IPL IV concluded on May 28, 2011, much like it began. The Chennai Super Kings stamped their authority on the event, and the team now has the makings of the first ever dynasty in this world of professional league cricket. There were concerns when the tournament started over whether it would be able to sustain and build on the prior seasons, given the multitude of developments that the 'off-season' entailed. The first IPL without Lalit Modi—the once embattled, and now erstwhile commissioner and creator, certainly lacked the spunk and pyrotechnics but the argument had been that substance and steak would replace the sizzle and dazzle. The sizzle has become a searing hot controversy for the ages but not due to the earlier concerns.
Uncertainty about the fixtures, the international calendar, the tenuous relationship between the various competing cricket boards in their dealings with the IPL and domestic circuits, and also in the status of the players' availability, has become the cornerstone of this event. With Gautam Gambhir's injury, and a new-look/second-string Indian side set to make its way towards the West Indies (who incidentally are no strangers to second-string side woes due to their own controversies), one wonders whether career vs country is truly a battle-cry that is gaining traction overnight. Add to that the premature retirement debate surrounding the best limited overs bowler, Lasith Malinga, and the West Indies' cricket board opting out of commissioning the most devastating stormy petrel, Chris Gayle, and one gets the feeling that the honeymoon period for the T20 format is well and truly over.
The IPL and international cricket, with its various formats, are dependent on the players. Take away the stars and one will be left with a vacuum-like black hole. Co-existence is the only way forward, either from the players' fitness and availability standpoint or from a career vs country standpoint. One can crow about branding, collaterals and signage as often as one likes but the true stakeholders in this enterprise already realise the value of their players. Take an example from the US's NBA. LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Derrick Rose and Dirk Nowitzki are the features and headlining 'properties' so to speak. The team owners and upper management ensure that the players' compensation, branding, public image, and performance are part and parcel of any fiscal and strategic outlook and plan. It is the players who make the league and make believers of fans.
Which is why it's laughable that a player like Gambhir, who was instrumental in India's Cricket World Cup victory, is one of the most intense and passionate cricketers in our team, and gave the same effort and commitment as captain of the Knight Riders, is now being questioned about his motives. A player will want to perform for his country and his team, but the fact remains that the international calendar and the domestic leagues are simply too jam-packed to even justify brand building and collaterals, let alone maintain the public's interest. Looking after one's career sustainability isn't necessarily a conflict with one's passion.
The bigger issue is the competition from other T20 leagues such as the Sri Lanka Premier League, with many of the stalwarts from the IPL in addition to Pakistan players, who have been non-existent in the IPL. Also, the Big Bash in Australia and there is even talk of a Bangladesh Premier League. This would take saturation to a whole new level. Not only that, the Champions League has simply not caught on as of now. It needs to be reconceptualised in a manner that either makes it a success or euthanises it, sooner rather than later. The cricket calendar is jam-packed, and the success of the IPL is on tenuous grounds. The Champions League may be the first casualty in this world of blink and miss professional cricket but that may leave the IPL with more room to manoeuvre its verticals and strategy.
IPL and world cricket are two peas from separate pods that must be reconciled to ensure a win-win situation for all the stakeholders. Mahendra Singh Dhoni said it best after India's loss to South Africa in the group stages during the CWC 2011—he pointed out that the powerplay failure was because the Indian batsmen needed to remember that they were playing for the country and not for the crowd. And that is the difference between the IPL and world cricket—because in the IPL, each cricketer plays for, and to, the crowd.
Chris Gayle's monumental tournament showed, once again, how the IPL's auction system leaves room for improvement. For a player who was never picked despite his vast prowess in this format of the game, he brought attention to what superstars can do for a franchise and what international cricket stands to lose if they don't rectify the situation at the earliest. The men who matter—the stars, make or break T20 cricket, but also determine the role that international cricket is to play in the future.
Introspection is crucial. In all honesty, IPL IV was a tough act to pull off. With ten teams, and 74 matches over a span of nearly 50 days, there was always the risk of saturation. Even without the Indian World Cup victory and withdrawal symptoms, this was likely to be a less watched-event than what a shorter, crisper and more dramatic edition of the IPL would have been. This doesn't mean that the league is in the doldrums or that it was all hype. The league is solid and has introduced new verticals and mindsets into the Indian psyche. Branding has reached a whole new level and, with city loyalty becoming a part and parcel of the event, merchandising and on-ground activations are likely to become the mainstay of central and local revenue pools. As are gate revenues, where more people attend 'home' games as their teams become contenders in future editions.
The IPL, believe it or not, made strides this season as a professional sports league. If one were to observe the plateau it hit in terms of TRPs, quality of competition and the expansion phase, then this was a natural stagnation. There are more serious concerns now, however. The main question is whether or not the IPL will be allowed to become a true professional sports league, given the controversy and concerns that have arisen due to the country vs league debates, and the impact that such developments have had on the players and the cricket boards going forward. How the stakeholders find their pareto optimality will go a long way in determining the parameters within which the IPL is allowed to grow and exploit its brand.
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