On the eve of the tenth showpiece IPL final, Freddie Wilde looks at the fraught history and immense potential of a tournament that has yet to fully recognise its own strength.
Richard Madley, professional auctioneer, walked down the steps of the Oberoi Hilton hotel in Mumbai, through the lobby and towards the ballroom that would shortly be staging the inaugural Indian Premier League auction. “All I could hear was the ‘click, click, click’ of cameras,” he says now, a decade on. “There were perhaps 500 fans trying to get in to get close to their idols who were attending the auction. Not their cricketing idols, but their Bollywood idols, Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta, Shilpa Shetty.”
“There was just one British journalist who had the foresight to set off to Mumbai that day. Nobody else had taken it seriously. I met him the night before at the briefing and he said, ‘Something big is going to happen tomorrow, Richard’. And I said, ‘I think you’re right’.”
Almost eight hours after Madley had taken his place behind the lectern, gavel in hand, 74 cricketers from seven different countries had been sold for a combined total of $36.72 million in a show of ostentatious wealth the likes of which sport, let alone cricket, had rarely seen. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, a paragon of the new age, was appropriately the most expensive player, sold to the Madras franchise that would later be named Chennai Super Kings for $1.5 million. Across a six-week tournament Dhoni’s value amounted to a weekly salary of $250,000, comparable to the weekly wage of David Beckham.
Far from celebrating cricket’s newfound wealth, reaction to the auction was at best lukewarm and in some quarters vitriolic. One prominent UK newspaper stated that February 21, 2008 was “the day cricket sold its soul”.
Opinions on the IPL have thawed over the ensuing decade – perhaps most clearly embodied by the growing presence of English players in the league from none in 2008 to nine in 2017 – but it still remains the sport’s most divisive issue.
Quite why the IPL has caused such unease within the game is not difficult to understand. Cricket has long been a conservative sport. Change has often been greeted with hostility and distrust. The IPL, with its Bollywood team owners, huge broadcasting deals, massive player salaries and spanking new city-based teams represents an immensely powerful force of change within the game.
That the change is being driven by India, rather than the game’s historical powers Australia and England, and that the IPL is T20, a form of the sport considered to be inferior by certain elites, has only compounded opposition from traditionalists, particularly outside India. The power in cricket had been shifting east from Lord’s for decades before the IPL but in many ways the founding and success of the league, with its hold over players of all nationalities, signifies the near-total dominion India now exercises over the game.
The paradox of sport’s relationship with money is that while more money appears to threaten the sanctity of the sport, it is money that pushes the game forward like nothing else – collecting the best playing and coaching talent, encouraging development of new methods and investing in new technologies. The IPL, cricket’s richest competition, has been caught in the cross-fires of this contradiction throughout its first decade.
The fortunes of cricket have long been tied to money. Wealthy benefactors funded the early game in England and India. Indeed, the Wadia family – a mega-rich shipbuilding dynasty from Surat – who were patrons of India’s oldest cricket club the Oriental Cricket Club, founded in 1848, brought a stake in the IPL team Kings XI Punjab in 2008, maintaining a lineage of cricketing patronage.
For the first few seasons of the IPL television ratings dwarfed those of international cricket and stadiums were packed but it was difficult to see the direct benefits to cricket of the league’s vast new wealth and popularity. Ostensibly, players and coaches – often living off their reputations in longer formats of the game – got richer; and with rumours of infamous IPL after-match parties abounding, it didn’t seem as if the cricket really mattered that much to the players, team owners or, for that matter, the BCCI.
And when the league was hit by two corruption scandals in four seasons – first the spectacular downfall of the league’s impresario Lalit Modi and second a betting scandal that led all the way back to BCCI president N Srinivasan – it made sense when the cricket historian Ramachandra Guha, in an article titled The Serpent in the Garden, described the IPL as “representative of the worst sides of Indian capitalism and Indian society. Corrupt and cronyist, it has also promoted chamchagiri (sycophancy) and compliance”.
