Rise of a behemoth
Mike Jakeman on a book that chronicles the 10-year rise of the Indian Premier League, co-authored by a franchise co-owner and this magazine’s editor.
In the space of 10 years the Indian Premier League has become the biggest show in town. It pays the biggest wages, earns the largest TV rights and has forced the rest of the calendar to fit around it. The IPL brings together the world’s best players, coaches and analysts to get together and experiment, creating the most rapid leap forward in the game’s skills and appeal in a generation. But how did it get here?
In A New Innings, Manoj Badale, partowner of one of IPL’s founding teams, and journalist Simon Hughes (of this parish), attempt to explain this success and propose what it means for the future of cricket. They believe that the IPL liberated the game from the staid stewardship of Lord’s, where it was “imprisoned by its own history”. Certainly the IPL provided the setting for Twenty20 to grow up. As Hughes reminds us, the inaugural T20 international between Australia and New Zealand in 2004/05 saw players don comedy moustaches and hairstyles and Glenn McGrath bowl a Trevor Chappell-style underarm delivery. It was sub-testimonial stuff.
The IPL changed all that. A New Innings shows us how any big decisions Lalit Modi, a fan of the more egalitarian approach of American sports, got right and how quickly.
When Andrew Symonds was sold for US$1.35m and almost all the fee was pocketed by Lalit Modi, he burst into tears
Within months Modi won the loyalty of the Indian board, signed up a bunch of the world’s best players, sold eight nonexistent franchises to private investors for US$750m and persuaded Sony to stump up US$1bn to broadcast it. The salary cap ensures that the size of the owners’ pockets does not determine who wins the competition. The owners were the right mix of business prowess (Reliance’s Mukesh Ambani) and celebrity stardust (Bollywood actress Preity Zinta). The auction system promoted transparency. The scheduling was predictable, with matches at 8pm every evening, to make it “beautifully packaged family entertainment”.
These foundations have remained the same through 12 seasons, promoting competitive balance and broadening cricket’s appeal. Only one of the 10 regular sides has yet to make the final and in 2019 30 per cent of matches were decided in the final over. By 2016 it was estimated that 40 per cent of the TV audience was female.Kings XI Punjab’s main sponsor is now a cosmetics brand.
Hughes and Badale’s account of the early years of the IPL is a fun reminiscence of a time when the money was flowing and the rules were being made up on the fly. Brian Lara turned down Modi’s offer of US$500,000 to take part; he wanted US$1m. Andrew Symonds opted to receive a fixed fee of US$100,000, hedging his bets against earning a lower fee in the auction. When he was sold for US$1.35m and almost all of the fee was pocketed by Modi, he burst into tears. The Royals quickly found their team identity as scrappy underdogs, but Badale admits he took this too far when his entertainment budget for their first home game stretched only to a single firework, which “took off in the middle of the first over just behind the bowler’s arm”.
As fulsome as the authors are in their praise for the IPL, the league has not solved all of cricket’s fundamental problems; indeed, some of them have
worsened. Badale and Hughes correctly describe international players as “massively overstretched” and believe that burnout is inevitable. They argue that the calendar should be streamlined. They would like to see windows for franchise T20 leagues in Asia in April-May, the UK and the West Indies in July-September and in Australasia and South Africa over Christmas. Test cricket, they argue, should fit in the gaps.
There is much to like about Badale and Hughes’ vision for the future. They see T20 (or even T10) as the format to spread the game across the world, as it requires much less infrastructure than a first-class set-up. More cricketers hailing from more countries is an unambiguously good thing.
But they also concede that Test cricket will be a casualty, consigned to sepia-tinted nostalgia games contested between old rivals only when the schedule permits.
Cricket is at another of its perpetual crossroads. A New Innings offers one vision for its future: an outlook funded by private investment and promoted through digital engagement to a more diverse fanbase that watches ever-shorter matches. To some, this is what cricket already looks like, and these are necessary steps to make the game more modern and resilient. To those of a more traditional bent, for whom fiveday cricket remains the pinnacle, much of the book will be heresy.