Why the Indian Premier League has been such a hit

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For the IPL to have taken off in a country whose cricket board scoffed at the very format of T20 shows that the tale of the tournament’s success is a parable of the powerful combination of serendipity and opportunism.

The IPL is a star populated by a galaxy of stars. But that’s not what made it successful to begin with. | PTI

Since 2008, most of top stars in the cricketing world have been taking a collective break from international and domestic cricket to take part in the Indian Premier League (IPL) that happens mostly in a two-month window between March and May. In short, during this time period the IPL has been the cynosure of the cricketing world’s eyes at large. Looking back, even though it may seem inevitable that viewership in cricket would call for a shorter format, it wasn’t really obvious at the time. In fact, it seems rather incredible today that the BCCI and India were quite indifferent to T20’s charms initially. But what contributes to the enduring appeal of the IPL? What are the various factors that have made the league what it is today — the biggest commercial property outside international cricket (and quite likely to overtake it soon)? The answers lie in two major factors — timing and scheduling.

The first reason for the popularity of the IPL and T20 format, as it has been with many commercial products, has been the factor of timing. Around the turn of the millennium, the last bastion of spectatorship for the first-class game — England — had started witnessing lower turnouts. Especially, the younger generation were preferring to adopt other sports in favour of cricket. The marketing manager of the ECB, Stuart Robertson, suggested looking at a compressed format that was more in tune with current temporal demands. A year later, despite some opposition from the county chairmen, on the back of some last-over slogging, the format found a midwife.

International cricket didn’t take the format seriously — the first T20 international featured mirthful scenes, also featuring a mock red card to Glenn McGrath for impersonating the infamous underarm incident.

 

 

In a couple of years, most nations had played their first T20 game, drawing a mix of curiosity and bewilderment from their supporters. India was one of the last “big” nations to play its inaugural T20 game; its domestic version, was a damp squib. “T20? Why not ten-ten or five-five or one-one?” thundered Niranjan Shah in the 2006 International Cricket Council (ICC) board meeting, before boldly proclaiming that India would never play the format. The rival Indian Cricket League, which had gained some momentum, was swiftly put out of business by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).

At the same time, the ODI format had plateaued. Australia had sleepwalked to their third successive World Cup and was the standout team in a format with few surprises left; the ICC’s various attempts to enliven the game (supersub, superseries, experimenting with field restrictions and so on) had failed to hit the spot. India, quite disastrously, got knocked out in the group stage, making the tournament less palatable to the various stakeholders. The farcical 2007 World Cup final served as a fine example of everything that had gone wrong with the over-milked cash cow that was the ODI format.

It was in this setting that the T20 format captured the public imagination. Why, it seems really hard to believe that India were not too keen on fielding a team for the inaugural World T20 and had to be subtly arm-twisted into doing so by former ICC president Ehsan Mani. India grudgingly sent a squad which reeked of the distaste that BCCI had for the new-fangled format — the team, captained by a greenhorn MS Dhoni, did not feature the batting superstars. More importantly, the short, crisp tournament was everything the ODI World Cup wasn’t — Australia were beatable (even by Zimbabwe), many matches were close, and an Indian victory ensured eyeballs and some instant love. By the time India had won the tense, cagey final, to paraphrase and misquote Victor Hugo, no BCCI could stop the idea of T20 whose time had come. The IPL had been launched in a low-key fashion a few days before the victory, and the BCCI now had the opportunity of being at the right place at the right time.

Eleven years after the first edition, it is safe to say that cricket hasn’t been the same ever since. The other factor which has undoubtedly worked for the IPL is scheduling. One look at the future tours program shows that there is a pattern to international (and domestic) cricket. Essentially, cricket takes place during a six-month window in various nations across the world. Cricket in England is a summer-time sport with the highlight of the cricket season headlined around the peak of summer; it is also the case in the other countries in the temperate zones which are not affected by a torrential rainy season (April-September in England and October-March in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand). On the other hand, even though the Asian countries are situated in the Northern hemisphere, playing cricket is not possible during the traditional English summer season due to the monsoon. Hence, in the subcontinent, cricket is a winter-time sport (October-March), which runs in tandem along with the cricketing schedules of the Southern-hemisphere cricketing nations. The tropical West Indies grapple with a different problem despite having great sunshine through the year and no monsoon — the hurricane season during the second half of the calendar year. This international cricket schedule percolates down to the domestic seasons as well. Looking at the pre-existing pattern, the scheduling window for the now-defunct Champions League T20 seems obvious.

 

 

This is exactly why the IPL during April and May is a scheduling masterstroke (not to mention its alignment with the school summer vacations); the games are conducted during the second half of the day over the hottest, driest part of the year, and do not conflict with the traditional cricketing seasons of most countries (barring England and WI). In fact, this tournament opened up a 2-month window in India in which domestic cricket traditionally wouldn’t take place as the oppressive summer made longer formats too harsh for players.

Since the tournament does not clash with existing domestic structures of most cricketing nations, the presence of top stars has been all but ensured. The West Indies players are some of the most sought-after T20 stars, and the conflicts between the players and the board have undoubtedly helped the IPL’s cause. This also explains the love-hate relationship between the English cricketing establishment and the IPL —  the English players have either usually had to pick IPL over their domestic commitments or have been passed over entirely. No doubt the IPL has the first-mover advantage, but crucially, it has been aided by other favourable circumstances too — no domestic cricket runs in parallel with this tournament (as it has been the case in other countries such as Australia, England and others), and it does not overlap with other T20 leagues.

Thus did the IPL create the perfect storm and become a league like no other in world cricket.

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