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The recent International Cricket Council (ICC) World Twenty20 in Bangladesh was played out against the backdrop of a courtroom drama concerning the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s (BCCI’s) Indian Premier League (IPL). During their stay in Dhaka, members of the Indian team were barred from talking about the league.

In the final week of the tournament though, one voice finally did speak out about the vagaries of franchise-based cricket that takes over the imagination of cricket fans every year in the months of April and May. It was Shane Watson, who would be captaining Rajasthan Royals in the seventh IPL season, starting today.

“Rajasthan have been kicked out in the past from the tournament, so you just never know how things are going to pan out," he told the media. “I’ve always been confident things will work out well in the end, and it seems to have worked out that way. There’s no doubt that personally for me, it would be a huge shame if Rajasthan weren’t playing this IPL because I certainly love every moment I’ve spent there since it started. But we are on the right side again, thank God."

On 26 March, the Supreme Court had seemed to put this IPL season in jeopardy, questioning the inclusion of Chennai Super Kings and Rajasthan Royals when the two franchises were caught up in allegations of spot-fixing. Once former Indian cricketer Sunil Gavaskar had been put in charge of the BCCI’s IPL affairs, the court didn’t stop the teams from contesting.

The IPL has never been short of controversy. Be it conflicts with other national cricket boards on player availability, restrictions on the media (particularly images), or tax exemptions. Lalit Modi, who helped set up the league, was forced out in 2010 following allegations of corruption and money-laundering, and the new franchises on the block, Kochi Tuskers Kerala and Sahara Pune Warriors, bought at unreasonably high prices, eventually fell by the wayside.

Then came the crushing blow—five uncapped players were suspended on account of alleged spot-fixing in 2012. Last year, there were allegations of betting and spot-fixing against G. Meiyappan, son-in-law of N. Srinivasan, owner of Chennai Super Kings and “former" BCCI president, and Raj Kundra, part-owner of Rajasthan Royals.

It cast an unusually large shadow on the cash-rich league, with several quarters calling for complete abandonment of the 2014 season. Matters were further complicated when the first leg of the tournament had to be moved to the United Arab Emirates (UAE) owing to the general election. The first 20 matches, from 16-30 April, will be played in the UAE; the rest in India, from 2 May-1 June.

The league may go on, but saleability has been affected. The build-up has been muted. Official sponsor Pepsi will be happy because it has a heavy presence in West Asia, while main competitor Coca-Cola is playing a waiting game, not renewing its association with Mumbai Indians and Delhi Daredevils.

The franchises have taken the biggest hit in finances, down nearly 20% from last season—with the first phase being held outside India, their gate revenue will be hit. The late announcement of the schedule meant they were unaware of how many matches they would be able to host in India—and at their home grounds—and were thus unable to entice local sponsors.

Till a week before the tournament, Kings XI Punjab, Sunrisers Hyderabad, Delhi Daredevils and Royal Challengers Bangalore had been unable to get title sponsors for their kits.

Of course, they did get them, but it is a huge climbdown from previous seasons. Kings XI Punjab have been the worst hit, losing 13 sponsors from 2013 and retaining only two. At the time of writing, Sunrisers Hyderabad and Delhi Daredevils, had managed to get a few brands on their kits before flying out. The latter lost their long-time title partner Muthoot Group and a few others, including Panasonic and Bajaj Allianz. At the moment, they have roped in online and mobile classifieds company Quikr as title-sponsors, and signed up Justdial, India’s largest online business directory, as a clothing sponsor.

Not a happy situation for the GMR-owned franchise, which was hoping to start a new chapter with a fresh look and squad built from scratch. Two-time champions and perennial favourites Chennai Super Kings only closed their sponsorship deals on Monday. The Super Kings (Aircel) are one of only four franchises with long-term title-sponsors—Kolkata Knight Riders (Nokia), Mumbai Indians (Videocon), Rajasthan Royals (Ultratech Cement) being the others—so they are slightly better off than the rest.

It paints a worrying picture for the league. “There’s a lot going on, I won’t lie," said Chennai coach Stephen Fleming on arrival in Dubai on 14 April. “There are a lot of distractions. Leading up to the tournament I think we were all uncertain about how it was going to play out."

“Once the season gets under way, the focus will only be on cricket. At the end of the day it is about opportunities and grabbing them with both hands, and senior and junior cricketers alike will be looking to make good use of the chances given to them," said Sanjay Bangar, assistant coach of Kings XI, before flying out to the UAE.

Spending the next fortnight away in a land where Indian cricket hasn’t ventured much in the last decade or so, might just give this tournament the fresh start it desperately needs.

Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper: A Definitive Account of India’s Greatest Captains.

Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com

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