The new IPL Governing Council headed by Brijesh Patel, along with BCCI president Sourav Ganguly overseeing matters, has been in overdrive. In its first meeting this week, a slew of proposals were mooted to make the League more robust and appealing for all stakeholders.
A fourth umpire to look specifically into no-balls, fewer day games (since the bulk of the IPL is played in excruciating May heat), permitting teams to play friendly matches overseas, and dispensing with the opening ceremony are some of the proposals awaiting ratification.
Removing the lavish opening ceremony, featuring high-powered celebrities from the entertainment world in India and abroad, takes away from fan engagement some have argued, but this stands on weak legs.
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When the IPL started, the opening ceremony with its glamour and razzmatazz was critical in grabbing attention, particularly of those not initiated into the sport. A dozen years later, cricket’s primacy over all else is well established. Extraneous ingredients to push popularity are superfluous.
However, the importance of fan engagement remains undiminished, and the IPL must look at doing more on this count. There was talk that a substitute ‘power player’ was among the proposals mooted. This seemed interesting, but has sadly been denied by the Governing Council.
A ‘power player’ sub would have added an X factor to the proceedings. It’s not an entirely novel concept, of course. There are super subs in Test cricket nowadays, but they have to be named before the start of the match.
The ‘power player’, as reports had suggested, could be anyone from the bench. And chosen dynamically, as the game unravels.
This would have been splendid innovation, adding a strong element of strategic thought and suspense, providing for more ‘talking points’.
Apart from tweaks in rules (like fielders within the inner circle etc), what hooks fans are interventions that can alter passage of play. The Decision Review System (DRS) for instance—made possible by technology and something that has huge influence across formats—has fans on the edge in anticipation of how the verdict would go.
The 100, England Cricket Board’s limited overs league along the lines of the IPL and Australia’s Big Bash, which starts next July, has put strong emphasis on such interventions to draw in and engage audiences.
Apart from reducing the number of deliveries per team (from 120 in T20), ‘The 100’ has 10-ball overs that can be shared between bowlers. This will entail greater decision making from the captain. The 100 makes an even more radical departure from convention. It permits the coach to go on to the field during time out to give his inputs.
This is a perceptible shift towards football. Old timers think this mitigates tradition, the ECB claims it is only doing this to attract younger audiences and revive cricket in England, where barring the Ashes—and the occasional ICC tournament—it is languishing.
As more avenues of entertainment become available, the challenge for sports administrators everywhere is to remain consistently relevant. This is only possible by engaging fans, who in turn bring in sponsors, broadcasters et al to make the sport healthy..
Competition today comes from other sports, both within and outside the country, as well as from the same sport where other administrative bodies are as much rivals as they are friends, since everyone is seeking a larger slice of the financial pie. The IPL currently is streets ahead of all friends and rivals on all scores. Yet, within India, other sports are growing, albeit slowly. How cricket lost out to football, rugby and other sports in England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, is reminder that upheavals can happen.
There is also the threat from other T20 leagues. The Big Bash is now firmly established and ‘The 100’—despite the ECB waking up so late—promises to make a strong pitch to command global attention of cricket fans.
The new Governing Council making swift changes to increase the appeal of the tournament is a gratifying sign that it is seized of the issue. The situation for the IPL—in scale and popularity—is not worrisome today. But there is no room for complacency.
The writer is a senior sports analyst and views are personal