SLPL - a comprehensive review
I wrote this a few weeks ago and forgot to put it up here. Some parts of this was published on Cricinfo as well.
As the rain swept away any chance of an intriguing finale for the first real crowd the SLPL had attracted, it rung true with the atmosphere that surrounded the whole tournament. A tournament that offered promise but stumbled across a few hurdles. The SLPL has had mixed reviews and split fan opinion down the middle. There are be the fanboys of Sri Lankan cricket, who’ve been starved of their accessibility to domestic cricketers who would argue that it was the best thing since Microwave oven came out. Then there are the ones who didn’t get it at all -no crowds, no real international stars – how does the SLPL even exist?. Others wouldn’t have even watched it.
With all these contrasting and conflicting views, the question that floats to the top is how we assess the success, or failure, of the SLPL.
First, some ground rules. It would be rather callous to compare the SLPL with the IPL. The pre-tournament talk was about how the SLPL was an “IPL like” event. The only similarities to the IPL were on a superficial level with the cheerleaders and the forced glitz and glamour. The tournament (a player draft instead of an auction ) and team structures(provincial based instead of cities) were different. The USP(Unique Selling Point) of the SLPL was that of a neat package of matches in a three week period. Enough time for a new idea to breathe without taking too long that people start to lose interest. Secondly, the SLPL simply does not have the financial backing that the IPL did. Nor will it ever do. Naturally this would mean that the SLPL can never be as big as what the IPL is. Nor does it need to be.
The one thing the IPL is very good at though, is making sure their product is put in front of your eye-line before a ball is bowled. This is something the SLPL clearly failed to do. The poor crowds at nearly every single game, bar the final, told its own story. Most fans were unaware of the tournament before it started. And when it did, it was a team structure that they were not used to and many were left alienated on who to actually support. Sri Lankan domestic cricket matches aren’t exactly a prized ticket on the social calendar for many Sri Lankans either. Most of the local players were unfamiliar to many fans. So, it’s unsurprising that a disinterest or a lack of “belonging” to a team played its part in the poor turnouts.
There are two distinct problems here. One, a marketing and promotional failure. The build up to the tournament was very low key and only those who were genuinely following its progress were aware of where things stood. And for that Somerset Entertainment Ventures (SEV) need to be held accountable. The tournament almost didn’t happen before it actually did. Everything had a very skin-of-the-teeth feel to how it all came together, and because of it, the tournament suffered from being able to campaign for itself.
The second is a more complex problem related to the provincial format of the teams. This , of course, was by design. Whether the SLC are being run by people who are capable of the long term view is still anyone’s guess. But with the SLPL, they took a gamble to go down the provincial path. This is hopefully the first vestige of a long term process to move domestic cricket to a provincial structure. For the casual observer, the poor crowds might have indicated otherwise, but it needs to be understood that the infrastructure at provincial level, which, here, refers to a fan base, fan loyalty, rivalries as well as a established cricketing framework were simply unavailable to be tapped into. It’s more practical to look at this edition of the SLPL as a steppingstone or a line marker on what the tournament will be about.
The decision to play in only Colombo and Kandy was also a conscious one. The need for rest days coupled with the fact that it takes a day to rig a ground for broadcast led to this decision.But if the SLPL is to truly capture the essence of provincial cricket then it simply cannot pigeonhole itself to these two venues. With plans to introduce the two remaining provinces next year this becomes increasingly vital for the SLPL’s success. Galle, which is generally a well attended ground, might be a candidate for day matches during a weekend. And if Hambanthota is meant overcome its reputation as the the shining beacon that points to the SLC’s failings then it must be utilised to spread cricket to the South. Additionally, SLC must now seriously think of improving facilities up North, a part of the Island that still remains untapped with fans there starving for cricket. Sandeep Bhammer of SEV has been quick to point out that the SLPL comes at a time when post war Sri Lanka are trying to rebuild the country and that their brainchild is there to help that process. If games are not going to played in the North then that becomes a hollow statement.
