Lanka Premier League Explained

More than two years since stating its intent to conduct a franchise-based T20 tournament, Sri Lanka Cricket (SLC) are now close to seeing the Lanka Premier League (LPL) becoming a reality.
With three weeks left for the scheduled start of the tournament however, SLC have found themselves pressed for time to complete logistical preparations for the LPL as the Ministry of Health (MoH) have yet to approve the tournament despite discussions between SLC and MoH taking place over a number of months.
SLC will meet Health officials today in a bid to get approval to conduct the LPL at the end of this month, reiterating that safety measures have been put in place to screen overseas players and ensure that the tournament does not add to the growing number of Covid-19 cases.

Among the measures taken is playing the tournament inside a bio-secure bubble, which means that matches will be closed to the public and also devoid of the bells and whistles usually associated with T20 leagues. Despite this, SLC is keen to see the tournament take off, envisioning the eventuality of it becoming a regular event in the cricket calendar and more importantly achieving a level of sustainability.
This is not SLC’s first attempt at a T20 league either, having seen the Sri Lanka Premier League (SLPL) flop miserably after a single season in 2012, but it does give them the benefit of hindsight to ensure the LPL does not suffer the same fate.

What do we know about the LPL? 

SLC hopes to conduct the LPL from November 21, having already faced multiple postponements this year alone. It was pushed back from its intended start in July when the first wave of COVID -19 hit the country and then moved to August, then September, before SLC gave itself ample time by scheduling it for late November. If the tournament does start on November 21, the 23-match schedule will reach its completion on December 13.
With Colombo’s R. Premadasa Stadium still under renovation and logistical issues with the Dambulla Stadium, matches will instead be played over two legs, first in Hambantota and then Pallekele. However, there have been suggestions to look into holding the tournament overseas like the IPL has done this year, in either the United Arab Emirates or Malaysia, but the preference is to have the LPL in Sri Lanka. In any case, SLC have not yet discussed when the tournament will be played if it indeed decides to play the LPL overseas.

“There have been suggestions to look into holding the tournament overseas like the IPL has done this year, in either the UAE or Malaysia, but preference is to have the LPL in SL”

The tournament will feature five franchises, representing the cities of Colombo, Kandy, Galle, Jaffna and Dambulla, each featuring a maximum of six overseas players in their squad of 20.Teams were allowed to directly approach and sign three players – two Marquee Overseas players and an Icon Local player, essentially the stars of the franchise – before the rest of the squad was filled out through a Player Draft.

Of nine Marquee Overseas players that were originally signed by franchises, two have pulled out. West Indian Andre Russell was ruled out after sustaining injuries during the ongoing IPL season,
while former South African skipper Faf du Plessis was picked in South Africa’s squad for next month’s limited over series against England, the dates of which clash with the LPL. His compatriot David Miller and England’s Dawid Malan were also initially considered unavailable, at least according to Tournament Director and Vice President of SLC Ravin Wickramaratne. But it has since been reported that as neither has been picked by their respective countries for the afore mentioned series, they could still feature in the LPL.

The tournament is being organised and promoted by Innovative Production Group (IPG), a Dubai-based company who bought the ground, production, franchise and TV rights for the LPL. While IPG boasts of having experience in multiple areas of sports management, marketing and production, and media distribution, organizing the LPL would be somewhat new territory for the company, with their expertise in this area according to their website, being limited to a solitary season of the Abu Dhabi T10 tournament in 2017.
The owners of three of the franchises have also been confirmed – the Galle Gladiators was bought by Nadeem Omar who also owns the PSL’s Quetta Gladiators in his native Pakistan; the Kandy Tuskers was acquired by the family of Indian actor Salman Khan; and the Jaffna Stallions was bought by a UK-based consortium led by healthcare entrepreneur Brindon Bagirathan.

“Overseas contingent of 140 players, coaches, broadcast crew and franchise representatives have been informed of the health regulations currently in place”

IPG have, in numerous interviews, stated that all five franchises have been sold – going as far as saying they had the liberty of turning down several parties interested in franchise ownership – but have yet to announce who has acquired the Colombo Kings and the Dambulla Hawks.
The delay, according to a report in the Sunday Times, is attributed to the International Cricket Council still vetting the credibility of the potential owners of the two franchises, with a decision expected soon.

Where do things stand right now?

The meeting today comes at the intervention of Minister of Sports Namal Rajapaksa, who has stated his keenness to see sports resume in the country. The Health Ministry on the other hand is understood to be apprehensive, and justly so, considering the country is now facing a second wave of the coronavirus, which has taken the total number of cases over 10,000.

SLC insist that the overseas contingent of 140 players, coaches, broadcast crew and franchise representatives have been informed of the health regulations currently in place. Health officials had maintained that they must spend 14 days of quarantine in the confines of their rooms, before joining a bio-secure bubble with the local players and officials. However, SLC have reportedly negotiated some leeway to allow players to begin training after around a week, backed by a robust PCR testing schedule. There is also hope that health officials would grant a shorter quarantine period of 72 hours for players like Chris Gayle, who is coming from a bio-secure environment in the UAE that has been set up for the IPL. But with health officials combating the second wave, there seems a possibility that they will stick to more stringent regulations.

SLC had hoped that those coming from overseas could reach and begin quarantine by the end of the week, so naturally the later a decision is arrived at the harder it would make preparations of the tournament. They also appear open to postponing it by a week.
A week’s postponement of the LPL will however bring its own problems. It could rule out the participation of the country’s best players, as Sri Lanka have agreed to a tour of South Africa beginning with a Boxing Day Test on December 26.
In the event that even that is not possible, it is likely the tournament will be postponed to next year.

