The IPL isn’t the flagbearer of innovation that it should be

“Who wants to watch a batsman’s bum for half the match?”

Until the seminal World Series Cricket tournament envisaged by Kerry Packer, television coverage of cricketing action used no more than five cameras in total. The bulkiness and the cost of broadcasting camera equipment restricted the deployment of additional television cameras.  Therefore, the main views were all from one end. Indian cricket fans may remember the grainy footage from India’s maiden World cup triumph in 1983 totally obscured the front-on view of the winning moment when Mohinder Amarnath trapped Micheal Holding leg before wicket, before running to the pavilion before hordes of jubilant spectators descended on the ground. Kerry Packer would have none of this, and reportedly told his producers that very sentence, making his intentions loud and clear. Television coverage would later change for the better, and since then, many inside edges and roughly half of leg before decisions would no more be shrouded in mystery. This was one of the ways that World Series Cricket (WSC) had revolutionized the way the game was played and followed.

The premise of World Series Cricket is somewhat related to that of today’s T20 leagues—it was a revolution whose time had come. Back in 1976, Australian media magnate Kerry Packer tried very hard to secure television rights for the Australian home cricket season for his network, but was beaten to it in spite of making a better offer due to a cozy relationship between the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and the Australian Cricket Board. Additionally, during the time, there was a perception that cricketers were not paid well enough to make a living from playing the game.

After he was rebuffed for his offer, he went about signing the game’s best players through Tony Greig and Ian Chappell to set up a parallel cricketing universe. The establishment reacted and a legal wrangle ensued; they tried to ban WSC contracted players and many a series was played between “official players” only. Packer responded by claiming that ICC was seeking to force the players’ hands and break the contracts. Justice Slade ruled that banning cricketers would be an unreasonable restraint of trade, and awarded close to a quarter of a million pounds in costs to Kerry Packer’s side. There were constraints though—he wasn’t able to label his matches as test matches or use traditional venues.

It was in this necessity that the invention of World Series Cricket as a product came to the forefront, whose legacy can still be felt even today. WSC proceeded to lease stadiums (Australian rules football, a trotting ground and a general venue) in the major cities. Kerry Packer’s groundsman, John Maley, developed drop-in pitches which were grown in greenhouses. Packer also ambushed the viewers with slick production and marketing, making the cricketing action as a “manly”contest between the fast bowler and the batsman. The key to the success of WSC was the signing up of the top cricketers from across the world, all too happy to be paid what they were worth.

Other innovations drove the game forward, and kept Packer’s WSC afloat. The first season of WSC saw low attendances but a pivot towards floodlit matches and one-day matches saw an increase in footfalls and television ratings. The predecessors to the ubiquitous modern-day cricketing helmet were used for the first time in WSC, and the focus on fast bowling both highlighted the dangers and authenticated the seriousness of the cricketing product. Coloured clothing, white balls, fielding circles were introduced as well; aggressive marketing, replays, funky graphics, stump microphones and many other features of the cricket viewing experience that we take for granted today were developed during its time.

On the other hand, another revolutionary product—centered around the T20 format—has not created a similar impact with respect to technological innovations. The Indian Premier League (IPL) championed by Lalit Modi and co. was launched amidst much fanfare in 2007. The parallels with WSC are not difficult to see; the new league promised astronomical riches for the players, and the world’s top players had been signed for a cricketing tournament fuelled by a marketing blitz. However, this exercise was “official” unlike the WSC’s premise. A decade ago, the IPL seemed to be more of a reaction to Subhash Chandra’s Indian Cricket League (ICL), which was closer to WSC in terms of narrative (thwarting of media rights bid, secret signings of players, banning of players, playing on non-regular grounds). The underdog wouldn’t win the fistfight with the establishment this time around—after a couple of popular seasons, the ICL raised the white flag. The IPL may be India’s (and indeed, the world’s) pre-eminent T20 tournament, but the ICL was the first to showcase the commercial potential of the format on Indian shores.

Coming to think of it, the IPL does not boast of many innovative ideas even though Lalit Modi claims it to be ahead of its time. The format originated in England; the IPL was modelled on various sporting leagues across the world like the NBA; the concept of super-over and cheerleaders were adopted directly from the World T20; the Spidercam was first seen in the ICL; Flashing wickets first made an appearance in the Big Bash League (BBL). It is an uncomfortable truth that the richest T20 league in the world is not at the forefront of technological innovation in the game of cricket.

There is more—in the mid-nineties, various people in the Indian cricketing establishment had flirted with the possibilities of an inter-city cricketing league coexisting with India’s domestic structure but the project was turned down. In a sense of delicious irony, the name of the company which was registered by Lalit Modi was Indian Cricket League Limited, which never took off.

Perhaps I’ve been a bit too harsh. The IPL is here to stay and has generated a whole new economy. It has generously provided a livelihood for cricketers who have may not have a chance to be international player. It has no doubt brought a whole new set of fans to the game. And, if one were to look deeply, the IPL and the BCCI can lay claim to an innovation that was solely developed on Indian shores—the strategic timeout.

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