A few years ago, the badshah of Bollywood Shah Rukh Khan raised his hand in glee after the master of ceremonies shouted “sold out” in an auction where players were bought for millions of dollars. The cost of that crass revolution, which the cricket establishment in India had ushered in, is still being counted and four years later no one is sure who has benefited from this glitzy, risque show called the Indian Premier League (IPL).
I can visualise the scorn and anger of many at the use of words like crass and risque for a cricket tournament that has made a large number of unknown strugglers famous and wealthy overnight. This, according to them, is the future of sport, which combines India’s two main obsessions — films and cricket — to create a potpourri that has given a new lease of life to a sport whose staple diet — Tests — had bored spectators to death.
It has allowed the corporate tsars free access to a product whose market potential they are out to milk for the benefit of all. When cricket today has become a brand whose value is being talked of in billions, when the players are happy at this unexpected windfall, the spectators are queuing up and the money is jingling, why cry foul?
These questions, for and against, the IPL have over the last four years become sharper and sharper and will become even shriller over the next two months, as the cricketing circus crisscrosses the country in search of greater numbers, sponsors and TRP ratings.
Any business model in the entertainment industry that relies on heavy investments to attract more capital, depends on the eyeballs it can generate. That is why the success of the fifth edition of this tournament has become crucial for its future survival. It has, in the course of the first four years, even tweaked those basic concepts of a condensed format, which was put in place because it was being felt that even the 50-over format had become too predictable for spectators to enjoy. Therefore, we had two strategy breaks in between one innings of a mere 20 overs, so that there would be time for the advertisers to promote their brands on TV. The cheerleaders, post-match parties and the heavy presence of film stars at the ground are among the many props used to increase the TRP ratings of the show.
Yet, despite every trick in the trade having been exploited — making the most powerful voices in the game, including the media, its stakeholders --— the tournament finds itself on shaky ground today. According to media reports, its revenue streams are dwindling because of dwindling sponsorship interest and poor TRP ratings last year.
All of a sudden the import of cricket fatigue and cynical exploitation of the game’s mass following in the country seems to have affected IPL’s popularity. The hysteria that this tournament generated in the first two years since its inception, giving nightmares to those who felt that it would destroy the basic edifice on which the sport has stood so far — Test cricket and bilateral contests seems to have evaporated this year.
If that is the case, then the reasons are not too hard to pinpoint. The tournament, which does not have an international window, has always been held at inopportune times for the players. The Indian players who have a killing international schedule don’t mind putting their tired, injured bodies on the line for two months — as they did after winning the World Cup last year — because the lure of mega bucks is too tempting. The result was that some key players were unfit, unavailable or mentally fatigued for their India ‘duty’ and we suffered a staggering drubbing at the hands of England in the Tests as well as the one-dayers. This followed another disaster in Australia and elimination in the Asia Cup last month in Dhaka.
India is no longer the number one Test team and even slipping in rankings in the 50-over format of which we are the world champions. The revolution that IPL was to usher in is now being seen as a massive distraction for India’s talented cricketers, who prefer club over country only because the money on offer is huge.
No wonder the IPL today is seen as a reality show in search of TRP ratings.
Pradeep Magazine is a Delhi-based sports writer
The views expressed by the author are personal