Expensive wallpaper, but riveting
As the curtain comes down on the IPL this week, several lessons can be learned.
Several interesting lessons have been learned in the final week of the Indian Premier League, some new and some old. One of the oldest applies to many sports but was never more obvious than during the nerve-racking scramble for semifinal places.
“It’s never over until the last ball is bowled,” said the Bangalore Royal Challengers’ Jacques Kallis. We’ve seen a team score 20 off the last over to win and another team defend just four to win. It’s been good entertainment.”
The most obvious lesson, however, is one which IPL commissioner Lali Modi has failed to learn and it may be painfully hard to digest if and when he accepts the truth: the IPL will never become a “global brand” as he desires and it will never challenge the universal appeal of the “global” American sports franchises (Yankees, Red Sox and so on) or the great European football teams.
There are three reasons it won’t happen. First, it is a diminutive version of the game. Five-a-side soccer is cool and sevens rugby is a joy to watch - but is it the real thing? T20 cricket will most definitely compete with the other forms of the game in the future and is unarguably going to win far more market share than it currently enjoys - probably to the complete marginalisation of ODI cricket, but it will never be the real thing. One hundred and thirty one years of history will ensure that.
Sure, there will probably be less Test cricket played in future years but, instead of that signalling the start of a slow death, it will merely raise the highest level of the game to an even higher pedestal. If amateur joggers had a choice of a marathon to run every weekend, the challenge would lose its lustre. When there are only a few a year they are willing to train for three months in preparation. Just look at the success of Two Oceans and Comrades. Sportsmen turn professional because they cannot refuse a challenge. And cricketers will always know where the real challenge lies.
The second reason the IPL won’t “go global” is because of the “I”. It is an Indian product and Indians, understandably, are extremely proud of it. But note how the English first division became simply “The Premiership” when it began its journey to becoming the greatest and wealthiest league in the world. In other words, it belonged to everyone.
There are, of course, more Indians living in more countries on earth than any other race, so sales of replica shirts and other merchandising opportunities will do fine, but only the Kolkata Knight Riders, Delhi Daredevils and Mumbai Indians got it remotely right when it came to the potential for global appeal. It’s remarkable how many Australians, Englishmen and South Africans still think that “Deccan” is a city. And the King’s XI? King who? And unfortunately for Chennai, a “Superking” in Europe is a brand of cigarette.
Finally, the third reason the IPL - in its current format - will never be more than very expensive wallpaper in the global sports village is the absurd glass ceiling placed on the playing quality of the teams. Imagine how many supporters Real Madrid and Barcelona would have if the Spanish League introduced a new regulation: “Only four international players from outside Spain and two more if they are Spanish. The rest must be academy players.” Wouldn’t have quite the same appeal, would it?
Be that as it may, the fight for semifinal places this week was very exciting. The “play-off” match between the Deccan (it’s a sponsor’s name) Chargers and the Royal Challengers (named after a brand of beer) hadn’t yet taken place at the time of writing but it was an exciting prospect.
“There’s no law in sport that says who will and who won’t be affected by nerves and tension,” said Kallis. “It’ll be a tense game, for sure, and there’ll be some fingernails bitten in the dugout, but hopefully we are now peaking at the right time, whereas the Chargers started the tournament strongly. But nerves can strike anyone, at any time. It just happens a bit less the more experienced you are!”
If Kallis doesn’t make it to the semis he’s likely to have to dig deep into his pocket in the unlikely event that he’d want to be there as a spectator. Some grandstand and executive suite tickets for the final at the Wanderers are being advertised on various websites for between R5 000 and R20  000 each. The official price is R200. Or rather, the official price was R200 at the start of the tournament before being unilaterally changed to R300 by the IPL when it became obvious they could sell them. The change came too late for the Gauteng Cricket Board who had already pre-sold R200 tickets for both the semifinal and final to almost 5  000 debenture and suite owners, amounting to a projected loss to the board of R742  800.
Cricket South Africa and the IPL, surely, won’t allow one of their most strategic partners to take a financial bath at the end of what has been a very lucrative five weeks for both of them.