Stars all:The owners of the teams, Ness Wadia and Preity Zinta (Kings XI Punjab - left, extreme right), Shilpa Shetty (Rajasthan Royals – second from left) and IPL Commissioner Lalit Modi (second from right).
Australian cricket dominated pretty much all opposition it came up against from the mid-'90s till the end of 2006 at least, thanks to two outstanding champions, Glenn McGrath and Shane Warne. It would be difficult to find two more dissimilar individuals in one team, but they had one thing in common — both were champions. Batsmen came to grief against these two, who often bowled their team to victory in tandem, more often than not because opposing teams ended up playing more than mere bowlers but battled the strength of their collective auras which combined to make the Australian team almost impossible to beat. Batsmen, thanks to the benefit of TV technology, had nightmares of the Gatting ball (or the ball of the century as it was branded) whenever the blond leg spinner came to bowl. They unearthed demons that were non-existent and played for drift that seemed larger than life and lost their wickets with surprising ease. As for McGrath, his annoying ability to deliver ball after ball on the same spot added as much to the pressure as his in-your-face displeasure if the batsman had the temerity to hit him for four.
Whilst there is no denying the phenomenal ability of these two bowlers, their success, in no small measure, was due to people sitting in the commentator's box and the media enclosures who aided and abetted the batsman's downfall with their analysis till paralysis of the bowlers' collective and individual abilities. Batsmen predictably ended up making horrendous errors of judgment and finished up looking silly, like Atherton often did, to the obvious delight of Aussie fans. When I looked at the recent IPL auction, with Kieron Pollard being bought for a staggering $750,000, I just wondered if there was a similarity between what happened on the cricket field earlier and what is happening now under the hammer and also analyse what has generally been happening with IPL since its inception.
Giving IPL its due
Make no mistake about it, India runs the cricketing world, much to the chagrin of some of our less fortunate cricket boards. India has the eyeballs, the sponsors, the money, the ability to brand and sell anything, including the weather forecast that precedes cricket matches, and just about everything that makes the world go around and everything that can make its detractors go around the bend. Often enough, India has made no bones about its clout and has blatantly flaunted it. But even diehard critics and the prophets of doom have had to concede that the IPL has been a marketing coup that showed the entire world a thing or two about sports marketing. It is a real concern though that IPL may hasten the demise of test cricket, but let us resist the temptation to set the cat amongst the pigeons just yet and stay with the marketing of IPL. IPL demonstrated the ability of its creators to build a brand in a very short period of time, create and deliver value even as it commanded a phenomenal premium for its offerings — whether it was television rights, franchisee bids for the teams or its ability to make players from all over the world drop everything and come running to India. Interestingly, some of them, such as Collingwood and Owais Shah who were constantly complaining about player workload, did not even get a game despite travelling halfway across the world!
It's a brand new world
Kieron Pollard, who was sold for $750,000, to Mumbai Indians
IPL has been all about brands, sponsorships and celebrities of varied hues. It has seen the emergence of unlikely businesspersons in people such as Shah Rukh Khan, Preity Zinta and Shilpa Shetty from the world of entertainment, a charismatic business leader in Vijay Mallya entering cricket, Nita Ambani and a range of companies from media, infrastructure and cement, all of whom have forked out enormous amounts of money. It has also seen some of the office-bearers of the BCCI as owners of teams which might upset the purists but in Indian cricket, as we all know, anything goes, including the obnoxious behaviour of people such as Sreesanth and Ajit Agarkar. The bidding for the players has been a high-profile event where ordinary mortals such as you and I can witness how the rich and famous bid huge sums of money for the superstars of the T20 stage just the way they might bid for thoroughbreds! The IPL, quite simply put, is a heady mix of entertainment, glitz and glamour, with some cricket thrown in somewhere in the middle! But it is working or has been working for the people involved, including teams from Australia and the West Indies who have come to India, won and made an enormous amount of money in the bargain? Of course, if media reports are to be believed, the winning team from New South Wales has not been paid, but should we waste our time with needless details such as these?
Get ready for the next edition of IPL
The next edition of IPL will hit not only Indian grounds, Indian crowds, and global television audiences but also an online audience through YouTube. One of the characteristics of the IPL brand has been innovation even if one were to ignore the strategy break which was a poorly disguised attempt to sell more commercial time! Who knows, there may soon be pink balls! But in all fairness the brand has tried to innovate constantly and really showcased the enormous marketing acumen of the people who have been the brains behind this amazingly successful venture. They have been able to smell money anywhere!
A word of caution
Having spoken of IPL's tremendous strengths and offerings it is perhaps worthwhile to sound a word of caution to people who are placing enormous bets on the event and continue to do so. Clearly they are being carried away by the moment as they seem to be awestruck by the aura of IPL and are not placing as much emphasis on the possible return on investment that they seem to be making without so much as batting an eyelid! Starting from the franchisee bids for the teams, IPL has been all about premium pricing. Franchisees too ended up paying phenomenal sums of money, not only for the players, but for Indian stars with iconic status, many of whom will certainly not play for their country in the T20 format of the game.
The pricing for the television spots has been extremely high and some of the initial sheen, in my view, at least, is bound to wear off thanks to the phenomenal amount of cricket that is being played across the world, all of which is being shown in India, including the KFC big bash. But my biggest bone of contention has been the often reckless manner in which team owners have been buying cricketers. Many of the big-ticket items have been poor buys. Names such as Andrew Symonds, Kevin Pietersen, Andrew Flintoff, Kieron Pollard and even Shane Bond come to mind. Shane Bond is an amazing cricketer, with an astoundingly straight action amidst a generation of varying degrees of crookedness, but to pay what he is being paid for delivering four overs defies logic. Whilst I am happy for the benign policeman whose pension must be adequately provided for, I have nothing but scepticism about the outcome which might turn out to be a worse buy than the highly priced Ishant Sharma. I wonder if teams and their owners are succumbing to the aura and the excitement of the moment, the glare, the media attention, all of which does not make for sensible decision-making.
A prediction about the IPL ahead
Soon it will be IPL time and old foes will lock horns again, some of them with reconstituted teams. Younger legs will replace more tired ones and a new lot of retired and ICL players will make their debut, such as Damien Martyn and Shane Bond. The Pakistanis will be missing and have left no one wondering about their displeasure. Only the retired Australians will be here. But it is just preceding the T20 World Cup and just after a crowded season where everyone was playing everyone else. The Under 19 World Cup is happening in New Zealand and many young Indians will soon be tempted with money, big money. Yes, it is all waiting to happen. But my suggestion to people who are going to put their money where their mouth is, is to keep their hands carefully inside their pockets. Evaluate every opportunity with the care that it deserves. IPL is McGrath and Warne several times over in the magnitude of its aura. Bring back old fashioned Yorkshire wisdom to your decision-making lest you play a shot that Geoffrey Boycott would brand as “rubbish”.
(Ramanujam Sridhar is the CEO, brand-comm, and the author of Googly. Branding On Indian Turf".)