The greatest show on earth? IPL walks tightrope as circus begins

Huge names, rewards and novelty but doubts remain. By Stephen Brenkley
Click to follow
The Independent Online

There has never been anything like the Indian Premier League in cricket. Which is why nobody – not the fearful administrators ofthe global game, not the opportunistic founders, not the multimillionaire team owners, not the players rewarded to unprecedentedlevels, not the hard-nosed television rights holders – knows how it will turn out.

They suspect, they hope, they yearn that it will be an unparalleled worldwide triumph, the next sporting big thing. In their more fantastical moments they will have imagined an event that captures the imagination and TV time of the entire subcontinent and by extension the whole cricketing planet beyond.

But they cannot be certain. The IPL is a huge gamble. It seems to have the necessary ingredients – the players, the money, the novelty – but until the first game is played, and perhaps until the first week is done, the element of doubt remains.

Traditionally, cricket followers in India have followed one team, India. Their sports-spectating lives have revolved around the 11 players representing their country, and how North Zone have fared against South Zone has barely entered their consciousness, let alone persuaded them to attend.

Now they are being asked to watch and to care about Bangalore Royal Challeng-ers versus Kolkata Knight Riders, which happens to be the IPL's inaugural fixture on Friday evening. It pits a mixture of star internationals, India's big names and unproven tiros against each other for previously unheard-of sums in the least traditional form of the professional game.

There will be 59 fixtures over 44 days, and the tournament will culminate with two semi-finals followed by a final on 1 June. It will need packed stadiums for almost every game because if not, TV audiences will almost certainly be unengaged.

The IPL was set up partly out of the wish to seek commercial advantage and partly out of necessity. The Board of Control for Cricket in India had been positively hostile towards Twenty20, which had been invented professionally in England in 2003.

Its overwhelming success did not persuade the Indians, who were happy with the rich rewards on offer from the more orthodox 50-over cricket. They assessed that T20 would mean reduced advertising, which would mean less money from TV rights, since the audience would not be around as long.

Then two things happened. Zee TV, the Indian cable company, were miffed at having their bid for India cricket rights turned down. Desperate to have the sport on their stations, they announced the establishment of their own event, the Indian Cricket League.

It promised new teams with big names earningbig money in a Twenty20 tournament. The BCCI realised they had to respond. It took a few months, but last September they made their announcement. In the light of subsequent events,this seems confusing. They announced the formation of a Champions T20 League to be played in October 2008.

This would involve the winners and runners-up of four domestic T20 competitions – England, Australia, South Africa and India. The Indian teams, it was said, would come from an additional league involving franchises and foreign players, to be called the Indian Premier League. The IPL seemed to grow like topsy, the Champions League diminished rapidly. It is said still to be taking place, but nobody believes it.

For a start, if one of the overseas players in the IPL also played for the winners in his own country, which team would he represent? Dimitri Mascarenhas, England's IPL representative, is playing for Rajasthan Royals, but what if they won it and Hampshire, his county, won the English T20?

But another, bigger reason is that the IPL, heavily supported by corporations who have splashed out millions to own the franchises,is worth $2 billion. The Champions League would be worth barely $10 million.

The second thing that happened to give the IPL momentum was that India won the inaugural World T20 two weeks after the launch. The country went T20 crazy. When the Indian team returned, Mumbai came to a jubilant standstill.

There followed a scramble for the franchises, the players and the television rights. The players can still barely believe what is happening, because nothing like it has happened before in cricket.

The franchises were sold in January for sums ranging up to $111.9m and a total of $723.59m. The following month came the player auction, with more mind-boggling sums of money.

Andrew Symonds of Australia was bought by Deccan Chargers of Hyderabad for $1.35m, in essence the amount he will be paid – in addition to his signing-on fee – for each of the next three years if he is available for the whole tournament. In the M Chinnaswamy Stadium in Bangalore next Friday, it will begin to be seen if the sums add up.

Watch the IPL on Setanta: Bangalore v Calcutta is on Friday from 2.30pm