IPL bounces back from controversy as fans flock to event
CRICKET fans cheered last weekend as the billion-dollar Indian Premier League (IPL) kicked off last Saturday (7) – aiming to prove it is about the “spirit of cricket” rather than success at all costs, after Australia’s Steve Smith and David Warner were banned over a Test cheating storm.
The 11th edition of the IPL got underway just weeks after Smith and Warner – both due to captain teams – were barred by Cricket Australia for 12 months over last month’s ball-tampering row in South Africa.
With two teams reinstated and a new broadcaster, the popular Twenty20 tournament retains an undiminished appeal among India’s incurably cricket-obsess-ed masses.
Few expected the IPL to climb out of the morass of spot-fixing and illegal betting it had descended into five years ago, which eventually led to bans on its Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals franchises.
Yet, the IPL not only survived but its brand value grew to an estimated $5.3 billion (£3.7bn), according to New York-based corporate finance advisory firm Duff & Phelps.
Last September the league sold its media rights to Rupert Murdoch’s Star India for $2.52bn (£1.78bn), the biggest television deal the game has seen.
For the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), which earns huge sums from the lucrative Twenty20 tournament, the desire to avoid further controversy is clear.
“The BCCI hopes the cricketers participating in the IPL hold the highest regard for the spirit of cricket and code of conduct for players and match officials,” it said at the height of the Australia cheating storm.
Warner has been dropped from his IPL team Sunrisers Hyderabad, while Smith has lost his place with Rajasthan.
Rising Indian stars have been made aware of the need to redeem cricket’s image in its stronghold country.
“There is always a lot to learn from everything, but I always believe that cricket is a gentleman’s game,” Delhi Daredevils wicketkeeper-batsman Rishabh Pant said last week when asked about the Australia scandal. “The sport should be played in the same spirit.”
Despite the troubles, the IPL’s appeal is on the rise. And the pyrotechnics, cheerleaders and huge pay cheques have still attracted top foreign stars to play in India’s sweltering heat.
“This is perhaps what makes the IPL brand what it is,” cricket historian Boria Majumdar said of the league’s robust financial health. “Controversies notwithstanding, cricket continues to be of the very highest quality and retains centre stage.
“Also, in the IPL India wins every day. There is no uncertainty that an Indian team might or can lose and it will be all doom and gloom thereafter.
“This is what draws fans to the IPL every single day year after year,” said Majumdar whose new book, Eleven Gods and a Billion Indians, was released by India and Royal Challengers Bangalore captain Virat Kohli last Saturday (6).
IPL’s commercial success has inspired several franchise-based leagues even in other sports, while consolidating cricket’s stranglehold over young athletes.
“It has made franchise cricket a lucrative career option. Not playing for India isn’t the end of the world anymore,” explained Majumdar. “Playing well in the IPL allows a cricketer to be a star, get endorsements, get real serious money. It turns him into an overnight celebrity of sorts.”
The player auction held ahead of the new season was another show of India’s riches. England allrounder Ben Stokes will again be the player to watch after being bought by the Royals for $1.96 million in the January sale.
Last season Stokes largely lived up to the hype by hitting 316 runs and taking 12 wickets in 12 matches. His worth is such that the Royals were even “prepared for legal consequences” pending his court battle over a much-publicised street brawl in England.
New Zealand’s Kane Williamson will be in the spotlight after being appointed Hyderabad’s captain. Warner led the side to the IPL title in 2016. Williamson is now the only foreign captain in the eight-team league once dominated by imports.
Other top names from England, Australia, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh will also be taking part. Teenage leg-spinner Sandeep Lachhimane will be the first Nepalese cricketer in the IPL after signing for Delhi, though political tensions mean there are no players from Pakistan.
“The IPL towers over everything in cricket, and among cricketers, although that is not all that matters,” noted Australian writer Gideon Haigh. “India also has a sharp appetite for national success and prestige, which IPL also gratifies, but on its own cannot meet. This will continue to underpin support for and engagement with Virat Kohli’s team,” he said.
Test player-turned-commentator Aakash Chopra believes the tournament will not lose its sheen despite losing two top performers. He insists new stars will rise.
“The IPL is a fantastic tournament, everybody forgets. You only focus on who is there. The charm will remain. Life goes on, cricket carries on. One man’s loss is another man’s opportunity,” said Chopra.
The average attendance for each IPL game is about 26,000, but numbers rise significantly as the tournament goes on. “The IPL towers over everything in cricket, and among cricketers,” Australian writer Gideon Haigh said.
BCCI treasurer Anirudh Chaudhary said: “The financial model is such that it has enhanced the financial strength of the Board of Control for Cricket in India and the IPL franchises.”
IPL’s 60 games are now valued at roughly $8.5m each, not far off the estimated $9.6m per English Premier League match, and sponsors too are naturally keen to play ball.
“As sponsor, and we spend money for publicity,” Mahesh Gupta, chairman of Kent RO Systems, said. “IPL is a platform which has the widest reach and quickest reach. It gives you the best return on investment. So we invest there.”
The water purifier brand came on board as the title sponsor of Kings XI Punjab franchise and plans to spend `500m ($7.69m) on promotion during the IPL.
Gupta said the sponsors are aware of the past scandals, but they believe that the league had adequately addressed those concerns.
“There were issues and they were rightly examined. In any event you’d have good people and bad people, but the good people have outnumbered the bad.
“Small issues cannot affect a bigger brand. It (IPL’s brand value) has not been affected. It’s become stronger and stronger and I think this season, with change in the broadcaster, it is looking even more attractive.”
The MS Dhoni-led Super Kings opened the tournament, with its $8 million in prize money, against holders the Mumbai Indians at the Wankhede Stadium last Saturday night (see round-up inside).
The eight-team tournament runs through to May 27 when the battle for the $4m first prize will be held in Mumbai. (Agencies)