Slam bang at a big price

hit or miss?: Youngsters like Manish Pandey will be in focus in the KPL. AFP

Exactly one month ahead of its revised kick-off, the Karnataka Premier League is gradually taking shape. Already, the eight teams and owners have been arrived upon; inside a week, the franchises will face off in an auction to pick up six players each from a pool of 48 ‘elite’ Karnataka players who all stand to gain a not inconsiderable amount for a fortnight’s action of the 20-over version.

Every which way you look at it, the KPL is a watered down version of the Indian Premier League. History will record the Karnataka State Cricket Association as the first state body in the country to introduce franchise-owned cricket teams; only time will tell how, and indeed whether, the tournament changes the landscape of the sport within the State.
Long before a ball has been bowled in anger, the KPL has triggered a multitude of emotions, including uncharacteristic outbursts from two of Karnataka’s greatest cricketing sons. Neither Anil Kumble nor Javagal Srinath speaks for the sake of it. So carefully do the spin legend and the tireless paceman choose their words that when they speak, they perforce command attention.

Both have questioned the wisdom not so much of the Twenty20 format alone -- even if neither has outright endorsed it as the way forward -- as the corporate status conferred on an event they believe could easily have been conducted by the State association in its stated ambition of providing opportunities for players beyond Bangalore to make a name for themselves.

On their part, officials of the KSCA have admitted in private that they have been pleasantly surprised by what they call the ‘overwhelming response’ to the KPL. Team bids alone have raised nearly Rs 35 crore over a five-year period, money that ought to be plied back into the sport to raise the increasingly plummeting stock of Karnataka cricket. Saying that, lack of funds hasn’t ever been an issue, what with every state association guaranteed a fat packet annually from the revenue generated by the Board of Control for Cricket in India.

The unqualified success of the IPL stemmed not merely from its great visibility, excellent marketing skills and reasonable, if somewhat unnecessary, off-field entertainment, but largely from the quality of the men that paraded their cricketing skills on the world stage. It didn’t take long for the Doubting Thomases to change their opinions. The IPL wasn’t only about big bucks; it was about big egos originating from immense pride in performance. Few can now question the commitment of men such as Adam Gilchrist and Kevin Pietersen, of Andrew Flintoff and Jacques Kallis, even if the output hasn’t always been commensurate with the mega bucks flowing into their bank accounts.
Whether the KPL will fire the imagination even half as much as the IPL has done is what will determine how successful it is deemed to be. In this instance, success can be measured on different levels; crucially, though, it will be judged on just what the event does to the fortunes of Karnataka cricket.

No more than a half-dozen names, if that, from the ‘elite’ 48-player core group can put backsides on the seats when the KPL gets under way. The magnetic pull of a Sachin Tendulkar or a Mahendra Singh Dhoni -- to name but a couple in a glittering star cast -- that fuelled the mushrooming popularity of the IPL will be conspicuously absent. The Robin Uthappas and the Manish Pandeys can hardly figure in the same bracket as crowd-pullers, even if they will be the ones that will be expected to provide the early fillip the KPL so desperately requires.

Not since 1998-99 have Karnataka won the symbol of first-class supremacy in the country, the Ranji Trophy. In that period, the multiple-time former champions have suffered the ignominy of slipping to the Plate Division, and whilst they have featured in the knockout stages of the Ranji Trophy more than once in the last five seasons, they have found it impossible to overcome the final few hurdles standing between them and the summit.

Just over a decade ago, on India’s tour of South Africa in 1996-97, there were six players from Karnataka in the national Test squad. With Kumble having retired last year, that figure now stands at a solitary one -- Rahul Dravid. Uthappa has been more out of than in the limited-overs and T20 squads, no one else has so much as triggered debates at selection committee meetings.

Whether the KPL is the answer that will help correct this anomaly is questionable. Worldwide, there is increasing concern over the potential exodus of old and young alike from the more demanding longer version to the equally intense but less taxing world of Twenty20. There is the fear that the basic tenets of cricket -- the ability to bat for long periods, or the attacking instincts of bowlers -- might rapidly be sacrificed because the 20-over shoot-out makes completely different demands of its protagonists.

The KPL occupies just one fortnight a year and therefore should logically not hamper a cricketer’s progress. Saying that, given the plethora of young men that will be playing the tournament -- after all, the event necessitates at least 112 local players every season -- it will be of paramount importance for the KSCA and the team owners to work cohesively towards educating budding talent of the non-negotiable need to think long-term.
Even accounting for the fact that the financial benefits that will come the way of a majority of the players will be well short of astronomical, they will be sums that very few would have dreamt of for a fortnight’s work. Again, the responsibility falls on the organisers and the men that have bought the players to ensure that the players realise that the money is no more than a positive by-product emanating from doing something they love and enjoy -- playing cricket.

Does Karnataka cricket really need the KPL? Given the reasonable progress that has been made in a fairly short period of time, that question is a bit meaningless now. How much Karnataka cricket benefits from the KPL is what matters. And what will be followed with great interest.

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