Is all this for real? Or was one watching owners of fat cheque-books sitting in a casino and massaging their egos by throwing mindboggling sums at star cricketers? Shahrukh Khan, the owner of the Kolkata team, found the whole bidding process so thrilling that he said he was getting 'addicted' to it. IS Bindra, a BCCI official, and a former Indian Administrative Service officer, had never seen a day like this in his life "ever".
Has cricket in India entered the age of sponsored gambling where its stake-holders are abdicating their responsibility and letting the 'free-market' forces take control of the sport?
What took place in Mumbai on February 20, 2008, could well be a watershed in the affairs of this sport and no one can foresee what direction it is headed for. Is the IPL a fantasy created by the Indian Board, which has enticed the moneyed elite so much that they think by investing thousands of crores into a 44-day inter-city T20 league, they are inventing a goose that will lay golden eggs for them one day?
Even more importantly for the sport's future, are these massive sums being doled out so that direct control of the game swaps hands? And, will what today is the Indian Board tomorrow become a defunct body at the complete mercy of the very corporates who presided over the auctioning of the players and bought them at fancy prices?
BCCI, a corporate entity?
Are we going to see a Preity Zinta raise her fist one day in glee after buying over the Board, as she did after bidding successfully for one of the players? Is Vijay Mallya one day going to raise his placard to bid for taking control of the Board? Who knows, it might well happen. Or is it going to be the biggest farce enacted by people who, in their greed and power, have ignored the fact that they are entering unchartered territory where the mortality rate could be very high?
In a country where the whole edifice of sport is based on loyalty to the nation and the flag, will these artificially created inter-city rivalries, unlike fan-based club loyalties football has in Europe, work with the masses? And if this fails to work, will corporate India, which finds thousands of excuses to avoid spending money on the social sector in a country where the gap between the haves and have-nots is reaching embarrassing levels, still want to 'improve the lot of Indian sport'.
Ness Wadia, who owns the Mohali team, would like us to believe that they wanted to do something for grassroot sport. But how spending on players who are already getting good money, will help raise the standard of the sport in India is not clear. How paying Dhoni, who already earns crores, six times what he earns for playing a year's cricket with India, raise the standard of the sport, needs explanation.
Yes, it has made him and, many others like him richer, but how it would benefit first-class cricket and cricketers, I'm not sure. In reality what this kind of top-heavy structured payments has done is widen the gap between the haves and have-nots in cricket. What this League will surely do is pitch for T20 cricket as an alternative to one-day and even Test cricket.
For cricket's historians of the future, how India's World Cup T20 win changed non-believers to staunch supporters of this format might become a landmark moment while explaining the reasons for the demise of the one-day format. The Indian Board did not want to send its team to the SA World Cup, fearing it would eat into their one-day pie. India, whose ignominious exit from the 50-50 World Cup just months before the T20 WC win, had left sponsors shattered, suddenly found a new window of opportunity as Dhoni and his young guns started winning.
Even in the condensed version of the one-day game, there was enough space and time for advertisers to display their wares and popularise their products and send the cash bell ringing again. Dhoni and his men became the saviours of the corporate world and is it any wonder that the Jharkhand boy was valued the highest? In many ways this can be seen as a thanksgiving gesture to a man who saved those who had invested a fortune on cricket in India.
What the Indian Board has unwittingly done is pit the corporate world in India against the whole establishment of cricket. It will remain one of the ironies of cricket that the biggest inroads into the establishment, after the Kerry Packer incident in the Seventies, has been made by one of its own members.
Unlike now, when the IPL has the sanction of the Indian cricket board which has led even the international governing body, the ICC, to support the venture, Mr Packer was a rich businessman who was so miffed at not getting the television rights for Australian cricket, that he created his own league, the World Series Cricket.
Changing the rules of the game
He signed up almost all the best players in the world then — except Indians — and revolutionised one-day cricket through innovative television coverage, day/night cricket, white balls, coloured clothing and paying players double and even triple the amount they were getting from their respective boards.
Even then he could not compete with officially run Test cricket, but when a compromise was reached, the establishment too had to change itself. Players started getting more and one-day cricket became the money-driver for the sport.
Beginning of a new era?
Today, are we at the cusp of another cricketing revolution whose ramifications could be far more sweeping than what happened in the post-Packer period? Like Packer, this rebellion was also led by a television czar — Subhash Chandra, who owns the Zee network. Here too he wanted to exploit the potential of the T20 format by luring the world's best players and showcasing them live on his television network.
That he seems to have failed has a lot to do with the Indian cricket establishment, which, fearing a loss of clout, used their own power of money to scuttle this rebellion. In the process they may have unleashed a monster that could one day not only devour them, but also the world's cricketing establishment.
There is too much money riding on this IPL now and that is why every effort, muscle and money, will be used to make it popular. If it succeeds, corporates will demand their pound of flesh and want it to become part of an international tournament.
Money and the popularity of this format could mean the end of the way cricket is structured internationally. What today is addictive for the King Khan could become the opium of the masses. Who benefits and who loses is irrelevant to those for whom what finally matters is the flow of cash.