investors, skyrocketing the country’s economy. They lauded the capitalistic success of India, and its ability to find a way to make money. It would seem they were premature in their buoyancy. Under the direction of former chairman Lalit Modi, ‘cricketainment’ infected India.

After reaching the end of the fourth season, many would argue that the IPL could very easily be considered an enormous success. Whilst not an original concept, by blanketing the Indian subcontinent with an annual source of intense entertainment, it has re-invigorated the image of cricket; it has broadcast the IPL as a shining light in a dull and dusty world.

The IPL occupies just a few weeks every year and I wonder if it actually helps develop cricket in this country

Yet equally compelling was the rejuvenated debate of how much longer the IPL can be sustained for. Though this speculation is nothing new it remains a hot topic.

“It’s a carnival,” says Aditya Varma, manager of a New Delhi sports bar, “it’s a soap opera more than a sport.”

Founded on a premise of immediate performance, rather than long-term engagement with the sport, the league is, by definition, a show. The inaugural year saw advertisers rush to sponsor every inch of space. Cricket in India adopted the commercialized, gladiatorial nature that has worked so well for the American sports leagues like the NBA and the NFL. It even adopted the cheerleaders.

Money poured in. After only four years, the IPL brand is valued at $3.67 billion. Compare that with counties in England charging £10 on the door for the stereotypical old man with his flask and you begin to see the contrast between the two worlds.

Varma stresses, however, the transcience of these figures: “It’s just not sustainable.” This year the brand value saw an 11% drop, down from $4.17 billion, whilst by the 49th match of the 2011 season, television ratings dropped a monumental 25% from the same point in 2010. Many teams are yet to break even after four years, while investors and sponsors also continue to lose money.

Fundamentally, their need to harness such an unstable income means the IPL is not accessible to everyone. “I watch the matches when I can on the television, but the tickets are much too expensive for me to go and see it in the stadium,” says Kaushik, the Rickshaw driver from New Dehli. Indeed, the only winners seem to be the players and the BCCI. Ramesh Ramanathan of Live noted, quoting a reader of the Hindustan Times in 2008: “How is it that in a democratic and socialist country, a few, in the name of cinema and sports, can earn disproportionate amounts of money while thousands of farmers commit suicide for want of patronage?”

Hailed as the Don King of Cricket, former chairman of the IPL, Lalit Modi’s dismissal last year over accusations of mismanagement, impropriety and corruption, shows just how introverted the IPL can be.

Though not the national sport, cricket fever has a hold over all of India

Popularity of players dictates the popularity of teams, as devoted Indian national fans root for teams with their favourite players. “If you have a Sachin Tendulkar in your team, or if Shah Rukh Khan owns your team, you will expect a larger following or a greater appeal,” said Sundar Raman, chief executive of the IPL to Reuters. Whilst the Tendulkars and Rainas make millions of dollars for six weeks of work, the franchises battle to stay afloat. Indeed, this year saw two particular teams pay a total $703 million just to play in the league.

As cracks begin to appear and the novelty fades, as we adjust to those dazzling lights that excited us in the first place, many theorize about a premature destruction of the IPL. With the not at all distant memory of a similar endeavour having failed a few years ago, skepticism is not surprising. The Indian Cricket Legaue (ICL), set up by Zee Entertainment Enterprises, flopped within two years of its inception. Without the support of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), the league was affected by a loss of players to national teams and died an early death.

For many, perhaps, as the IPL started to betray signs of instability, it merely harked back at the failed ICL, conjuring belief that such an endeavour is not, in fact, viable at all. Indeed, Varma worries about the real impact of the commercialization of the game: “The IPL occupies just a few weeks every year and I wonder if it actually helps develop cricket in this country.

“There is so much cricket on television now I think it might damage the support for the national team. You only have to see how many Indian players are not available for the West Indies tour because they are too tired or have injuries from the IPL. It’s not right; the schedule is too crowded.”

But why should the IPL have a responsibility to all people of India? Football leagues across the world have never had such a problem. Ticket prices will always be high, sports will never be completely accessible. It seems that expectations and the relative youth of this league have caused this problem.

India won the World Cup this year, and it seems that the famous national fervour for the sport lives on. Cities across India partied for days; a whole country laughed and smiled. Yet in the IPL this year, we have seen half empty stadiums. When the Chennai Super Kings won the tournament last Saturday, celebrations petered out within hours. Four years on, in light of its expectations, it seems as if the IPL is stumbling. Expectations can be a terrible thing.

Amidst worries over the evident economic failures of the franchises, concerns begin to emerge over the future of the IPL. But the IPL is still young. Indeed, during the off season, the league is looking to concentrate on its brand and continue promotion. The Delhi Daredevils for instance, will be working with such giants as Coca-Cola, Adidas, and Panasonic.

The IPL is not a dead horse yet. Its longevity should not be questioned so soon. It may not have arrived to be immediately profitable and usurp national cricket altogether. It may never have aimed to ‘fix’ India.

If, more likely, it was there to entertain, then the IPL has succeeded. If it was there to rejuvenate cricket, the IPL has achieved what it wanted to.

Indeed, as Varma says, in spite of its flaws, “it’s highly entertaining cricket to watch, and the format undeniably works, and has grabbed India’s attention.

“IPL has made India famous as a very spec, and obviously made the cricket authorities here very rich. It also makes more and more children want to be cricket superstars.” A strong foundation it may not have, nor a clear future, but a spectacle it remains, which will, as long as it lasts, continue to attract a broad audience. Ramanathan comments: “In one stroke, it has moved the theatre of action on free markets from the chandelier-tinkling conference rooms of Delhi to the galis and nukkads of every town and village in India. Millions of Indians will now, forever, engage viscerally in a manner that no trickle-down process could ever achieve.”

Beyond its short-term problems, the IPL has set the standard for sport catering for the masses in countries where the entire demography can be changed as a result. Further, it has encouraged the youth with such shining role models as MS Dhoni and Sachin Tendulkar. In Britain, cricket will likely always remain the same. But the tangible nature of a phenomenon as complicated as the IPL being sustained in a country as sporadically dysfunctional as India, is an inevitable recipe for an unpredictable future.

Additional reporting by Henry Foy in New Delhi