Friday, May 2, 2008

Midsummer night’s excitement

It is just a week (at the time of writing) since the IPL had a spectacular opening night at the M. A. Chinnaswamy stadium at Bengaluru on April 18. Opening night hardly seems the way to describe a new cricketing format and tournament, but that is pre cisely what it was.
It had glamour, excitement, extravaganza, music, performances, laser shows and, to top it all, a fantastic display of fireworks that had live and television audiences oohing and aahing. The show was something that any Indian would have been proud of and I am no exception. Sadly, the match that followed was a damp squib, or at least the Royal Challengers’ innings, if you could call it that, was a demonstration on how not to play the 20-20 format.
The last week has been a kaleidoscope of action on the field, some truly exciting games that have gone to the wire, some typically one-sided games, a few goof-ups in the organisation of the game, ratings on the rise, a lot of advertising on the screen – a lot of it, as it happens in India, intruding into the game, controversies regarding the cheerleaders, some of it probably justified and perhaps a taste of the overkill on cricket that one is sure to be exposed to before the finals on June 1.
BCCI or IPL? Who runs the game on the ground?
In my view, and that is not an isolated view, the IPL as a concept in cricket has been a marketing coup. It has been a well orchestrated sales pitch culminating in the finalising of the cash-rich franchisees, a players’ auction where players were bid for and bought - making Adam Gilchrist feel a bit like a cow (albeit a well paid one!), the enormous build-up and hype preceding the event with every newspaper and television channel in the country (the numbers of which seem beyond my comprehension, at least) devoting entire sections to it and the television commercials promoting the event before the tournament …

Thankfully, the IPL at least seems to have got its advertising act right for the later commercials are far better than the karmayudh ones that launched the event. Of course, there is learning for us as well. Just check which team your dentist supports lest you end up in the dentist’s chair – naïve and as a supporter of the opposing side as the IPL commercial depicts! Beware too of thin ladies with keychains who get into the same lift as you, they just might be supporting some other team!

But advertising is the easy part; the more difficult part is the organisation and here the IPL or BCCI has miles to go before it sleeps. Take the match played at the Eden Garden before a capacity crowd of over a 100,000 people and television audiences of a few millions. The pitch that was dished out for such a crucial game was a landmine and the batsmen were expecting the ball to explode in their faces and they played tentatively. Of course, an enquiry has been ordered into the affair and we all know what happens to enquiries in our country! However, let me quickly mention that a sporting pitch is not such a bad idea. People do not want to see only sixes and fours, but tense, tight games.

As though we had not had enough excitement for one evening, the lights failed at a crucial stage of the Eden Gardens game and we almost had a record in the possible intervention of Msrs Duckworth and Lewis in deciding the outcome of the match! Thankfully, there was light at the end of the tunnel literally and the match was resumed after a delay of half-an-hour which seemed like two hours, late as it was in the night.

The matches too for some strange reason start at 8 p.m. and given the lethargic manner in which some teams bowl and the dew which makes them rub the ball after every delivery ensures that most matches end only at 11.30 pm. Why are matches starting so late? Is it to woo the soap audiences who can join the second innings after seeing Kolangal? Incidentally, Tamil Nadu seems to have pretty low viewership still. I suppose it is difficult to beat the lure of the soaps and the tearjerkers!

More confusion followed in Mumbai where a fantastic show of fireworks was followed by a shower of debris on the playing area and one saw a bemused Jacques Kallis, who was perhaps more used to repairing the damage in the South African innings, actually repairing the playing surface and cleaning it up! And finally, the cheerleaders! I read the interesting comment by someone saying that the gyrations of the cheerleaders were not much different from what one saw from the Mumbai bar girls. Having never had the good fortune of visiting these heritage spots of that great city, I cannot comment. But what I can say is that US audiences have demonstrated time and again that cheerleaders do not make a difference to audiences or viewership and if what one is seeing on television is any indication, I am sure it is just a waste of time and money. I suppose too that our cameramen can find better angles than the ones they are using now to show the Redskins and the other cheerleaders at the various venues. What seems to be on offer most of the time is skin while reason suggests that people might be more interested in the sight of wood striking leather!
Taking the audience for a ride!
IPL has delivered ratings to the franchisees and advertisers as the games have overtaken ongoing reality shows and family soaps. Clearly, IPL is the season’s biggest blockbuster; whether it is because of the cricket or entertainment is still a toss-up.

What is not in doubt is that the games have got a much higher percentage of women viewers as 8.2 million women in six metros watched the initial matches and the average viewership was as high as 23 minutes. Yes, the initial excitement, interest and viewership are all heady, and yet a word of caution is relevant here. As an avid watcher of the cricket, I repeat, and not the cheerleaders, I am appalled at the high percentage of television commercials. I am sure the network was happiest when the lights went out at the Eden Garden as commercial after commercial kept getting repeated, many of them boring. The sad part is that while advertisers and agencies are going gaga about 20-20 as a great opportunity, the sad reality is that none of them has done anything specific for the event or the format, except the IPL itself and the teams. They keep showing the same commercials, many of these commercials are too long for a shortened version of the game.

