Focus on domestic talent

With the second edition of TNPL all set to get underway, the focus will once again shift to domestic talent — a valuable currency — at a time when leagues such as these have made the IPL look inward to unearth new players.

"It is the TNCA and its ability to organise a mega show that has opened the doors towards making the league the most successful one after the IPL," says V. B. Chandrasekhar.   -  V. V. Subrahmanyam

The year was 2008. India had just won the inaugural Twenty20 World Cup, and the cricket madness in the country was reaching its crescendo. Riding the wave of this hitherto unknown popularity, was an up and coming Twenty20 league, which promised to change the way cricket was played. It was quicker, louder and flashier — a different ball game — a milieu of cricket and entertainment. The tourney, christened as the 'Indian Premiere League', was about to turn Indian cricket around.

Nine years, thousands of expansive hits and expensive deals later, Indian cricket's most vaunted cash cow has spawned two sought-after domestic Twenty20 tournaments — Tamil Nadu Premier League (TNPL) and Karnataka Premier League (KPL) — furthering the essence of a format which seems to have become the elixir of a sport so fervently enamoured with tradition.

With the second edition of TNPL all set to get underway, the focus will once again shift to domestic talent — a valuable currency — at a time when leagues such as these have made the IPL look inward to unearth new players.

"The strength of the league will always rest on the quality and progress made by local talent. Players from other States featuring in TNPL will eventually happen. The BCCI can control the list of players who could use the league to gain experience, but they should feel comfortable — cricket in this country is providing the players a chance to earn a livelihood," V. B. Chandrasekhar, owner of Thiruvallur Veerans, told Sportstar.

While the contagious bedlam of slam-bang cricket has catapulted many unknown faces into the limelight, the number of States with a Twenty20 league of their own are far and few between. Chandrasekhar believes, it is the, "TNCA and its ability to organise a mega show that has opened the doors towards making the league most successful after the IPL. The franchise as a lot have enormous passion to contribute towards cricket and cricketers flourishing in Tamil Nadu."

Hemang Badani, former India cricketer and coach of Chepauk Super Gillies, echoed Chandrasekhar's sentiments while adding, "The TNCA has come out with a great programme where they are holding matches at smaller venues. They have managed to get Star Sports on board, a lot of good commentators — Matthew Hayden, Dean Jones, Murali Karthik and Brett Lee — were part of the league. That brings a lot of flavour."

But the razzmatazz and slick packaging are not the only things that stand out. According to Badani, the pedigree of cricket too has been top-notch. "To my surprise, it was of a very high quality. At the end of the day, it is the first division players who've been split into different teams, but the game we saw was much better compared to what you see in the first division league, " he said.

A sturdy middle-order batsman and a sleek fielder during his playing days, Badani has found his calling in "being more of a friend and guide to a younger player. The good ones [coaches] have always been the ones who have been more like a friend rather than trying to impress their holier-than-thou approach."

"From a coach's point of view, it has been a good experience for me," says fromer India cricketer Hemang Badani.   -  V. Ganesan

 

"From a coach's point of view, it has been a good experience for me wherein I get to interact with a lot of young talent and also get a chance to try and give back to the sport, " he added.

The success of any team depends on its performance on the field, and how it is managed off it. And with most cricketers at this level knowing the game reasonably well; the onus is on the coach-owner duo to ensure the franchise functions without any hiccups.

"I am blessed to have the right people behind me. The team owner Sivanthi Adityan (grandson of the late Sivanthi Adithyan) tells me before the match: 'Make sure I get the playing XI before anyone else' but apart from that, you run the show. I will not interfere with anything'", Badani said.

"There are no questions asked about why a particular guy played, why that guy bowled or why a batsman didn't bat higher up. I enjoy absolute freedom compared to a couple of other franchises, with whom I had a chat before signing up with Chepauk Super Gillies. They wanted an end of the match report, everything needed to be on paper — it doesn't work that way," he added.

In a model premised on producing the best results possible, there will be debates and deliberations about the right step forward. However, a fruitful conversation, its prickly nature notwithstanding, is often the hallmark of a professional set-up.

As a former India batsman, who also donned the hat of a national selector between 2004-06, that was the one aspect that caught Chandrasekhar's attention, when TNPL was conceived. "To run a team professionally as a former cricketer. This is perhaps the ultimate challenge. Carving out a Brand VB Veerans and marketing it are so intensely connected to the quality of cricket played by us," he said.

Leagues like the IPL have revived ODI careers and even given livelihood to many a fringe players. For instance, Praveen Tambe, the 45-year-old leg-spinner from Mumbai, had not played a single match for any first-class side when he was lapped up by Rajasthan Royals in 2013.

From being the the liaison manager at the DY Patil Sports Academy ground to finishing on top of the wickets table in the 2013 edition of the now defunct Champions League Twenty20, the format has proved to be a blessing in disguise.

And Badani said as much. "The leagues have made the careers of a lot of players who've not turned up for India. Back in the day, if you were one of the top 20 players, you made reasonable amount of money, but now you've at least 100 players who play the IPL and enjoy a decent livelihood. People know a Rahul Tripathi, a Praveen Tambe — if not for the IPL who would know them."

But it isn't just the also-rans who're making the most of these opportunities. Ask Sai Kishore, the lanky left-arm spinner from Chennai, and he will tell you how the TNPL has helped him "handle the pressure a lot better."

