You could laugh at the Indian Cricket (ICL) League for being launched in a stadium named after a politician not known for statesmanship, in an unfashionable corner of Chandigarh called Panchkula.
Or laugh because its stellar attraction Brian Lara looked like a bad investment every time he stepped out to the crease.
But you could not laugh at the fact that it was launched at all, without a hair out of place.
After months of speculation that suggested that something like the ICL could not possibly be done, or conceivably be worth it, the 'rebel' league had actually set out its stall.
The inaugural ICL, promoted by the Essel Group, was held, as promised, as a Twenty20 event between six city teams lasting 16 days from start to finish.
Brian Lara, of Mumbai Champs, is dismissed first ball by Hyderabad Heroes It was pitched as an event to showcase domestic talent which would get a chance to train and play with former international players like Lara. One of the ICL's tacit intentions was, of course, to make the BCCI'S handling and promotion of domestic cricket, look bad.
Not difficult at all. In April 2007, the BCCI held its Inter-State Twenty20 Tournament on an 'experimental' basis all across the country.
It caused no buzz, the BCCI did not sell television rights for it, and even with players like Yuvraj Singh, Robin Uthappa, Dinesh Karthick involved, all grounds were near empty.
When the Chandigarh Lions played the Delhi Jets in the first ICL match in Panchkula, the 7,000-seater Tau Devi Lal Stadium was packed for its first weekend, ringed by advertising boards and the paraphernalia of TV production units.
Teams had sponsors, an army of imported support staff and 'neutral' umpires. There were even anti-corruption and anti-doping officers. Despite being denied access to BCCI-affiliated grounds, groundsmen, umpires, scorers, equipment and man power, the ICL had all its cricketing elements in place.
The ICL hired Australian trainer Jock Campbell who brought with him support staff for the teams: 18 physios, trainers and "massage therapists".
Six teams participated in the first ICLOne of them, C.J. Clarke had worked with Sri Lanka during its run to the 2007 World Cup final. Phil Russell, long-time curator at the Kingsmead ground in Durban, worked on the Devi Lal stadium.
The one super sopper in India not owned by the BCCI or directly or indirectly under its control, was located and hauled over to Panchkula.
The players were showered with kit (including 12 sets each of lycra and microfiber performance wear) and put up at the best hotels in Chandigarh. By the time of the first ball was bowled, Himanshu Mody, head of Zee Sports said close to $25 million or Rs 100 crore had been pumped into the ICL.
Prize catch: ICL offers the highest prize money for domestic cricket anywhere: Rs 3.9 crore to the winner, from a total pool of Rs 15 crore.
Deep pockets: Rs 100 crore has already been spent on the ICL to get the grounds ready, honour player contracts and hire new staff.
Market moves: Caution about the scale of the event kept cricket's regular buyers at a distance.
Logo-friendly: But some of the ICL's ground sponsors included TVS Star City, Bru, Lipton, Dabur, Spice, MSN.
Global view: Global rights for the ICL are reported to have been sold to three parties for close to $10 million.
Reflecting the general mood amongst the players, New Zealand all rounder Chris Cairns said, "We don't know how the event will go, but the organisers have done everything they possibly can to showcase a good product."
Eventually, the success or the failure of the ICL depends not on the 'Kareena and kricket tamasha' factor, enjoyable as it may be, but on ad revenues.
The ICL is Subhash Chandra and Zee's response to being denied BCCI's lucrative TV deals not once but twice. It aims to embarrass the BCCI and, equally, create content and an audience for the struggling Zee Sports channel, that will compel cable operators to offer the channel on the prime band.
Ashish Kaul, Essel Group's senior vice president, says the ICL has, "put Zee Sports back into the reckoning."
The ICL hopes to stage its second event in March 2008, and Kaul says, "The advertising push will be bigger then." Zee showed the first half an hour of every ICL game across all its channels and ran quirky, quality advertisements around the teams involved to build the ICL brand.
(from left) Subhash Chandra, Bhupinder Singh Hooda, Lalu Yadav and Amar Singh at the tournament launchOn the launch stage, along with Chandra, several BCCI bete noirs could be sighted: Railway Minister Lalu Yadav whose state cricket association in Bihar has not been officially recognised by the BCCI as well as Haryana CM Bhupinder Singh Hooda, who is at perpetual loggerheads with political rival Ranbir Singh Mahendra, also president of the Haryana Cricket Association.
The BCCI, more occupied by l'affaire Vengsarkar, insists it paid no attention. Secretary Niranjan Shah said, "We are not worried about the ICL.
It makes no dent, who bothers about it?" The BCCI's earliest response to the ICL though was to announce the Indian Premier League (IPL), a behemoth Twenty20 club event where the clubs would be owned by independent franchises, and not by a one entity like in the ICL.
Kaul maintains the ICL and IPL have little in common—not even a rivalry. "IPL is a star-studded Bollywood extravaganza; we are about a creating a platform for domestic players," he says.
The response from the market is somewhat lukewarm. "They should get distribution sorted," says a sports marketing insider. Some say the airtime pricing for the ICL was initially pegged too high, close to Rs 50,000 per 10 seconds.
Realistic estimates swing wildly between Rs 20,000 and Rs 5,000. A media planner says the feedback has been "decent" but people were not used to buying domestic cricket on TV.
At Mindshare, the biggest buyer of cricket TV spots, MD Sundar Raman, says, "It's a good attempt but the IPL is in the driver's seat—in every way, players, size, dreaming big." Kaul is prepared for the comparisons and offers one of his own. "The IPL is six months away and we," he says, "are up and running."
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