IPL at the crossroads

Chennai Super King Mahendra Singh Dhoni with his queen Sakshi after last year's IPL triumph. Dhoni, who is being buffeted by bad fortune of late, would like to see a turnaround in IPL 5.-PTI

The fifth edition will throw pointers to the IPL's current state of health and future growth prospects and more importantly, the cricket on view will define the league's lingering value for the teeming masses, writes K. C. Vijaya Kumar.

A fresh season of the Indian Premier League hurtles into view amidst a slew of press releases, television commercials and varied brands riding piggyback on cricket's shortest avatar, promising a long summer hangover. The hype machine is on overdrive and when press releases from the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), obviously crafted by public relations companies, mention that ‘sultry Priyanka Chopra' and other actresses will perform at the inaugural function in Chennai ahead of the fifth edition's launch on April 4, the word ‘cricketainment', the IPL's primary calling card, flickers across the mind.

The immediate back story is however a drastic contrast to the way the build-up evolved over IPL 2011. Then it was all about nursing a cathartic high following India's World Cup triumph. After a sumptuous meal, the league was a dessert of excess calories, which did not tickle the palate. It reflected in the sliding television viewership ratings — 3.91 per game from the 5.51 in 2010. Even the final in which Chennai Super Kings successfully defended its title, registered 6.96, a marked low against the 2010 summit clash's 12.85.

Cut to the present, fans from Meerut to Madurai will gear up for the IPL in front of their televisions, not with the heady memories of unlimited-triumphs but with the depressing thoughts about India's debilitating losses in England, Australia and the exit from the Asia Cup. If last year was all about approaching the IPL with a satiated air, this April and May is about yearning for an amnesia that will erase bitter memories from Lord's, Perth and Dhaka while still cheering the national team players, fringe cricketers and overseas stars jostling for victories in their bid to reach the final at Chennai's M. A. Chidambaram Stadium on May 27.

After its soul-sapping Ashes loss at home, Australia honestly looked in the mirror through the ‘Argus Review.' At the other extreme, India is hoping that defeats, transition pangs, a simmering dressing room and M. S. Dhoni's waning touch will be brushed under the carpet in IPL's hallucinatory ambience. The factory of feel-good spin is already at work talking about commentators, who will add ‘fresh insights', never mind the unwritten code of respected former cricketers forced to tag a corporate entity to everything that happens on the field, be it a four or a wicket.

Co-branding is also at work, be it Washington Apples for CSK or Walt Disney with Mumbai Indians but amidst this glut of bottom-lines and visibility, the plain fact is that the league is at the crossroads. The honeymoon is over and it is evident through Sahara's angry walkout and soft retreat into the BCCI's embrace, the disbandment of Kochi Tuskers Kerala, the latest churn about Rajasthan Royals being up for sale, the reduction of the league's brand worth from $ 4.13 to $ 3.67 billion, former chairman Lalit Modi's barbs on twitter essayed from the safe distance of London and the whispers about Andrew Flintoff's ‘rigged auction'.

The fifth edition will throw pointers to the IPL's current state of health and future growth prospects and more importantly, the cricket on view will define the league's lingering value for the teeming masses. Among the teams, CSK will have an edge nursed by its sense of continuity with the core players starting from the inaugural run in 2008 and the burning hunger in skipper Dhoni, who hasn't had another defining vignette after that six off Nuwan Kulasekara at the Wankhede Stadium on April 2 despite winning the IPL last year or putting it past the West Indies and England in the familiar warmth of a home environment.

Truth be told, whatever be the talk about an alleged conflict of interest over N. Srinivasan's ownership of the reigning champion and his stewardship of the BCCI, it is a fact that the team's parent body, India Cements, has cut its sporting teeth in the tough Chennai league played in a metro that is high on cricket knowledge. Meanwhile, every team has its own goals drummed in by zealous coaches and finicky owners yet to fully grasp the eternal truth of sport: victory and defeat are never in sync with a company's standing on Mumbai's stock market or reflect a star's ability to draw in the crowds at the theatres.

