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Suresh Menon
Suresh Menon
Suresh Menon is Editor of the Wisden India Almanack and author, most recently, of Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer
The Indian Premier League: Sport or showbiz?
The glitzy cricket tournament has faced scandals including fraud and fixing, and has left fans divided over its future.
Last Modified: 27 May 2012 19:42

Chennai, India - The message from its fifth incarnation is that cricket's Indian Premier League is, for the moment, too big to fail. And Indians will have to accept it like they accept the reported corruption, ill-treatment of women and the need to enroll an unborn child to get ahead in the race for school admissions. We raise our voices occasionally, but in the end we accept.

The fan who looks beyond runs and wickets remains disappointed, because two key elements of the first four IPL years remain intact: the lack of transparency and the lack of accountability. A basic flaw has been nurtured over five tournaments now - the clash of interests. The president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India owns IPL team Chennai Super Kings, and the chief national selector is the team's brand ambassador. Neither sees this as particularly worrying, and that is particularly worrying.

The first commissioner, Lalit Modi, may be gone, but the system he put in place - which favoured the board, select franchises and a few players - continues, which means there will be no serious boat-rocking. A sting operation by a television channel recently exposed illegal payments made to young Indian players who otherwise face a salary cap. But demand outstrips supply. Three players were suspended, but there has been no action reported against the teams that offered the temptation.

That unofficial money is available is one of the worst-kept secrets of the IPL. Royal Challengers Bangalore managed to retain Chris Gayle, the best batsman of the tournament, reportedly by the simple expedient of making him a brand ambassador of one of the owner's companies. Whatever he earns there falls outside the IPL salary cap. How much Mumbai pays Sachin Tendulkar would be interesting to know. But such things have a habit of teetering within the letter of the rules - even if they violate their spirit.

Indian Premier League

- Founded in 2008, amid a franchise auction which raised more than $720m. The 'last ball thriller' of a final helped popularise the new tournament

- Due to security fears during India's general election, the 2009 contest was relocated to South Africa

- Shashi Tharoor resigned as India's foreign minister over allegations he had misused his office to get shares in the IPL Kochi franchise 

- Lalit Modi, one of the 'architects' of the IPL, was sacked in 2010 over charges of impropriety and match-fixing

- The first IPL trophy, encrusted in diamonds, and bearing team names in rubies was reportedly made by a team of 14 craftsmen

- The contest's winning team earns prize money of R100m ($1.8m)

- Sony and World Sport Group paid $1.74bn to secure TV rights over ten years

- Indian property developer DLF paid $50m to be title sponsor of the tournament in a five-year deal

Quite the remarkable thing about the IPL is that those who came to scoff have remained scoffers, and those who thought (or were paid to think) that it was the greatest thing in cricket since sandwiches at tea-time, have remained believers. There is no bridge across these two cultures.

Four years ago, the BCCI oversold the IPL, granting it the kind of virtues that might have won it a Nobel Prize had it been a living, breathing soul. It will bring nations together, the board said, and reduce poor player behaviour - since you cannot share dressing rooms in Chennai and Delhi and then shout and scream at one another in Sydney or Cape Town.

The IPL will change the way we support our cities and interact with our heroes, went another argument.

The game is over in under four hours, and we give the punters a choice: the implication being that, apart from bringing nations together, the matches would also bring families together.

None of these wonderful things came to pass; only the terminally naive believed they would, anyway. Money can't buy love.

Meanwhile, the fan base of the game itself might shrink. Gautam Gambhir plays for Delhi, then Kolkata, and so, when he plays for India, it feels like he is merely turning out for another franchise. When even top players pull out of test series in order to be fit for the IPL, they kill something in the fan. Indifference destroys interest - whether in love or in cricket.

Although marketed as "cricketainment", the IPL is "cricketbusiness". In 2010, Sahara India forked out 370 million dollars for Pune Warriors, a team that didn't exist until it was bought at an auction. And that is the essential contradiction of the IPL, this lack of 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.

The IPL was valued at $4.13 billion in 2010. 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 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 tournament somehow survived its contradictions in the first four years. Court cases, the resignation of a union minister amid allegations of favour-mongering, the sacking of Modi, the scandal of the supine governing council and embedded television commentators being 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. It continued to do so this year - is that part of the marketing strategy?

The small scandals included the tantrums of Bollyood stars Shah Rukh Khan (owner of 2012 league winners, the Kolkata Knight Riders, and now banned from Mumbai's Wankhede Stadium) and Preity Zinta (who seemed to think that running on to the field to remonstrate with an umpire is all part of the fun). The molestation case involving the Australian Luke Pomersbach was dropped following an out of court settlement. The players who were picked up by the authorities at a rave party involving cocaine were clearly not the IPL's direct responsibility, but such form went with the grain of the so-called entertainment.

The excess payments scandal and the possibility of spot-fixing were inevitable, given the IPL's easy cronyism and habit of making up rules on the fly. It is not the money alone that is corrupting.

At the end of five tournaments, now is the ideal time for taking stock. How has the IPL benefited Indian cricket? Or indeed, cricket in general. Have the negatives overwhelmed the positives?

Most importantly of all, will the BCCI have the courage to undertake an honest survey among the stakeholders of the game in India? Introspect or perish.

Suresh Menon is editor of Wisden India Almanack and author, most recently, of Bishan: Portrait of a Cricketer 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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