Also, there is a distressing reappearance of the creepy-crawlies that used to bother us in the old video cassettes that we saw a few years ago. Remember those obnoxious ad messages that used to be below the visual, often encroaching into the visual area? Well, they seem to be back with a bang. I remember a few commercials – maybe they were from Hyundai or Godrej. I think channels have a duty too to the viewer. I am sure they will find enough ways of making money, but remember you are killing the golden goose and are putting off the genuine viewers who make this whole economy sustainable.
So, whom should I support?
I have spent the last 28 years of my life in Bangalore, a city I love, traffic jams, airport controversies et al. Yet, I cannot imagine supporting this team though I personally admire Rahul Dravid. Should I support the Chennai team because I was born there and spent the first 27 years of my life? Should it matter to me that the highly paid captain of the Chennai team, the charismatic M.S. Dhoni, cannot speak a word of Tamil? Maybe I should support the Rajasthan team as perhaps I could take a holiday there or because Shane Warne has given me more pleasure as a viewer than any other cricketer?

Ultimately, it will just boil down to the cricket, which is probably why that all this new viewership caused by stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta and the entertainment such as fireworks and concerts by Hariharan may dwindle, and women will go back to the familiarity of the soaps and leave only the diehards like me to watch the cricket.

This is the biggest challenge. Rahul Dravid, before the first match, said he wanted to see a sea of red in the stadium as red was the team’s colour. But were the T-shirts available before the match? I am not sure, as the launch seemed to happen much later. To me, the defining moment of the week’s cricket so far was in the match between the Mumbai Indians and the Royal Challengers. Mukesh Ambani, the owner of the Mumbai team, was in the crowd wearing his team’s colours. Rahul Dravid, the captain of the opposing team, played a wonderful on drive (he does that when he gets rid of the shackles in his mind) and Ambani stood up and cheered. Yes, thank you, Sir, for reminding us it is about the game and its quality and not the narrow confines that have been artificially created by marketers. It is only the quality of the cricket and the talent of the cricketers that will sustain the IPL, aided as it will be by the very natural excitement that the 20-20 format inherently provides.

Here is hoping that there is more excitement in the game. Therein lies the real entertainment.

(Ramanujam Sridhar is CEO, brand-comm, and the author of One Land, One Billion Minds.)


Venky Mysore said...

Very good article. One aspect of the IPL and also the ICL matches that I have enjoyed is the showcasing of some new young emerging talent. There seems to be to fear or intimidation factor in the new breed of young Indian criketers that is emrging. What a great opportunity for them! I have thoroughly enjoyed some of their performances! I am sure when they manage to get the wicket of a big star player or hammer a couple of sixes, they and their families & friends will be talking about it for the rest of their lives! Also imagine the confidence boost it would give them to know that they can compete at this level! Bodes well for the future of Indian criket and the Indian psyche in general......"youngistan zindabad"!!

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Yes it is certainly one of the high points and I believe that players who come into contact with the likes of Shane Warne are bound to benefit.
Some of the younger Hampshire cricketers which Shane Warne leads are playing for England already and have him to thank for it.

Rajesh Kochhar said...

I went to an IPL cricket match ( courtesy my nephew who is anchoring Extraa innings). I was watching a live match after 30 years and looked forward to going to thespruced up Kotla stadium.

It was an experience allright. Other than the chaos which marks Indian urban cities ( traffic jams, freeloader mobs trying to force their way in, pollution,din,etc), the event was a great Tamasha, not a sport. The stands were overflowing and the event was more like a Bollywood choreographed song. It was all happening - cheerleaders, the crowds ogling/cheering the cheerleaders, 2 bollywood actors, the crowd focusing on their movements rather than the cricketers, a rollicking rock group , the accompanying din. the fireworks, the ensuing pollution, the flame ala the olypic flame, awful food,etc.

Frankly most people in the stands did not know who was batting or bowling and some not even the teams playing. If you are a cricket buff see it on TV. I am surprised to see the interest it is generating with high TV TRP ratings and I understand it is giving the soap opera's stiff competition. Overall it seems IPL is a resounding success but it left a doubt as to whether it will corrupot the game. I have attended a few sports events abroad and find that there are serious enthusists in the crowd. Here the crowd came to watch a public tamashe, not cricket.

It appears that we are starved for entertainment and IPL fits that void. Matbe the organisers can make the entertainment format an export from India.

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Yes I think they have got some new audiences at least in the stadia , but there is a larger television audience who will watch as long as the game is interesting.

Ramakrishna Sunder said...

Very good piece.
I must admit that a diehard fan like me still watches these tamashas, even though I hate the bowlers getting singled out for brutal punishment.
I see it because I think that if you can play this version of the game WELL, you can play any other version, except perhaps for the fielding, for which you need to have an innate ability. A case in point is the innings played by Lakshman yesterday - it was smooth as silk. So I am on the lookout for new talent.
Yes and I was really excited about 2 young cricketers' - Rohit Sharma and Piyush Chawla, because of the sheer technique they displayed while parlaying their considerable skills. If handled properly, Rohit can be the near replacement for Sachin (a full replacement can't be found) and Piyush can replace Kumble, once these champions hang up their boots. And yes, when is Rahul going to drive away the self-imposed cobwebs from his mind? Were there signs of it in his last innings?
On the international front, Shaun Marsh seems to be a good bet for the future. And when will we stop over-hyping Jayasurya & Afridi?

Ramanujam Sridhar said...

Yes if a person is good, he will adapt like Gilchrist,Hayden,Warne or Vettori.
Yes these two youngsters are great talent and let us hope that they develop the way we want them to.