The start of much-awaited third season of IPL is just around the corner.
While the T20 cricket league has returned to its home in India, and has also seen some changes like inclusion of many formerly ICL players and increase in number of venues, more innovations and enhancements will have to be made in coming years to increase the local franchise base and international fan base, to make the league even bigger.
IPL’s expansion to ten teams for 2011 season has already been approved. This can be considered a step forward, but the number of participating teams still is very low. There are many large cities which can host a franchise in turn paving the way toward building new or improving existing infrastructure and stadia in India.
Current number of only eight franchises is just too small a number to give much depth, competition and geographical spread to the league. As number of franchises increases, foreign talent will also spread across the teams more evenly.
Even if IPL expands further in future, say up to 20 teams, it will still be a small number as India is a geographically large country and has more than a billion passionate cricket followers. Such an enterprise will not be easy, but will have to be undertaken to establish larger home base, and current system will have to change, modify, adjust, expand and evolve in more ways than one.
Perhaps a system of regional conferences like that in US NBA and NFL leagues can serve as an example. A somewhat similar system is already in use in Ranji Trophy’s Super League and Plate League.
As India is large, IPL team number can be increased and then teams divided into, say, four regional conferences i.e. eastern, western, northern, and southern. From this base, one solution can be to give qualification to four conference champions for IPL semi-finals.
Another can be to take conference champions and runner-ups and play quarter-finals. Playoffs may also be used to determine second qualifier team instead of a conference runner-up. Double round-robin system can be employed as far as the semi-finals to make tournament more interesting.
Minor multi-tiered cricket regional or national T20 league system that could serve as feeders for IPL will have to be introduced to serve as youth development, team promotion and relegation medium. Match times can be tinkered with to attract foreign audience, especially in Europe and Africa. At present time slots of matches suit TV broadcasts primarily in Subcontinent, but not for Australia and New Zealand.
IPL has received criticism that it will harm national sides (and domestic leagues in other countries as well) because players will leave for bigger paycheck in India instead of representing the national sides (or playing in domestic leagues).
While that may have some substance (especially because money has traditionally been in national cricket), IPL might in some measure help national sides as well because players from small and poor countries, like Zimbabwe, will have a financial incentive to stick to the sport and improve their skills instead of staying behind the competition.
Conservatives and purists may baulk at the rampant advance of IPL, and possible reduction in number of international matches (especially tests), as domestic cricket leagues have historically never been big like other sporting leagues in North America and Europe.
But like it or not, this concept and this league is here to stay and grow exponentially in the years to come forcing international cricket to adjust its playing calendar accordingly.