As the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2023 edition reaches a crescendo, it is not hard to wonder how far a journey cricket has traversed not only over the past decade and a half but also, in the span of two months where there have been so many talking points about the shape of the future. And the finalists certainly justify the business end of the Twenty20 story.

Three out of the four finalists justified IPL’s business acumen. Two seasoned performers and two relative newcomers. A story like this could not have been scripted. But it goes straight to the heart of the matter: the bottomline. If consistency in the name of the game, then the IPL has sealed the story.

And it might have meant trouble for other Twenty20 leagues around the world, except that they are now virtual proxies of the franchises that own the teams in the IPL. With such a high majority with huge stakes in the business of Twenty20, it is not hard to fathom that cricket might soon be like football leagues.

But what is unfathomable is the possible oligarchy creating another anarchistic world within the world of cricket. This world has also often been labelled incestuous not only for the top brass of cricket boards indulging in self-preservation at the cost of associate members on the margin but also, because of cricket’s inability to expand on equal footing in competitive terms to rival football’s popularity as a true global sport.

If the IPL had to cop some flak for overshadowing important fixtures when the ICC World Test championship is around the corner and the ICC Cricket World Cup has barely got a taste of the paparazzi yet, they were well covered by the fact that all ten teams had a role to play till the end. Thus making this a blockbuster, keeping fans engaged.

The fact that the last two matches of the league stage held so much high wire tension told a story in itself. While the story might have had a déjà vu when the Royal Challengers Bengaluru fell on the sword again, there was also the sense of the familiar. And also, the robust business sense when powerhouse teams like the Chennai Super Kings and the Mumbai Indians, who have been multiple champions, made it to the end.

Players like Shubman Gill have had to overcome a lot of controversies. But three centuries have kept the focus and kept the Gujarat Titans in the hunt even in the Eliminator.

This is not usually the case when new teams enter the picture and are thrown into the deep end. That the Lucknow Super Giants made the playoffs and the Gujarat Titans have given themselves every chance to quickly possibly rescript IPL history as defending champions makes perfect business sense.

On the flip side, while Rohit Sharma might have been breathing a little easy when the Mumbai Indians made the play off, there is no denying that there could be endless debates on whether he has carried the team or the team has carried him. It is an ironic but not unfamiliar Indian story given that there has been nothing easy about Rohit Sharma since donning the Indian captaincy hat. A finger injury only added to Rohit’s woes.

While the presence of the Gujarat Titans has kept Hardik Pandya in firm focus as Rohit’s potential successor, Rohit’s expiration as captain might be possibly weighing on the man. He was once hailed for the turnaround of the Mumbai Indians which also turned around his fortunes. This has to be a bizarre phase, irrespective of where Mumbai Indians stand when all is said and done.

The bottom might have had to fall off, given some on the teams points table have been perennial under performers. But the fact that the points separating the play off finalists and the rest of the pack has been so miniscule that it is actually business sense to keep them around.

Now the ICC would wish they could say the same as the disparity between teams, even when they have been less than a dozen, has been so stark on the world stage that the relevance of the World Cup and of having a worldwide league spanning months is requiring every muscle and sinew being stretched to justify as the power balance has shifted to franchisee oligarchy and Twenty20 club league, making cricket as it is known a rather endangered species.

While some have talked about sanity possibly returning when the players don the white flannels for the World Test championship, the fact that attention has not shifted and not been allowed to shift for the Indian cricketers speaks volumes of what has become topmost priority.

Three things stood out about Indian cricket, and it was ironically in the IPL that the fissures and factions became all too evident. There is a larger than life personality who plays his cards close to his chest. But the way to beat him at his game is to put him in the centre of it.

For the past three years, the IPL has been singing the swansong from the very outset. But the farewell parties thus far have been premature as the usually docile, reliable, consistent, even clinical Chennai Super Kings went through their share of the flare ups as far as controversies go with regard to players, though none can outbid the one that follows them like a shadow involving N. Srinivasan and his outsized family.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni has shown no interest in fanning the flame or dousing the embers. The IPL broadcasters and organisers decided well in advance that irrespective of whether the seasons take off, particularly with the backlash that followed the IPL during the pandemic, that putting a surefire figure like Dhoni, a rare entity since he retired from international cricket, as the focal point of their anchoring theme.

