IPL needs to prove its integrity

THE SALE of two further franchises at Pune and Kochi for a combined price of $703 million for an eight-year term has underlined the fact that the Indian Premier League is here to stay. This is fine while the Board of Control for Cricket in India does remain in ‘control’, but the landscape will change soon.

In 2012 the IPL is due to become a public company and the whole concept will become more aggressive. There were five bidders for the latest franchises and they were all described as “very high quality” by the IPL commissioner Lalit Modi.

The Pune franchise was bought by Sahara Adventure Sports Group for $370 million. This western town is quite close to Bombay where Mumbai Indians were bought by Reliance Industries for $112.9 million two years ago, the most expensive of the eight 10-year franchises that formed the inaugural IPL. One can easily assume that all franchises have at least tripled in value, and this fire-breathing dragon could eventually destroy cricket’s structure. The IPL needs to show it has lasting value to enhance the game, not destroy it.

Most of the franchises, perhaps all, make a profit in view of the television interest and large stadium crowds that boost merchandising income. The franchises share 72 per cent of the broadcasting rights, which have topped $1,000 million. If the IPL becomes a public corporation as planned, the circuit is bound to expand and overlap with seasons in other countries, causing friction that will not be oiled by altruism. The good of the game of cricket will not feature in the thinking.

It will be interesting to see how many viewers ITV4 will attract in the afternoon for their daily IPL matches. If the figures seem healthy, the ECB will have some data to tempt future terrestrial coverage of games from the English circuit. However, as the ECB are currently arguing strongly that a Sky monopoly is the only route to survival, ITV’s interest in cricket comes at an inconvenient time.

There are drawbacks to the IPL, clearly a credible rival in world-wide appeal to Premier League football. The Twenty20 format is not actually ideal for television because the ball flies all over the place, forcing frequent camera switches. Unlike longer matches, the short format allows the highest quality players only a short time on view.

Most viewers are not particularly bothered which Indian team wins unless perhaps they are Asian, and the action can be crippled by bursts of gormless commentary. Hyperbole comes tumbling out — “there it goes, waaaaay into the crowd” — and the words are too often waaaay over the top. After all, sixes are not uncommon.

No one should be surprised at the success of the T20 format because, after all, cricket took root in the 18th and 19th Century as a game of coloured clothing and violent hitting with curved bat against underarm bowling. Matches were quite short and sweet, and betting was an important element among the crowds that attended. It was not cricket’s fault that an age of elegance, close-mown pitches and over-arm bowling changed the game’s earthy character.

Test cricket is bound to decline in importance, especially on the subcontinent, in the West Indies and probably in Southern Africa. Big-money 20-over leagues offer a big draw, despite the ICC’s laudable determination to hang on to the status quo. The MCC chief executive Keith Bradshaw sees a future with fewer teams and players involved in Test cricket, coinciding with a near-doubling of international T20 sides in five years’ time.

Writing in the April issue of The Wisden Cricketer magazine, Bradshaw said: “I consider myself optimistic, but it isn’t difficult to look ahead and see the pessimists’ apocalyptic version of the future of the game, where Tests are virtually redundant, Twenty20 saturates and players are globe-trotting mercenaries.”

He continued: “We know several players have already forgone playing Tests to prolong more lucrative Twenty20 careers, but I believe the more covert long-term problem will be that young players will be schooled purely in the Twenty20 game and be unable to adapt to the demands of cricket played over three, four and five days. The transition from Test to Twenty20 cricket is much easier than the other way round, and the result could be far fewer players capable of playing five-day cricket.”

Bradshaw said that while Test cricket remained the pinnacle of the game its position should not be taken for granted. “We have a warped sense of the well-being of Tests in England because they attract good crowds. Yet there is a real danger that the format could become the preserve of four or five countries unless efforts are made to reinstate a fairer balance between bat and ball, to work alongside rather than against Twenty20 competitions to ensure players do not have to choose between playing for their country and their club, and to attract new audiences.

“Twenty20 could sound the death knell for Test cricket, but it could also prove to be the perfect vehicle for the expansion of the game into other countries. The shorter the game, the greater the leveller and Twenty20 is an excellent pathway into the elite fold – just think of the fairy-tale qualification of Afghanistan for this year’s World Twenty20.”

Looking ahead he said: “I firmly believe the next big step will be the growth of cricket in the United States and it’s not unrealistic to think there could be 20 countries capable of playing competitive Twenty20 cricket within the next five years – surely something to celebrate.”

The April issue of The Wisden Cricketer celebrated Sachin Tendulkar’s historic one-day double century against South Africa by featuring the India maestro on the front cover. This sort of innings cannot exist in T20.


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