Another IPL already? Why too much cricket is spoiling it for fans

It’s hurting players as well and, in the long run, undermines the interests of administrators and broadcasters.

WrittenBy:Anand Vardhan
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Less than two weeks after playing a four-match Test series, five T20s and three ODIs against England, the Indian cricket team is set to scatter into franchise teams to compete in the Indian Premier League. In the wake of the Covid pandemic, the revised schedule has meant the annual tournament is slated to start less than five months after the final of the previous IPL was played on November 10. In the meantime, the Indian team has also played a four-Test series and limited-over matches away in Australia. The hectic scheduling poses some obvious questions.

Is Indian cricket overcompensating for time lost due to the pandemic lockdown? Is the factor of overkill the proverbial elephant in the room for the Board of Control for Cricket in India? Is one of the richest sports bodies in the world in a position to see the matter of excess number of matches the same way as millions of followers of the sport and even the players see it?

Last April, the great Caribbean cricketer Michael Holding remarked that the coronavirus-forced break in cricketing calendar could be a blessing in disguise as world cricket needed a moment to introspect about the direction it was taking in pursuit of relentless commercialisation. “Everybody has just been head-over-heels charging down the hill, looking for every dollar available. But can we just pause a bit, hit a plateau for a while and sit down and look and see if everything is fine? There is too much cricket being played, for one,” Holding, who is now a prominent commentator, argued.

In explaining the situation, Holding, however, also talked about the pressure on administrators to satisfy the broadcasters who pay for more and more cricketing action.

The overdose, however, could undermine the interests of even the broadcasters. Fluctuations in viewership of cricket matches over the years could be attributed to many factors, but the overkill factor would rank among the more plausible. This is borne out by data on TV viewership. In 2015, for instance, a report in the Economic Times said, “Television viewership for cricket has dropped 40 percent to a weekly 61 gross rating points in 2014 from 105 in 2008.”

Not just Tests and ODIs, even IPL matches registered a drop in viewership in 2016 as reported in DNA. In 2017, the viewership recovered, rising 22.5 percent, only to fall again during the last stage, as Mint and Business Standard reported.

Helped by being played in the shortest format and favourable evening TV slots, the IPL might still rule the viewership charts this season. But the BCCI needs to look beyond the franchise, and take into account viewership numbers for bilateral series with less fancied opposition like Sri Lanka as well. If scheduled more imaginatively even those encounters could engage more attention. Currently, though, the hectic calendar means such matches end up being at the receiving end of cricket overdose, as indicated by TV viewership data gathered by the Broadcast Research Audience Council over the last decade.

Actually, even top tournaments such as the IPL can benefit from imaginative scheduling. Though the pandemic-forced home stay and other black swan factors could have played their part, the considerable gap in cricketing action was a major factor behind the 2020 edition of IPL, played from September to November, being the “biggest ever in terms of viewership”. BARC figures indicate that almost half of Indian TV viewers watched IPL 2020.

The viewer-fatigue has often been linked with the uneven quality of contests, with some highly competitive matches involving quality sides evoking more interest. However, the chances of that happening are far and few between given the sheer frequency and number of encounters. Avid followers of the sport would anyway want tighter control on scheduling for a more qualitative build-up and a sense of occasion in watching the awaited contests. That becomes a casualty when the hectic calendar robs even more important encounters of their place in the more enduring cricketing memory.

While top cricketers around the world have intermittently voiced their concerns about the toll a hectic calendar can take on their non-cricketing life and recovery from injuries, the career aspirations of new players and financial concerns of the seniors ensure that ruffling the feathers of the administrators is a very risky option. Top stars, however, can be safe in their own value for the administrators while raising the issue. Earlier this month, for instance, Indian captain Virat Kohli called for involving players in scheduling decisions. "The players need to be spoken to and consulted with all round..I think it's very important to consider how much cricket you are playing. It is not just the physical side of the thing but the mental side as well,” Kohli said.

At the same time, the recent controversy over varying yardsticks being applied for granting paternity leave to different players indicated that even such involvement can be democratic to only an extent, with some voices counting for more than the others.

The sense of timing is as crucial for technically fluent and elegant batsmanship as it is for putting contests in their engaging frame. That’s how the distinct memory of a cricketing encounter, uncluttered by the blur of numerous other matches, endures. This is something that cash-rich cricket bodies such as BCCI need to grasp. They need to schedule the cricket calendar in a way that a fine balance is found between giving fans breathing space for watching and wondering and making money for all that to happen. The Indian cricket body, as of now, seems very far from finding that half-volley of equilibrium.


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