There are interesting sub-texts though that should add value to the league. The rise of the Indian from the backyard and not from Mumbai's Shivaji Park, is one such tale and when you look at the league's highest run-scorer or wicket-taker, Uttar Pradesh's Suresh Raina (1834) and R. P. Singh (64) pop up. These are evolving numbers and may not reveal Raina and R. P. Singh's current form, but it is a pointer to the league's base of being a level playing field in the frenzied Twenty20 world.

Though the T20 format is not up Rahul Dravid's alley, he has adapted himself to it. This year's event will also be something of a farewell tour of venues for Rajasthan Royals skipper Dravid, who announced his retirement from all forms of cricket except the IPL T20 recently.-K. PICHUMANI

The ‘we-still-have-the-fire' angst of veterans and captains like Sachin Tendulkar (Mumbai Indians), Rahul Dravid (Rajasthan Royals), Sourav Ganguly (Pune Warriors) and Adam Gilchrist (Kings XI Punjab) is another lodestone for those obsessed with their heroes of the last two decades. For Dravid, who retired recently, the league presents an opportunity to do a farewell round of the nation's leading cricketing venues though he will be pre-occupied with helping Rajasthan Royals revive its glory days of 2008 when it claimed the inaugural cup.

The age spectrum has its other extreme at 17 years through rookie Vijay Zol, who grabbed headlines with his unbeaten 451 for Maharashtra against Assam in a Cooch Behar Trophy under-19 tournament match. Zol will play for Royal Challengers Bangalore that has also in its ranks Virat Kohli, identified as India's future captain.

Kohli's Delhi-mates Virender Sehwag and Gautam Gambhir, who have been side-stepped in the emerging Indian captaincy sweepstakes, will respectively shepherd Delhi Daredevils and Kolkata Knight Riders. The duo will have its own personal goals after a lukewarm year by their exacting standards. Deccan Chargers, that hit a plateau after its title triumph at South Africa in 2009, will have a sharp Kumar Sangakkara guiding the troops. Having coped with a struggling Sri Lankan team, Sangakkara will surely know the ripples of a squad that is not playing to potential.

The ‘I-am-still-relevant' fine-print will also be on view as men like Harbhajan Singh (Mumbai Indians) and Chris Gayle (RCB) will try hard to reiterate their worth while still sulking over their absence from their national teams. Add to this complex mix, the sense of embracing your neighbour through the presence of Pakistan's Azhar Mahmood (now a British citizen) in Kings XI Punjab, and you have a varied tapestry that should prop up the IPL.

The league's commercial angle, its ability to breed city loyalties that tide past the pan-Indian appeal of men like Tendulkar, the worries about an over-lapping International calendar — West Indies vs Australia and England vs West Indies — may all be tested over the next two months but above all this will be the lingering long stare of selectors. Yes, the ICC World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka from September 18 is drawing close and what better platform than the IPL to point out the players to watch out for on the global stage?

THE TEAMS

Chennai Super Kings: M. S. Dhoni (captain), A. Srikkanth, R. Ashwin, S. Badrinath, G. Bailey, D. Bollinger, Dwayne Bravo, Faf du Plessis, B. Hilfenhaus, M. Hussey, R. Jadeja, S. Jakati, Joginder Sharma, S. Randiv, N. Kulasekara, Yo Mahesh, A. Morkel, A. Mukund, S. Raina, W. Saha, S. Styris, S. Tyagi, K. Vasudevadas, G. Vignesh and M. Vijay.

Deccan Chargers: K. Sangakkara (captain), Ashish Reddy, Akshath Reddy, Anand Rajan, Ankit Sharma, T. Atchuta Rao, Akash Bhandari, Darren Bravo, B. Chipli, D. Christian, K. Devdhar, S. Dhawan, J. P. Duminy, M. Gony, D. Harris, I. Jaggi, A. Jhunjhunwala, C. Lynn, Amit Mishra, Tanmay Mishra, Parthiv Patel, V. P. Singh, S. Quadri, D. Ravi Teja, B. Samantray, Ishant Sharma, S. Kishore, S. Sohal, T. Srivastava, D. Steyn, T. P. Sudhindra, R. Theron, C. White and Arjun Yadav.

