IPL grows up in Emirates
The seventh edition of the Indian Premier League (IPL) is a very different animal to its predecessors, and not just because the first half is under way in three of the Emirates comprising the United Arab Emirates – Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.
What the IPL has lost in moral integrity – through the suspension of Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) president N Srinivasan, pending an investigation into illegal betting and match-fixing – it appears to have gained in the intensity of competition and quality of cricket seen during the first week.
It is almost as if the players, both foreign and Indian, are attempting to clean up the dirt in the boardroom through sheer weight of entertainment. They are forced to do their talking on the field, as the prevailing atmosphere is not conducive to talking off the field.
The presence of a third "security" officer for each of the eight franchises, with a specific brief to monitor players and their acquaintances for signs of undesirable communication, is a constant reminder to everyone that corruption – and those wishing to peddle it – is everywhere.
"There is more of a relaxed feel [than in India] because of the absence of the usual armed guards, wailing police escorts and traffic congestion," one senior franchise member said. "But there is also more talk and awareness of corruption, and players can feel the scrutiny.
"Each team has had an extra person, in addition to the usual two security officers [one from Nicholls Steyn and one Indian] attached to them by the BCCI, called an integrity officer. He is an extra set of eyes. We've heard there are also plainclothes police around, but they must be well disguised – either that, or none of us know what to look for!"
A member of a different franchise team felt the tournament was "growing up" this year: "There is much less fanfare in Dubai. Hardly anybody even notices when we leave the hotel here, whereas in India there could be a corridor of people three or four deep. My sense is that it is becoming more of a cricket tournament. The razzmatazz is definitely secondary and our team owners are more careful about spending money. But it has definitely moved beyond just being an excuse to have a carnival. Players are taking every aspect more seriously, the preparation and the playing. There are no parties around our team. I hear it's the same with the others," the IPL veteran said.
The razzmatazz is still present, but the manner of its organisation suggests that nobody is taking it as seriously as they did, even those charged with organising it.
"The opening ceremony was enough of a shambles to be funny," said the first man. "There was a massive and impressive fireworks display – which kicked off in the middle of an interview 10 minutes before the show actually ended. Fortunately, it wasn't a sign of things to come. The actual games have been superbly organised."
Accommodation logistics have not been straightforward in the Emirates, with most of the top hotels enjoying high occupancy rates and the IPL being given insufficient notice to reserve an entire floor, as is the case in India. "Hotels are also much bigger than the ones we use in India, which means it can be a five minute walk to the physio or the team room. We're not on the same floor, or even the same wing in some cases. We're not as connected as a team," said the first squad member, "but we're getting pretty well connected as a tournament, with four teams staying in the same hotel!"
The second squad member said there were far fewer "outsiders" in the team environment than in India. "The integrity officer has complete freedom of movement around the team, barring team meetings, but otherwise, we have far fewer hangers-on, which is a relief.
"I don't know if there is less money around these days, but I do get the impression the owners, sponsors and advertisers want to make sure they are getting value for their dollar. We have heard that the Indian elections have had an effect, as corporates are spending money sponsoring political parties. But the bottom line for the players and coaches is that the IPL is a great product and is getting even better while it becomes even more cricket focused. That word 'cricketainment' they used at the beginning made us feel pretty uncomfortable."
The public also still seems convinced about the product. Dubai Sports City has been sold out for every game so far, and television ratings are still good, though not as good as they were.
But it is the BCCI which needs to clean up its act – and that of its suspended president. While that job is being done by the Indian Supreme Court, the doubts will not just linger, they will fester and grow.