The weather also remains a constant worry. The SLC have signed away July and August for the SLPL depending on the FTP schedule, but with weather patterns changing in recent years August remains a very unpopular time for cricket in Sri Lanka. With so few games being played, washouts cause havoc with the progress of the tournament. A semi final being a complete washout with no chance of a replay is simply unacceptable. And a Final on a Friday?
Although the series was handicapped prior to its commencement with the withdrawal of some big names, the cricket, by and large, was of a good standard. Losing these high profile players actually allowed some of the local talent to carve out their own name without having to play in the shadow of their more illustrious colleagues. This was actually synonymous with the whole tournament. While you could argue that the international players in the SLPL were 2nd string, it can also be argued that this was what allowed the teams to be more balanced and provided an equal opportunity for all.
In the end the SLPL gained more, from a cricketing context at least, from the absence of players like Gayle, who were forgotten in favor of the likes of Dhananjaya, Eranga and Munaweera. While players like Munaweera have long been on the minds of ardent domestic cricket followers, what the SLPL has done is catapulted him and the rest of the local players into the mainstream. This is vital to nurture a fan base and to provoke the conversation about the SLPL in future.
The players shone because the contests were well balanced. The pitches offered help for the quick bowlers as well the spinners. The batting was neither arduous nor was it a free for all. The only skill that was shockingly third class was the fielding. At one point, it seemed that, every time you looked up, a chance was being grassed. This was extremely disappointing and surprising from a country that likes to label itself the best in Asia in this aspect of the game. If not attended to the evolving Indian side will take this mantle off Sri Lanka. And anyone who watched the Indian U19′s in the U19 world cup would attest to the fact that they have some very dynamic fielders coming through the ranks.
Impact on Sri lankan Cricket
The SLPL’s impact on Sri Lankan cricket was direct and immediate. When SLC requested the deadline for naming the World T20 squads be extended for them, they did it with the thought that the SLPL would force them to change their minds and also allow them to come to concrete conclusions about certain players. The 15 man squad they announced proved both cases to be true. Akhila Dananjaya, Dilshan Munaweera were picked solely on their exploits in the SLPL. And the rest of the squad was more or less accepted as one of the best Sri Lanka has picked in years for any format of the game.
While Dhananjaya went from obscurity to a household name in the space of three weeks, the SLPL also allowed Shaminda Eranga to finally showcase his talent at length. Prior to this Eranga had been player who flaunted exceptional skill but seemed destined to be heading down the path of someone like Dilhara Fernando; always injured and never in the side long enough to learn and grow to be consistent. Eranga is a rare talent who can swing the ball both ways at pace. This was his chance and he delivered. And even in these early stages, Sri Lanka’s test future seemed pinned to how Eranga responds to the challenges ahead of him.
One player who did not make the squad was Chamara Kapugedara. And the SLPL opportunity seemed to breathe new life into him. Perhaps it was the release of pressure of not playing for his country, perhaps it was the comfort he derived from knowing he will be in the side every time he looked at a team sheet or perhaps it was just pure luck, but Kapugedara batted like everyone thought he could when he first slayed Brett Lee for a few sixer’s in Australia. Was this a turning point in his career and for Sri Lanka? The bigger question is whether he will be allowed to prove it in Sri Lankan colors.
Another highlight of the SLPL was the chance to see Sri Lanka’s heir apparent Angelo Mathews lead a side for an extended run. By all accounts Mathews conducted himself admirably and was able to substantiate the hype around his captaincy credentials, this time with actual practical nuance. His side made the finals and his batting was sensational. This type of experience will be invaluable for Mathews going forward. He showed that he is more than capable of going up against his peers and coming out on top. The biggest plus was that he didn’t allow the responsibility to restrict his freedom as a batsmen. In fact the opposite was true and this, more than anything, was extremely heartening to see from a Sri Lankan point of view.
