The birth of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the first big-bucks cricket league featuring international cricketers, appeared inevitable in the light of last year’s events. The setting up of a rival organisation, the Indian Cricket League, which threatened the Indian board’s primary revenue source, broadcast money; the over-the-top national reaction to M.S. Dhoni’s young side triumphing in the World Twenty20 championship; and the marked shift in power towards India’s booming cricket economy sowed the seeds. Convinced of the lucre of the Twenty20 format, the Indian board dusted out an idea ostensibly from the 1990s — the idea of a franchise-based competition that attracts the world’s top talent. But few would have anticipated the gold rush. The BCCI made $1.8 billion before a ball was bowled. Television rights for a ten-year period fetched over a billion dollars — almost as much as the ICC secured for an eight-year deal that included two World Cups and Champions Trophies. The selling of the franchises raised a further $723.5 million. The hype-driven player auction in Mumbai confirmed that the IPL will be a singularly opulent affair: Dhoni, the most expensive buy, went for $1.5 million, which works out to a pay packet of over $30,000 per hour of play.
The key question is whether a game built on national identity can sustain a tournament where loyalty towards a team is manufactured. Whatever be the answer, there is little doubt that the IPL will change cricket globally. The patterns of bidding showed that the transformation of the cricketer to a money-spinning object was complete. The franchises presumably looked for the most market value for their money — but the estimation wasn’t really on cricketing grounds. While multi-skilled players attracted big bucks, those who offered the total commercial package of glamour and ability sold best. But how does one explain the curious phenomenon of quite a few Indian Twenty20 cricketers outselling by a wide margin the world’s top players, Ricky Ponting, Matthew Hayden, and Shane Warne? The most optimistic view of the IPL sees it as a means of induction and culling: young cricketers yet to make the grade benefit from competing against the world’s best while those on their last legs refrain from unnecessarily prolonging their international careers. The fears of Twenty20 cannibalising the classical Test format and IPL compounding player burnout are real. It’s perhaps a stretch to infer that the admission by a top board official that he has seen nothing — on-field action included — in his 30 years as exciting as the auction is further evidence of the Board putting commercial interests above all else. It’s time the administrators showed a similar commitment to reforming traditional forms of domestic cricket.