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.