The IPL in its brief yet chequered history has claimed many firsts. One of them is the strategic time-out. This break which the cynic claimed was merely to sell advertising space had logic in its conceptualisation. Teams could huddle, strategise, motivate themselves and come back with renewed vigour. Leading credence to this theory was the fact that batting teams generally lost wickets in the first over after the break. Be that as it may be, the time has come for the governing body of IPL to step back strategically and consider the last few weeks and the learnings thereon to prepare for the future.
For, in a nutshell, this IPL has been like no other. Whether it has been the number of last-ball finishes, tweets by owners about the character of women, celebrities exchanging fisticuffs with security guards, players being suspended for spot fixing, team owners rushing out to remonstrate about umpiring decisions, or a number of prospective teams suddenly losing their way to enable the hitherto lacklustre Chennai Super Kings to make it to the play-off stages, decline in TRPs or a drastic reduction in the IPL's brand's value, you name it – every possible controversy has happened making one accept reluctantly that this has been a season like no other and for the sake of the IPL, one hopes that seasons like this don't happen again.
A truly global brand
Make no mistake. The way it was conceived (and the hype that was carefully planned around it), the IPL captured the imagination of every cricket lover. It provided a tremendous battleground for hitherto unrecognised Indian talent to rub shoulders with the Steyns and the Warners of the world. Every international cricketer worth his name tried desperately to get into one team or the other and others such as Michael Clarke and Mitchell Johnson who spurned initial offers made a beeline for it later. Kevin Pietersen, one of the most charismatic (and if one may add, controversial) players of the modern era has gone on record to say that no tournament can match the IPL for appeal.
The games got millions of eyeballs the world over, crowds thronged the stadia and the after-match parties were really the places to be. The cricket too was often of a high order even if it was advisable for the spectators to wear helmets in the stands when the likes of Chris Gayle were at the crease. But things have gone steadily wrong, whether it was teams being taken to court or their licences being cancelled, the original founder going into hiding for alleged misdemeanours or the ugly spectre of match fixing. The advertisers took over the game, whether it was the DLF Maximum or the Karbonn Kamaal Catch expressions that made one wince.
It was too much of a bad thing and inevitably the sponsors abused the system in their anxiety to peddle their wares. thanks to the ever-eager-to-please Danny Morrisons of the world, the IPL started rivalling the proverbial town criers. While the purists watched it reluctantly for the cricket, the unending sequence of matches (many of them extending past 11.30 p.m.) some poor fare and one controversy after the other have all taken the sheen off the brand which has the capability of being the envy of every other country and every other sports administrator in the world.
Yes, it would not be an understatement to say that the IPL is at the crossroads and only some serious soul-searching and unemotional cleaning up can ensure its survival before even thinking of reaching its former pre-eminence.
The time to act is now
World Cricket administrators in general and the BCCI in particular have been reluctant to take tough decisions, and if ever there was a need for tough decisions it must certainly be now. The BCCI has to take a clear stand on conflict of interest. How can the president of the BCCI be a team owner and the chairman of the selectors a brand ambassador for an individual team? And you have experts who are cheerfully raking in the moolah with nary a word of criticism even when they know things are blatantly wrong. Of course, they are too busy laughing all the way to the bank.
Let's also remember that T20 by its very nature lends itself admirably to spot and match fixing. (The larger issue of legalising betting has not been addressed despite clamours for it). The crackdown on match fixers has to be extremely quick and the punishment really harsh if the administrators are to be taken seriously.
Advertisers and advertising needs to be regulated in the larger interests of the game. It is a bit like the media selling its soul to advertisers, probably a reflection of the times that we live in, but dangerous, nevertheless. Player discipline seems to be at an all-time low, aided and abetted by the sponsors who are uniting the players in spirit. More worrying could be the fact that a whole breed of young Indian players such as K. P. Appanna could lose their way and that could be a serious damage to Indian cricket.
Now or never
The IPL continues to be a fantastic concept and enormous progress has been made. But it runs the real risk of being hijacked and thrown into the wilderness if quick, remedial action is not taken to handle some of the current problems which could soon become major crises. Brands cannot reel from one crisis to another. The organisers owe it to us, the ultimate consumers, to get their house in order. The million-dollar question, though, is, “will they”?
(Ramanujam Sridhar is the CEO of brand-comm and a Director of Custommerce. http://www.ramanujamsridhar.blogspot.com)