The violent riots that singed the Bengaluru-Mandya-Mysore belt this past week added a frightening new dimension to the many challenges already dogging the Karnataka Premier League (KPL). However, remarkable improvisation by the Karnataka State Cricket Association (KSCA) has not only salvaged the fifth edition of KPL, but also highlighted a nimble mindset that has helped it stay consistently ahead of the curve.
The Cauvery riots were numbing for the extent of violence they unleashed on an unsuspecting public. Rioters who ran amuck, especially on the Bengaluru-Mysore highway, on the morning of the KPL Trophy launch, were a law unto themselves. They brought the city to a standstill. But a determined KSCA reacted swiftly and ring fenced its prized property. It called off the Monday evening launch in Bengaluru, turned the event around and rescheduled it such that it will start in peaceful Hubbali on 17 September, instead of the originally planned Mysuru.
"Tons of equipment had to be dismantled and moved from Mysuru to Hubbali in the dead of the night to bypass trouble and make this event a reality," said well-known commentator Charu Sharma. "Hats off to the many silent heroes who braved the odds to shift equipment in record time."
But we are getting ahead of the story – not of the riots, but a format which has taken the country by storm ever since India won the inaugural T20 World Cup in 2007. The subsequent launch of the stupendously successful IPL T20 tournament further inspired an extraordinary craze for cricket, in particular the new instant format of the game.
The slickly- packaged T20 format brought with it a new segment of cricket followers who embraced the razzmatazz associated with it. The fact that immensely popular Bollywood superstars Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta, Juhi Chawla and others were associated with it also helped.
KSCA, quick to sense an opportunity to tap into the goodwill created by T20 cricket and take the game to the far corners of the state, launched its own version of the format, the KPL in early 2009, a little more than a year after the IPL's launch.
Last month, the Tamil Nadu Cricket Association (TNCA), taking a leaf out of KSCA's book, started the Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL), currently being held in three cities: Tirunelveli, Dindigul and Chennai.
Maharashtra, Goa and Madhya Pradesh also attempted to float their own T20 leagues, but did not meet with similar success.
A major reason for the KPL's success has been the shrewd timing of the event. Scheduled at the fag end of the Southwest monsoon, when rains are on the wane. Slushy ground conditions in most parts of India, especially the West, means very little cricket is played this time of the year.
The first edition, which was staged in the rain-shadowed city of Bangalore, was thus keenly watched, not only by cricket aficionados of Karnataka but also by others who were curious about the procedure KSCA would adopt and the reception it would receive.
Luckily, there already existed a zonal format of cricket development in the state and it thus became easy to identify the tier-two cities in each zone which would act as a driver. A lot of drumming up of the event, along with live television coverage, and high-profile sponsors, added to the lustre. In between, KSCA also pulled off an ace by fielding a Rockstars team and a high-intensity, catchy anthem by Grammy Award winner Ricky Khej.
The Rockstars, as extremely popular cine star Kichcha Sudeep's team is named, were already engaged in the Celebrity Cricket League. The team consisted of a number of young, movie-industry related cricketers who had played a good standard of cricket in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra, to start with.
They were strengthened with the services of former Test cricketers David Johnson, Sunil Joshi and Venkatesh Prasad. However, this year, the Rockstars were allowed to bid for players in the auction and they have picked six good young players who will substantially fortify the team.
Skipper Sudeep, a huge star in Kannada, Tamil and Telugu movies, was a regular cricketer in his younger days. He had played league cricket with the big stars of Karnataka cricket and the impact of his presence has to be seen to be believed. No cricketer attracts as much attention, and although the participation of the Rockstars has irked some cricket aficionados, there is no denying their immense popularity.
For KSCA though, the manner in which the various teams have systematically gone about scouting for talent in the remote districts of the state has been a major bonus. The association is building massive infrastructure across the state in Hubbali, Mysuru, Shivamogga, Belgaum and others, and these are magnets for youngsters in the hinterland. They utilise the functional facilities and thus a lot of fresh talent has emerged.
No wonder that Karnataka now contributes the highest number of cricketers to the IPL: KL Rahul, Stuart Binny, Manish Pandey, Robin Uthappa, Karun Nair, Mayank Agarwal, Vinay Kumar, HS Sharath, Abhimanyu Mithun, Sreenath Arvind, Shreyas Gopal, CM Gautham, Kishore Kamath, Shivl Kaushik, Shishir Bhavane, Ronit More, Praveen Dubey, J Suchith, Bharath Chipli and KC Cariappa are all products of Karnataka.
KSCA secretary Brijesh Patel, a former Test and ODI cricketer himself, believed that huge crowds, high expectations of franchise owners and appearing on live television have added to the pressure on the youngsters and this prepared the talented ones for the sterner tests of IPL and beyond.
He said that permitting each of the teams – Mysore, Belgavi, Bellari, Shivamogga, Mangalore, Bijapur, Hubbali and Rockstars – to sign up two players apiece from the National Cricket Academy (NCA) would boost the quality of the event and also benefit the players and Indian cricket.
A pig-headed BCCI would have none of it. Luckily, IPL talent scouts are smarter and hence each year they flock to KPL matches and grab fresh talent. That’s vindiction in itself.