Along with these players, a multitude of domestic players were given their first taste of a high profile event, facing up to top quality opposition and will be all the better for it. Of course the impact of the SLPL cannot be measured by a few individual discoveries. The more important areas affected are, at least at this stage, intangible. It’s sparked new interest levels in Sri Lankan domestic cricket. Provincial rivalries have been established, although at a very basic level and fan bases have started to develop. And it’s also important to remember that the SLPL will provide SLC with an almost guaranteed revenue stream of 2 million dollars a year, spread across 7 years (assuming the SLPL makes it that long)
The tournament isn’t without its detractors though, but the SLPL didn’t set out claiming it would change Sri Lankan cricket overnight. Those were unnecessary expectations placed on it and those who believed in them were always going to be disappointed. Every journey must have a starting point and on that count the SLPL, has more or less, delivered.
It’s strange to think that the SLPL’s future will actually depend on everything that happens between each edition. Now that the first one is out of the way, the SLC and SEV have immediate business to attend to. There are many allegations of corruption, sex scandals, pay disputes that must be dealt with swiftly and assuredly. The SLC have mastered the art of burying their heads in the sand and ignoring all that is around them but if they genuinely care about the SLPL and its future then that is a policy they need to abandon.
Even more importantly, perhaps, is what happens to the infrastructure at a provincial level. The SLPL cannot masquerade as a provincial tournament if nearly all the players in the series are from Colombo. The board actually seems to understand this, based on a number of grants they have provided to improve the cricketing framework in the various provinces following the SLPL. They have also put in place plans to restructure the junior schools system and to conduct district and provincial tournaments at that level. Change cannot come from without but from within – at a grassroots level. The hope is that these sorts of initiatives are what will organically grow the relationship to a province in a cricketing context. The provincial format might be an alien concept but its not impossible to nurture its growth.
The cricket that is played must be spread across the Island, and while there are practical problems to this, the tournament would find it difficult to sustain itself if this doesn’t happen. It has been suggested that the provincial teams should try to introduce talent from their origins. But in reality, this is difficult, as competitive cricket levels outside of Colombo are simply not of the same standard. That’s not meant to be slight, but a reality check, as the franchises will also be looking to put out the best possible team and not pick players to fill a quota. Of course, such a system would be the ideal, but right now Sri Lankan cricket is far from being able to support it.
The quality of international players that the SLPL attracts is also a major factor in its sustainability. While it was good to see the local players come to the fore this year, the harsh reality is that big names attract television viewers. And even if every Sri Lankan watches every single SLPL game, the market would just be too small to impress TV rights holders. Next years SLPL is wedged in around July, prior to the South African tour to Sri Lanka. At the same time, the Ashes are being played, and there are talks of a US T20 also around the same timeframe. This highlights issues of player availability and inevitably losing players to bigger markets like the US T20, which will undoubtedly be offering more than what the SLPL will be. Add to this the major issue of the BCCI refusing to send any Indian players over and you can start to understand why many of these leagues struggle to go the distance.
There are things that the SLC must be weary of as well. It’s an easy trap to think of the SLPL as a silver bullet and have their focus solely on its success. The club cricket system is in a mess. The domestic system is no longer producing test quality cricketers. Haroon Lorgat in his advisory capacity has warned that Sri Lanka might not qualify for the 2019 World Cup. These are the issues that truly matter for the future of Sri Lankan cricket. It’s also the responsibility of the SLC to maintain and voice that the priority for domestic cricketers should be to strive to be part of the test side. They need to guard against the mentality shift of a young player wanting a SLPL contract as opposed to putting in the long term work needed to be a proper cricketer. While the SLPL is a shiny new toy to play with, it must remain clear to the people in charge that it’s only a part of a bigger, grander picture.
If the SLPL had been a movie it would have drawn similarities to Prometheus. On the face it, it was a flat, boring affair, with some visual stimulants along the way. But when you dig deeper it provides a better understanding of what it’s achieved or at least was trying to achieve. The good thing about Prometheus is that there is a sequel which will hopefully satisfy everyone involved. And the hope is that the next editions of the the tournament will do the same for the SLPL.