While attention had understandably been focused on the administration of the league, a revolution of sorts had been occurring among team management, and it was most apparent at the auction, which serves as an annual glimpse into the league’s innermost workings.
“In the early years of the tournament players were bought on their reputation in the five-day Test game,” says Madley, who has been the auctioneer at all 10 auctions. “Players who had great Test careers but were coming to the end achieved some phenomenal prices based on their reputation alone.” This meant that although the early seasons of the IPL brought together some legends of the international game, the cricket at times felt more like an exhibition event than a premier sporting league.
It soon became apparent however that cricketing and commercial considerations were interdependent. Success on the field brought success off it and with this realisation, the cricket itself was taken more seriously. “Now it’s about your T20 numbers, that’s what they will bid for,” says Madley. “What they want is younger and younger players. It’s about your fitness levels, your ability in the field, and ideally you’ll be an allrounder.”
The cricket played in the IPL is now increasingly befitting of the money and hype surrounding the league. Flat pitches, small boundaries and lightning quick outfields produce an accelerated form of the game, in which bowling is a thankless task but the action is breathless. No other tournament collects such diverse cricketing cultures in one place, often in the same changing room, as the IPL does. The fluidity of squads mean coaches and players move regularly among teams, sharing trade secrets and ideas, creating a rich ecosystem of knowledge and understanding.
It is with regards to the Indian domestic players that the IPL’s progress can most clearly be traced. During the 2014 season Mark Butcher observed that the IPL’s remarkable capacity to so regularly astound could be attributed to the combination of extraordinary international players competing with at times very ordinary domestic Indian players. It is testament to the improvement in scouting and the ability of young Indian cricketers that the juxtaposition is no longer so stark, and the overall standard of the league has risen considerably as a result. Half a decade ago it would not be uncommon for some teams to be carrying three or even four weak domestic players; now it is rare to see a team with even two players that look clearly out of their depth.
It is apposite therefore that as we reach the business end of the tenth season, the standout players of IPL 2017 have been domestic players – in many ways the season has heralded a generational shift in Indian batting. While the likes of Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma and Suresh Raina will continue to plunder runs for many years to come, this tournament has been marked by the emergence of the next breed of Indian batsmen: the explosive Risbabh Pant, the effortless Sanju Samson, the pocket-rocket Ishan Kishan, the powerful Nitish Rana, the fleet-footed Rahul Tripathi and the six-hitting brothers Krunal and Hardik Pandya. While Kohli, Rohit and Raina are from a classical school of batsmanship, these new kids, Samson aside, are distinctive in their unorthodoxy, but no less effective as a result. Kohli grew up watching Tendulkar; these young men – Kishan is only 18 years old – have grown up watching the IPL.
It is not only on the pitch that this Kishan-generation is shaping the future of the Indian game. According to a 2007 survey – conducted before the IPL was launched – nearly 80 per cent of Indians under the age of 25 followed cricket either ‘to a great extent’ or ‘somewhat’. Given that more than 50 per cent of India’s population of around 1.25 billion are under the age of 25, by conservative estimates that means there are half a billion cricket fans in India under the age of 25 alone.
Before the 11th IPL season next year, the league will undergo its first major economic refresh when the franchise tenders and the broadcasting rights expire and are put to the market once again. Industry experts are predicting that the new broadcasting deal alone could be worth more than $2 billion across five years, which would make it the biggest broadcasting deal in cricket history. With a larger central revenue pool, player salaries are tipped to double.
And as salaries grow, so too does the IPL’s control over international talent. The possibility for expansion – perhaps from eight teams to 10 – is real and inevitable. There are 29 states in India and 46 cities with populations of more than one million; the IPL – or at least domestic T20 cricket in India – has barely even scratched the surface of its own potential.
Less than five years ago, with the league mired in corruption, that thought would have frightened cricket far more than it should now. After the tumult of the early years the IPL is now a bona fide sporting league. If cricket’s future is the IPL, then at least be thankful that the IPL’s future is increasingly about the league’s cricket.