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By Suresh Menon
In a year when the national team has performed badly in England and Australia, when the Indian team seems to have lost something in transition, the scandal-hit IPL will have to woo sponsors and the public with greater sensitivity. This, its fifth year, will be crucial, perhaps even game-changing.
In 2008, the Abu Dhabi United Group bought Manchester City for 330 million dollars, a historic team in English Premier League soccer which is over a century old.
In 2010, Sahara India forked out 370 million dollars for Pune Warriors, a cricket team that didn’t exist till it was bought at an auction in a league that was just three years old.
And that is the essential contradiction of the Indian Premier League (IPL), this lack of a context. It is the act of paying money which validates everything – from the worth of a player to the cost of a team to the value of the league.
How do we know that Ravindra Jadeja is worth two million dollars? Because Chennai Super Kings bought him for that amount at this year’s auction.
What about the IPL itself? It was valued at 4.13 billion in 2010 by a branding consultancy (which presumably included its fees in the valuation). A year later, it was 3.67 billion. Is that true? We will know only if someone pays that amount to buy it out lock, stock and Chris Gayle’s bat. How do they arrive at these figures? Why not 8.98 billion, or 650 trillion? They are equally meaningless, after all. The Australian writer Gideon Haigh calls it “asset valuation plucked from thin air.”
Yet the IPL somehow survived its contradictions in the first four years. Court cases, the resignation of a Union Minister amidst allegations of favour-mongering, the sacking of the Commissioner Lalit Modi, who reputedly had four live cameras trained on him at every match, the scandal of the supine governing council and embedded television commentators, brought under one roof what the novelist Amitav Ghosh has called India’s national obsession, ‘Cripoliwood’ - cricket, politics and Bollywood.
Scandals worked well for the IPL, keeping it in the public eye.
On February 4 this year, the day of the IPL auction (other sports have action replays, the IPL has auction replays), South African Richard Levi was a relative unknown, and went unsold. Then he made 117 in 51 balls with 13 sixes and a strike rate of 230 against New Zealand and suddenly became hot property. Mumbai Indians bought the 24-year-old.
Only three teams have won the title, and others with massive investments have changed personnel, administration or, as in the case of Kolkata Knight Riders, their logo, in a bid to tilt the balance. KKR felt that the black in their original logo was a harbinger of bad luck and have done away with that colour.
IPL 5 assumes significance because the world T20 championship is scheduled for September in Sri Lanka. India won the title in 2007 and changed the face of cricket. The IPL was established the following year.
The tournament has pushed the fringe performers, the obscure names onto centre stage. More significantly, it has given them financial security.
We only need to remind ourselves that Ravindra Jadeja’s father was a nightwatchman, and it will be difficult to begrudge him his two-million dollar stepladder out of hunger and deprivation. Fast bowler Umesh Yadav’s father is a coal miner, and Yadav himself nursed an ambition to be a policeman, no more. The millions have made a difference to Mumbai left arm spinner Iqbal Abdullah, the son of a grocer, and scores of lower, middle class boys who now talk of buying yachts and cars having first settled their families in posh houses and in many cases convinced their parents to retire from work.
Whether the IPL is entertainment or sport may be disputed, there might be confusion over the roles of those who run it, some of the figures bandied about might lack credibility, but of one thing there is no doubt. It has changed the lives of players, scooped some of them up from near-poverty and deposited them close to the top of the food chain.