Who will play in LPL?

While franchises could sign their two Marquee Overseas players and Icon Local player at an unrestricted salary amount, those in the Player Draft were available at assigned base prices, ranging from US$ 40,000 down to US$ 3,000, depending on which player category they were included in.
The draft itself had its moments of chaos. It was conducted through video conference with representatives from the five franchises, officials from SLC and hosts Roshan Abeysinghe and Indian commentator Chaaru Sharma participating. Some team representatives were unsure of the rules, some had not received an updated list of available players with their actual values, while there were awkward moments where some participants were talking over each other.

“There is also hope that health officials would grant a shorter quarantine period of 72 hours for players like Chris Gayle”

Eventually, the franchises had almost filled out their 20-player rosters, which also included slots for young, emerging players. Notably, the Jaffna Stallions used three of their spots to sign players originating from Jaffna. Some franchises opted to not pick their full quota of overseas players, in the hope that they may be able to negotiate with players outside the draft list. Teams were given till the end of October to finalize their players but with the current delay, that deadline was rescinded.

Inevitably, the limited number of places meant some senior players and exciting young talent were missed out. Sri Lanka’s Test and ODI captain Dimuth Karunaratne was among those who went undrafted, as was the case with Lahiru Thirimanne, Dhammika Prasad, Kithuruwan Vithanage, Jeewan Mendis, Sachithra Senanayake and Sadeera Samarawickrama, all of whom have been capped at national level.
Other noted talent like Chamika Karunaratne, Sandun Weerakkody, Vishwa Fernando and Prabath Jayasuriya were also among the long list of players who were not selected by any of the franchises, with the most unfortunate omission perhaps being that of Dilshan Munaweera, a batsman who specializes in the T20 format.

How will SLC benefit from LPL? 

Obviously, there is a financial benefit for SLC from the LPL. The rights for the league were sold to IPG in a five-year deal worth US$ 11 million, with SLC receiving US$ 1.9 million in each of the first two years, with 10 per cent increases on that amount every year after that. SLC have said they have enough in reserve to tide over the immediate losses from COVID-19, thanks to sponsorship deals recently entered into. But with inbound tours being postponed, affecting television and match-day revenue, and a potential reduction in the next tranche of the annual International Cricket Council (ICC) payment due to planned ICC events being postponed, the added income from the LPL would certainly be a boon to SLC.

Secondly, leagues of this nature have come to play an important role in the development of young cricketers. You only need to look at India where the IPL has now provided its national team with a vast number of talented cricketers, discovered and primed against the best in the world. Many past and present cricketers have spoken of the lack of a similar league in Sri Lanka proving to be a stumbling block and steepening the learning curve for those who transition from domestic to international cricket. It’s also visible in the way Sri Lanka, once the number one team in T20Is and 2014 world champions, slipped down to ninth in the ICC rankings last year, missing out on automatic qualification for next year’s T20 World Cup. The struggle to find the archetype of modern T20 cricketers in Sri Lanka has also been reflected in the number of players who are drafted by IPL teams. 13 were selected for the first edition of the IPL in 2008, a number that has drastically reduced over the years. Only one, Isuru Udana, is playing in this year’s tournament.

What challenges will LPL face? 

The Indian Premier League, with its large market of viewers and backers, has proven impossible to compete with, and other leagues like Australia’s Big Bash and West Indies’ Caribbean Premier League have understood this, adapting to respective markets and limitations.
It’s a strategy that SLC and IPG would be wise to pursue if they are to build a following in already saturated market of T20 cricket leagues that is beginning to show some fragility.

A survey conducted by the Federation of International Cricketers Association (FICA), the results of which were released last year, highlighted the financial strains faced by leagues and their franchises. It found that a third of almost 400 men and women cricketers, had suffered as a result of late or non-payment of a cricket contract, adding that it was a growing problem which needed to be regulated.

It’s a scenario that SLC knows all too well, having failed with the Sri Lanka Premier League (SLPL), which imploded after its solitary season in 2012. The SLPL was formed as part of an agreement SLC reached with a Singaporean sports marketing firm in 2011 to promote domestic cricket, but that partnership ended in acrimony after the SLPL failed to draw audiences in its debut season and franchise owners failed to finance their teams the next year. At least one franchise was late to pay it players, with another embroiled in speculations of match-fixing.
With cricketers now spoilt for choice and able to pick and choose which leagues they want to play in, it is history that SLC can ill-afford to have repeat again, if it wants to attract the best players. The economic effects of COVID -19 and possible disinterest among Indian viewership due to the lack of Indian players in the tournament, could also be challenges the LPL will have to overcome. But if a model that regulates costs and a tournament structure that values quality over quantity – even if it means sticking to just five teams – is put in place, it could help the LPL become sustainable while also achieving the goal of producing better cricketers.

SLC have already burnt their fingers once by choosing the wrong partner with the SLPL, but having worked together extensively in other areas, SLC appear to have faith and confidence in IPG to deliver a sustainable league despite their relative inexperience in the area. Early indications have not been positive though, with the Sunday Times reporting that IPG have already defaulted on their first payment to SLC, asking that a bank guarantee be accepted in lieu of cash.

It’s also a concern that with less than a month for the LPL to begin, there is very little promotion being done about the tournament, with virtually no social media presence or official website launched as yet – must haves in an age where the internet has become the primary sort of information and entertainment. SLC have the benefit of hindsight. They should learn from it.

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