TNPL has helped him "handle the pressure a lot better," says Sai Kishore.   -  M. Vedhan

 

After a maiden call-up to the Tamil Nadu team for the Vijay Hazare one-day tournament in Cuttack, Kishore, who is with the Chepauk Super Gillies, credited the local Twenty20 league for his success. "It is a very good platform for youngsters like us. Before I played in the TNPL, I couldn't preempt what a batsman was going to do. I used to rely on the wickets to get a batsman out," he said.

"Now, I've learnt how to use the conditions to my advantage. Beating a batsman in the air, and executing it under pressure is something that has been really helpful for me."

Kishore, who was the fourth highest wicket-taker in TNPL season one, rates his, "4-17-2 in the semifinal against Lyca Kovai Kings" as a memorable spell. "That game was really important for us because we were defending a modest total. I was really satisfied after that performance."

The tall bowler even went for the Mumbai Indians' (MI) try-outs before the start of IPL 9, but couldn't make the cut. But as he puts it, "I was disappointed, yes, but I wasn't desperate to get into the IPL."

For Kishore and many like him, the TNPL is now a motivation to spur a transformation which will eventually catalyse their entry into the national spotlight — a league where Indian domestic talent is being taken seriously — a welcome change in a madcap format.

Karnataka bats for Twenty20

Just across the border though, another domestic Twenty20 competition has already made its presence felt by tapping into the goodwill of the format. Launched a little more than a year after the IPL, the Karnataka Premiere League (KPL) has already lent stars like K.C. Cariappa, Shivil Kaushik, K. Gowtham and J. Suchith to its elder cousin — IPL.

The presence of a polished first-class set-up has made it easier for the authorities to cherrypick talent from the nook and corner of the State. Add to that live television coverage, high-profile sponsors and superlative prowess with bat and ball, and you've a sure shot to success.

Suchith, 23, who took 10 wickets in 13 matches for MI in 2015, said, "The T20 format is very eye-catching. And once you add glamour to it, ensure it is telecast live, then it adds to the popularity."

Reminiscing the time he was picked by MI, Suchith, who represents Mysuru Warriors in Karnataka's Twenty20 league, said, "KPL is one of the reasons for me getting noticed in the first place. The Champions League Twenty20 was going on, and during one of the MI sessions, Anil sir [Kumble] asked me to come and bowl in the nets."

"KPL is one of the reasons for me getting noticed in the first place," says J. Suchith.   -  K. Murali Kumar

 

"I made my list A debut the same year in the Vijay Hazare Trophy final against Punjab, where I bowled decently enough (8-22-1) (Motera Stadium, Ahmedabad) Nov 25, 2014)."

"Anil sir and Harbhajan Singh were quite impressed with the way I bowled. When such stalwarts back your talent, it adds a lot of confidence to your game."

Lauding the State association for its efforts, he added, "The KSCA makes it look really good and it is an opportunity for the IPL scouts to look into any player — established or otherwise. That makes the league a really good stage for different kinds of talent."

His team-mate in the Mysuru Warriors' dressing room and now at MI, K Gowtham, the off-spinner, who was Karnataka's highest wicket-taker in 2016-17, agrees, "The professionalism of the franchises is one reason why the KPL has done so well. The grandiose of the league and the mileage a player gets out of it, is very appealing. It's like a mini IPL; a very well packaged product, which is broadcast live on Sony Six. That adds to the popularity."

For a bowler who began his career imitating Harbhajan Singh's bowling action, a MI call-up meant an opportunity to watch his idol play up close and personal. Sharing his experience, Gowtham said, "It was my first IPL and being part of a winning team is always a great feeling. Rubbing shoulders with the likes of Mahela [Jayawardene], Sachin and Harbhajan Singh was special."

But to K.C. Cariappa, a Bijapur Bulls spinner, who shot to prominence when KKR bought him for a whopping Rs.  2.4 crore, "You have international players like Manish Pandey and Robin Uthappa playing the league [KPL]. So the dressing room environment remains more or less the same, you learn so many things from the senior members of the team."

He added, "There are many players who've a got chance to play in the KPL, without breaking into the Ranji Trophy team. If they do well here , they could get noticed elsewhere."

Despite the leagues running as clockwork as they are, everything is not hunky dory. As an exercise, such tournaments are as much about displaying the goose as it is about taking care of the goose that lays the golden egg.

Joseph Hoover, CEO KPL's Belagavi Panthers, has been a part of KPL since its inception but reckons his team has "not managed to generate enough revenue. Most franchises are bleeding money but they have continued to invest in the tournament, therefore hats off to them."

"They are spending money for development of talent," he added.

Elaborating on the situation, Hoover said, "If the KSCA could consider saying 'these guys have been with us for a long time, so we also need to take care of their interests', that will go a long way in promoting the league."

"Each year, we spend money to the tune of Rs. 1.4 crore but only about Rs. 30-40 lakh comes back to us. We did devise plans, chalk out strategies, to ameliorate the situation but the market is very finicky."

"The State association should work towards boosting the brand visibility. There should be more publicity for the league," he said.

The Twenty20 sojourn

Understanding the financial levers of these tournaments may continue to remain a mystery, but as far as cricket goes, the next Twenty20 World Cup is still three years away. And India mulling a specialist team to reclaim the title cannot be ruled out, yet. It is for this reason that while leagues like the KPL and TNPL may appear to cause a burnout for the players, fans and the media, the organisation of India's cricket calendar must take into consideration their contribution and approach with caution. For now, the players and ergo, Indian cricket, is benefiting from a surfeit of Twenty20 cricket.

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