It did not change though it seemed rather sheepish that someone of the stature like Sunil Gavaskar would himself make a big deal as did others when he reached out to Dhoni for his autograph. A PR stunt, when the two men cross paths ever so often?

While it couldn’t be ruled out, it must have been an embarrassing take back when only days later, Gavaskar had to join the chorus of voices that spoke against the former Indian captain’s unbecoming tactics. While the Chennai Super Kings made light of their opponents and the 2022 winners, the Gujarat Titans, in the first qualifier, Dhoni’s seemingly obvious tactics at time wasting by engaging the umpires in needless argument did not go to his persona of a cool, calm captain who plays by humility and fairness.

Although rare, this was not the first incident when Dhoni stretched his boundaries a bit and flexed his muscles in the IPL, having previously confronted the umpires when he did not think the game was going the Chennai Super Kings’ way. There have been many controversies that have not directly involved though they did make him a party, the one most prominently coming to mind was the short rope given to Ravindra Jadeja with regard to the captaincy.

However, much more furore has rested for other former Indian cricketers known to not only hold grudges but also, display it much to their own embarrassment. While the common thread of Virat Kohli as the former Indian captain might stand out, what cannot be argued is that neither of the other two gentlemen were without blame.

Sourav Ganguly’s refusal of a handshake with Kohli brought back some of the childish, and otherwise idiosyncratic, behaviour of the Indian captain who added the touch of brazenness and boldness to the Indian team. It also caused much ire for some of his counterparts.

If that refused to die down, Gautam Gambhir’s chronic feud with Kohli flared up on the field, the former opener not able to help himself to inject himself into a conversation that ended up seeming more about him than the matter at hand.

While it might have added the soap opera element to the IPL which has firmly brandished itself as a summer extravaganza of sport and entertainment, it is hard not to compete with the idea that all publicity is good publicity as far as show business goes.

This kind of behaviour not only showed how divisive Indian cricket is in the dressing room which should not be surprising given that it is a team sport involving several individuals. But there cannot be basic modicum and respect between all players who were the Indian badge with pride is a sad lament.

And if money and the licence that the IPL gives out of national bounds is to blame, then course correction is in order. A new generation is growing up around these players and having to grow up fast in the environment of the IPL, sometimes even before knowing what it is to represent the country.

The lesser the taint if they know what to carry with them when they are called upon for national duty. Outsized egos nursing grievances well beyond their time on the field does not make for good business or good sportsmanship.

Nation Versus Franchisee Loyalty

A season that could not be more blatant revealed its colours as Jason Roy became the first England player to add validation to rumours that not only poaching but also, deliberate loyalties are being bought.

When one sees how players like Faf du Plessis who have been unfairly sidelined from opportunistic or oppressive or far reaching cricket changing regimens perform when given the opportunity as the former South African captain has been, it is hard not to see the justification for why players might want to jump ship.

Although there is nothing in the open about Faf, and there might be a chance for him to be recalled into the national fold, it has not been easy but interesting that while Chennai let their prolific player slip through their fingers. Faf took on not only a new franchisee late in his career but also, the arduous task of trying to turn the ship around when Virat Kohli decided to step down from his duties as the captain of the Royal Challengers Bengaluru.

South Africa’s loss, RCB’s gain? One can imagine the script playing out when RCB, despite going hammer and tongs, as they have even in the deep end, still missed the bus with Kohli and Faf on board and determined to take them across the line, whether the element of jinx can be played up.

The IPL has kept its wheel chugging, without confirming or denying reports that there are allegiances being sought from marquee players from other countries with the financial stick dangling before them. The IPL franchises with their burgeoning oligarchy are behind it.

The fact is that the BCCI has virtually thrown up its hands. It has given the franchisees the leeway to play in foreign waters so long as they don’t go digging in the BCCI pockets for the Indian players’ open season rights.

It has also employed further Saudi sponsorship at the height of Saudi’s hand in sport being seen as a hand to clean up their global image and also, proving to be something of a divisive force in other sport like golf and Formula 1 racing, says that the handshake might have more to the picture, particularly when Saudi have expressed interest in owning a piece of the pie themselves.

The question now is whether Saudi will be willing to play proxy as the BCCI has been insatiable, and entertaining the idea of a second IPL tournament, its falling off to the wayside, or whether in shaking hands, the BCCI will then become subservient to wherever the money comes from? This would be a first since it will not be the homegrown IPL, but a foreign hand.