Running on empty
Fan response will show whether last year's slump was an aberration, says Sanjjeev K Samyal.
The negativism is so deep-rooted that people are almost willing it to flop. The cynics are on a high after the lukewarm public response to last year's edition of the Indian Premier League. For them, it is a strong indicator that the multi-million dollar franchise T20 league, after all, is not such a hot property anymore.
As the fifth edition of cricket's glam avatar prepares to roll out, its stakeholders know they have a huge challenge on their hands to revive the image of the IPL. Following dwindling TV audiences for the past two seasons, and after even the play-offs were greeted by empty stadiums, the jury is out on whether the IPL will remain a durable summer sport and entertainment package.
The pundits will wait for this edition before passing judgement on the future of the tournament. They are keen to see if the reasons given for the lacklustre response to the last edition is genuine, after the slump was blamed on the league kicking off barely a week after the incredible high of the World Cup triumph.
Many felt the Cup euphoria had satiated the appetite of Indian cricket lovers and the IPL became a victim of overkill. Some also argued that after Lalit Modi had built up the entertainment aspect of the league, the new regime had underestimated the importance of the glam quotient for the event's success.
The importance of marketing was also ignored. Unlike earlier editions, there was no bombardment of promos on TV and radio.
The brand promoters got the shock of their lives when the play-off was played in front of empty seats at the Mecca of Indian cricket, Wankhede Stadium. Just less than two months earlier, tickets had been snapped up for 10 times their original price during the World Cup.
A post mortem had revealed that it was disastrous organisation. Instead of using the local association's machinery to sell tickets, the IPL body had decided to sell them on its own and did not gauge the public mood by overpricing tickets.
As a result, even the Mumbai Indians' play-off match didn't draw a full house. Outside the matches, the IPL bosses had stopped the parties in a bid to ensure the focus stayed on cricket. This meant the IPL tumbled out of the entertainment pages too.
It came as no surprise in the end that TRP ratings had dropped, rattling the IPL governing council. The powers-that-be realised that without attractive packaging, the T20 formula will cease to remain a perfect vision.
The promotional overdrive for the upcoming edition is a good indicator that the mandarins at the Cricket Centre have got their feedback. The radio and TV channels are buzzing with IPL promos in prime time as the official broadcasters want to leave nothing to chance.
If victory led to fatigue the last time, it is India's defeat upon defeat that faces the stakeholders in their face this season. The Indian cricket fan has been put off by the humiliation in England and Australia, and it remains to be seen whether it will impact the IPL.
Yet, the stakeholders feel the concept is strong and all will be okay if it is run well. While sacked IPL boss Modi's model was based on heavy glam quotient, the team of BCCI president N Srinivasan is more conservative.
Need for balance
If there was the danger of things going out of control in the original model, the one which replaced it can leave the average fan bored. A balance has to be struck to make sure the event retains its charm.
"Last year, there was the World Cup because of which deep fatigue was in place; it was a case of too much of cricket. This year, it's not going to be like that. Especially, since T20 is being played after a long time," says former India pacer TA Sekar, the chief mentor of Delhi Daredevils.
Many believe it is an event world cricket needs. Players from across the world can make a mark and get paid handsomely. Although T20 cricket is blamed for some of the ills plaguing Test and one-day cricket, it is clear that, going forward, it would be survival of the fittest. And with the interest in Test cricket waning in many places, the game's administrators will have to adapt to survive.
The cricketers surely are not complaining.
"It's a brilliant concept. Where will a local player from Baroda get to face four overs from Dale Steyn or a local wicketkeeper get to keep wickets to Steyn," asks former chief selector and keeper Kiran More.
"It is a massive learning experience and great for the confidence of the player. In our days, we would look for opportunities to play cricket, going to even distant towns to play private tournaments," says More, as he watched his home team, Baroda, triumph in the final of the Mushtaq Ali T20 championship in Mumbai.
"One can see the difference in Bangladesh's cricket with the start of their franchise league. It showed in the way they played in the Asia Cup."
Game, not glam
More is not too bothered about the debate over the importance of glamour and whether the IPL has fallen victim to overkill.
"It's about quality cricket," he says.
"It's not about what you show on the stage, the bottomline is good cricket. People will come to watch if the scores are 160-170, not if they are around 120.
"Even football is played all-year round, but the crowds still come. It's a graph, it goes up and down. On Sunday, you should have seen the crowd when Tiger Woods was doing well and won the Arnold Palmer Invitational in Orlando. It was packed."
However, the organisers know only too well that in the end, to rake in advertisements, sponsors and goodwill, they have to capture eyeballs, and the TV ratings.
It raises the question whether it's natural for such lavish leagues to suffer self-doubt. A simple comparison is the English Premier League. The EPL is a perfect example of what More is saying, that it's about the quality of the game.
However, there is a key difference between the EPL and IPL. English clubs have built their base gradually for decades, hence the loyalty factor is deep-rooted. The IPL is a new experiment and naturally lacks the same loyalty connect. It is massively dependent on star value.
It needs the Akons, Salmans and Katrinas to woo the fans. By all indication, this season's opening ceremony in Chennai is expected to reflect this realisation of the new regime.
Former Mumbai Indians coach Lalchand Rajput agrees: "IPL is entertainment, and glamour increases viewership."
The flipside is that some players can get carried away and lose the plot, but he feels it's a passing phase.
"With anything new in life, you don't know what to expect. The players didn't know how to react to the bright lights when the IPL started. Some of them got carried away with the filmy parties, seeing the models and actors. But the players are getting used to it now. They know how to balance it," says Rajput.
Virat Kohli is a classic example. He struggled to cope with the distractions but regained focus in time and is now among the most mature players in the India team, coping brilliantly with the pressures of stardom.
A good indicator that the IPL is maturing is the fact that the owners have gained better understanding of the game. They have understood that ultimately it's a game and the result is not related to the amount of money invested. There are many factors which determine the outcome, and some are beyond the player's control.
The IPL has thrown up its own challenges for the players. It has pushed them to improve their batting, bowling and fielding. The sliding, chasing and throwing techniques have got better. The batsmen and bowlers are forced to think more, the keeper has to be a single-saver too.
"The bowler has learnt to master more variations. Earlier, it was mainly about line and length, but with the batsmen always looking to add to their range of strokes, the bowler has to lift his game," says Rajput, who is now the BCCI batting academy's coach.
Sekar is upbeat about the IPL's future.
"There are so many T20 events, but IPL is the only tournament where all the India players are playing; the cream of Indian cricket is on display. It's the benchmark for T20 tournaments; it has even overshadowed the T20 World Cup.
"People would rather follow the IPL teams. An IPL team is a proper international outfit with four top foreigners and four top Indians."