Delhi Daredevils: V. Sehwag (captain), M. Juneja, V. Aaron, A. Agarkar, Puneet Bisht, Robin Bisht, G. Bodi, D. Bracewell, U. Chand, A. Finch, M. Jayawardene, G. Maxwell, M. Morkel, S. Nadeem, Y. Nagar, P. Naik, P. Negi, N. Ojha, Irfan Pathan, K. Pietersen, K. Raval, A. Russell, A. Salvi, R. Taylor, R. Van der Merwe, Venugopal Rao, Vikas Mishra, David Warner, Tejashwi Yadav and Umesh Yadav.

Kings XI Punjab: A. Gilchrist (captain), P. Awana, L. Ablish, A. Yadav, A. Mahmood, Bhargav Bhatt, Bipul Sharma, S. Broad, Piyush Chawla, S. Chitnis, P. Dogra, J. Faulkner, Harmeet Singh, Ryan Harris, D. Hussey, Praveen Kumar, V. Malik, Mandeep Singh, Shaun Marsh, D. Mascarenhas, D. Miller, A. Nayar, Ramesh Powar, N. Rimmington, N. Saini, R. Sathish, Shalabh Srivastava, Sunny Singh & Paul Valthaty.

Kolkata Knight Riders: G. Gambhir (captain), S. Ladda, L. Balaji, R. Bhatia, M. Bisla, Debabrata Das, Marchant de Lange, B. Haddin, I. Abdulla, C. Jani, J. Kallis, B. Lee, B. McCullum, E. Morgan, S. Narine, Yusuf Pathan, J. Pattinson, S. Samson, P. Sangwan, I. Saxena, S. Ahmed, Shakib Al Hasan, L. R. Shukla, R. T. Doeschate, M. Tiwary and J. Unadkat.

Mumbai Indians: S. Tendulkar (captain), Abu Nechim, Amitoze Singh, A. Blizzard, Y. Chahal, J. Franklin, H. Gibbs, Harbhajan Singh, D. Jacobs, M. Johnson, D. Karthik, D. Kulkarni, R. Levi, C. McKay, L. Malinga, S. Marathe, S. Nayak, Pragyan Ojha, Munaf Patel, T. Perera, R. Peterson, K. Pollard, A. Rayudu, Jaydev Shah, Rohit Sharma, Rahul Shukla, R. P. Singh, T. Suman, Pawan Suyal, Aditya Tare, A. Wankhade and Suryakumar Yadav.

Pune Warriors: S. Ganguly (captain), E. Dwivedi, A. Dinda, C. Ferguson, R. Gomez, Harpreet Singh, J. Hopes, D. Jadhav, Kamran Khan, Murali Kartik, H. Khadiwale, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, Nathan McCullum, Anustup Majumdar, M. Manhas, Angelo Mathews, Mohnish Mishra, A. Murtaza, A. Nehra, M. Pandey, W. Parnell, Sachin Rana, J. Ryder, M. Samuels, Rahul Sharma, Graeme Smith, Steven Smith, Alfonso Thomas, K. Upadhyay, R. Uthappa, S. Wagh, L. Wright and Mitchell Marsh.

Rajasthan Royals: R. Dravid (captain), S. Binny, J. Botha, D. Chahar, D. Chandimal, A. Chavan, Aakash Chopra, P. Collingwood, K. Cooper, A. Dole, S. Fallah, F. Fazal, S. Goswami, B. Hodge, B. Hogg, A. Menaria, S. Narwal, Pankaj Singh, A. Paunkar, A. Rahane, A. Raut, Owais Shah, Pinal Shah, Amit Singh, S. Sreesanth, S. Tait, S. Trivedi, S. Watson & D. Yagnir.

Royal Challengers Bangalore: D. Vettori (captain), M. Agarwal, K. P. Appanna, S. Arvind, Arun Karthik, R. Bhatkal, A.B. de Villiers, T. Dilshan, C. M. Gautam, C. Gayle, M. Kaif, A. Kazi, Zaheer Khan, V. Kohli, C. Langeveldt, A. McDonald, A. Mithun, M. Muralitharan, Karun Nair, D. Nannes, R. Ninan, Harshal Patel, Asad Pathan, L. Pomersbach, C. Pujara, R. Rossouw, J. S. Mohammad, Saurabh Tiwary, Vinay Kumar and Vijay Zol.