After a tough, grinding season of Test cricket where emotions ran high, the cricket calendar is in weekend mode. National loyalties give way to city loyalties as the Indian Premier League comes back in its tenth edition. We have seen IPL’s birth and its growth and at ten it is now old enough to grow a personality, a soul.
In 2008, when this new multi-million dollar beast sprung out of nowhere, we weren’t sure of how to react to it. The world’s number one fast bowler at that time, Dale Steyn, after a dismal season at Royal Challengers Bangalore described IPL as, “The IPL was only four overs a game and it was like a paid holiday; you only had to work hard if you felt like it, which is probably why we finished second-last.” He apologised for his comments later, but we were still left wondering if the players involved are taking this tournament seriously.
Nine years later, there is no doubt that players take IPL very seriously. Many international cricketers are ready to skip international duties or even take early retirement to play franchise cricket. IPL performances, like Virat Kohli’s four hundreds in a season last year, earn respect and appreciation of the cricket community. Franchise owners are taking tough, unpopular decisions like sacking MS Dhoni as captain, in order to try and win more games.
One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the quality of IPL broadcast. It is still focussed on glitter rather than content. They have been selling it as 'cricketainment', a mashup of Bollywood and cricket. I have heard people expressing their opinion of cricketainment and generally, no one takes the middle ground. There are those who love the drum rolls, the cheerleaders and the overall carnival and there are those who absolutely loathe the dumbing down of a serious game.
Why did BCCI and the channels that broadcast IPL choose this carnival model of broadcast over the more sombre model that they use for broadcasting international cricket? Perhaps the assumption was that there is little to discuss and analyse in the T20 format and the fans won’t take the results very seriously as there are no real team loyalties involved. Both assumptions have been proven false over time as franchises are developing a loyal support base who take winning and losing seriously, and the T20 format has emerged as not just trigger-happy cricketers going hell for leather, it also involves a lot of careful planning and strategising.
Yes, the cricketainment model takes the game to a hitherto untapped market of people who earlier found cricket too dull for their taste. The broadcasters are catering to the biggest market which is comprised of casual cricket fans, but while doing so they are losing out on the loyal fans who don’t enjoy the dumbing down of the game so much. In a Twitter poll, I asked people whether they want more analysis during an IPL broadcast, and a majority of them said yes. The followers of this account are mostly hardcore cricket fans of course, so that result was on expected lines. The sample set is small but it still indicates that there are those who find the noise level in IPL broadcast a bit too high for their taste.
The scope for analysis in an IPL game is no less compared to an international game. To start with, each team has a huge bench of players. We know all the superstars but there are many unknown faces. At times we know the players, but aren’t aware of their recent form in international T20 tournaments like the Big Bash or domestic T20 tournaments like Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy. Huge team rosters also mean a large number of team combinations that can be explored.
In terms of strategy, teams are doing much more homework than before. The nature of the format ensures that every ball counts and you don’t get so much time to fall back on a plan B if your plan A fails. Teams are happy to question and sideline traditional cricketing wisdom if their data analytics team is showing that the numbers favour something outlandish.
The European football leagues, Major League Baseball and other great sporting leagues of the world are built on the unflinching support of an army of sports geeks who follow every game and obsess over every player and every statistic. Choosing 'cricketainment' over cricket comes at the opportunity cost of building a stronger bond with the people who live and breathe cricket. Alienating your most loyal support base is a risky strategy for the long-term health of the game.
If BCCI doesn’t want to lose out on the revenue it makes with its Bollywood-style production of IPL, it can still consider the option of providing an alternate stream to those who want a more serious coverage of the game. It can be broadcast over another channel, or exclusively over the web. Let the consumer choose. In this television utopia, 'cricketainment' and 'geekatainment' can coexist.