Rohit Sharma in the first Twenty20 international between India and West Indies in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Aug 27
Rohit Sharma in the first Twenty20 international
between India and West Indies in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on Aug 27

India plays its 500th ‘Test’ match in the northern Indian city of Kanpur starting Sept. 22, but this special five-day fixture with the visiting New Zealand team is, in non-sentimental reality, a sideshow to revolutionary prospects for the $4.5 billion Indian Premier League (IPL), the world’s fastest growing sports entity.

The IPL may soon have a new broadcaster, with the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) announcing on Sunday afternoon a 13-page invitation to tender (ITT) that will be available from Sept. 19. IPL media rights for television for ten years (2018-2027), and digital and worldwide rights (2018-2022) could fetch over $5 billion. BCCI president Anurag Thakur said he expected the bid to be “historic.”

Since its birth in 2008, no six-week annual tournament in history has made a greater impact on its sport as the Indian Premier League has done in cricket.

As perspective to cricket’s power center in India, the International Cricket Council (ICC) on April 24, 2016, reported turnover of $453.6 million for year ending Dec. 31, 2015 – with over 70% of that income from India, and that’s less than IPL’s yearly turnover.

Australia received $4 million for winning the ICC World Cup in 2015; over ten cricketers each earn more than $4 million in one IPL season – and yet this bit of money merely reflects the IPL success and significance.

Through IPL, talented young cricketers scouted by franchisees have a global platform, get a unique master class of cricket education playing with and against modern day greats, and a rewarding paycheck that puts away financial worries for years, if not the lifetime. It’s my favorite theory that anyone feeling happy at seeing others happy and successful will feel happy about the IPL and Twenty20 cricket.

To fulfill happier potentials in the next decade, IPL needs a visionary. American Appraisal, part of the Chicago-origin Duff & Phelps, estimated IPL brand value as $4.5 billion in 2015. The BCCI needs generously forgiving, forgetting of past conflicts, and needs the return of the maligned, misunderstood and hopefully wiser, humbler Lalit Modi, the maverick genius who founded the IPL and who can take this special league to the next level.

IPL’s evolving destiny is connecting other significant dots. Thakur and other Indian cricket chieftains were in Washington DC this week to sell cricket to the USA.

The IPL has already nudged into another big frontier, China, with the Chinese phone company Vivo being current IPL title sponsor. In fitting irony, the Vivo IPL season 9 hosted Apple CEO Tim Cook who was in the packed Green Park Stadium, Kanpur, watching the Kolkata Knight Riders vs Gujarat Lions game on May 19, 2016.

Apple CEO Tim Cook during an IPL match at Green Park, Kanpur, this May - the same venue as India's 500th Test match starting Sept 22
Apple CEO Tim Cook during an IPL match at Green Park, Kanpur, this May – the same venue as India’s 500th Test match starting Sept 22

Three months later, the same Green Park ground in Kanpur hosting India’s 500th ‘Test’ match starting Thursday morning of September 22, is unlikely to see a fraction of the electric IPL atmosphere the Apple CEO experienced. Since paying spectators have the small matter of daytime jobs, schoolchildren allowed to bunk classes have been invited to fill the ground.

Empty grounds are not part of the IPL featuring the world’s most successful, talented cricketers in the hugely popular Twenty20 format, the four-hour version that graduated from cricket’s earlier and continuing savior: one-day international matches.

A new IPL broadcaster could emerge from the tender bids to be submitted on October 25 – one providing a more cricket-focused coverage, the makeover needed to wipe away the silly glitz infecting the IPL and feeding its negative perceptions.

Perception problems such as the IPL mistaken as being ritzy, sometimes sleazy, are primarily due to telecasting visuals of semi-clothed prancing ‘cheerleaders’, all a-winking and making coquettish faces at Sony TV cameramen. Since 2008, IPL broadcaster Sony TV had foolishly diluted focus on cricket, and instead mixed in cheap ‘glamour’ and clownish commentators to cater to its core movie-watching audience with a marginal interest in cricket.

IPL bashers worldwide may not be aware that the IPL as seen on TV and Internet-connected devices, is far different from ground reality at stadiums across India: here, as I noticed when I first watched an IPL match outside the air-conditioned media box, spectators at the stadium barely notice the ‘cheer leaders’, apart from those seated right behind the small platforms set up for these dancing ladies.

In fact, at the popular ‘North Stand’ in Mumbai’s Wankhede Stadium, I saw spectators yelling at these ‘cheer leader’ young ladies, shouting at them to sit down for blocking their view of play! Yet, with short-sighted foolishness, broadcaster Sony had given these ‘cheer leaders’ and their actually minuscule presence in the stadium a ridiculous out of proportion TV presence by featuring them after every nearly boundary hit or a wicket fallen. A more cricket-focused broadcaster is unlikely to repeat absurdities of including dancing ladies amid a hard-fought contest featuring the world’s best cricketers.

The result of these ‘cheerleaders’ dominating IPL telecast is genuine cricket fans, paying premiums like about $100 for an IPL ticket, being perceived to have been lured in by non-existent ‘glamour’ that only exists in a foolishly warped telecast.

I had at least twice emailed BCCI bosses warning them that IPL-related problems will persist as long as the IPL telecast features these gyrating young ladies– with this intrusive ‘extra’ entertainment in the already fast-paced Twenty20 contests needed as much as the Pacific Ocean needs more buckets of water.

The IPL needs the new television rights going to a genuine cricket broadcaster, rather than a movie-oriented channel whose buffoonish coverage of IPL has done much to damage one of the world’s leading sporting brands.

It’s expanding Twenty20 leagues like the IPL, Australia’s imbecilely titled ‘Big Bash’ (Twenty20 cricket is not supposed to be ‘serious’, according to fossilized administrators) and the Caribbean Premier League that are producing unprecedented skill levels and professionally rewarding global growth for a 350-year old sport.

But Twenty20 cricket is sneered away as mere “entertainment”. For what then do people pay to watch the lofty five-day marathon ‘Tests’: “serious” enlightenment?

The Twenty20 revolution became obvious during happy days when I was a consultant with Wisden in Mumbai – and getting paid to following the great game that flows in my blood since as a Don Bosco, Egmore, school kid in Class 3, I watched my first ‘Test’ match with my father and abundant ice cream-cake: a January in 1974 when Gundappa Ranganath Viswanath square-drove, square-cut his magical way to 97 not out, out of India’s first innings total of 190, against a rampaging Andy Roberts and Clive Lloyd’s West Indians amid a delirious Chepauk crowd. GR Viswanath would have easily earned a $4 million contract with any IPL franchisee.

Decades later circa 2003, working a night at the new Wisden Cricinfo office, Twenty20 potential became starkly evident when I saw my first Twenty20 game televised live from a balmy summer night in England.

In Twenty20, every ball is a test of skills needing sharp thinking and unselfish commitment to the team cause. The format produced it all: infectiously joyous fans, particularly children, the chess play like changing, shifting strategy between bat and ball, bluffs, double-bluffs and counter-bluffs, the necessity for precise and accurate bowling, courageous and creative batting, the exceptional fielding standards – all pushing cricket to never-before heights.

But narrow-minded punditry and ungrateful professional cricketers seem unable to appreciate the greater good of the shorter, realistic formats of cricket as cricket fans have: one-day, Twenty20 formats are the present and future of the great game. In reality, five-day ‘Tests’ are advanced training for the solid technical basics needed to excel in the shorter formats, not vice versa. And reality has its way of making its presence unavoidably felt.

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