CNN  — 

He’s one of cricket’s most celebrated and pioneering stars, but buried among Shane Warne’s myriad of honors with Australia lies a largely unheralded Indian Premier League title.

It is an accolade pinned onto the end of his playing days, won at a time when such competitions were met in some quarters with disdain, cast off as exhibitions and little more than a final payday.

Yet, leading the Rajasthan Royals to an IPL title in 2008 is, perhaps, among Warne’s most underrated achievements. And as the event’s 12th edition prepares for takeoff, there have been few more significant figures in the tournament’s history.

Inextricably linked to Test cricket – the game’s traditional pinnacle – by virtue both of his rule over the format and the era in which he dominated the sport before the Twenty20 juggernaut had reached full flight, it is easy to forget Warne’s importance to the IPL in its early days.

He played a key role in easing initial skepticism over a competition that has since revolutionized cricket.

His Rajasthan Royals team had been widely discounted as a threat. As Warne recalls, speaking to CNN: “The only consistent thing in 2008 was that everyone wrote us off and said the Royals would come last.”

He was both captain and coach. Of the eight brand new franchises, the Royals were the least glamorous, without a star Indian name, and had cost the least ($67 million) when the outfits were initially to put up for auction.

Yet, he led his Jaipur-based side to glory in the inaugural competition. In a league founded on gluttonous wealth, it was – in relative terms – a victory for the little guy. The story ignited a flame, a fire that burns brighter than ever 11 years later.

Warne was speaking in his guise as a global ambassador for the Rajasthan Royals, as the franchise launched its academy at Reed's School in Surrey.

An ‘underdog story’

“I think [we] helped give the IPL credibility because the underdog came good,” Warne says.

“To then go and win it in the style we did, that put the IPL on the map. Any underdog story like that – you look at Leicester City, what they did. It’s a pretty amazing story.

“I was very lucky to play in an era of Australian cricket where we were super-successful. We beat every team home and away, won World Cups, Ashes series, so we had some huge results.

“To be part of all of that with the Aussies and do those things was great but the IPL, it was completely different,” he explains.

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For a sport so rigidly traditional, the sheer idea of a franchise-based tournament, with players allocated to newly-created teams through an auction, would take some getting used to.

These days, however, the format is all the rage and similar entities now exist across the cricketing globe.

“You’ve got to remember that no one knew what to expect in that first [IPL] year,” Warne reflects. “‘What do you mean there’s going to be owners putting up a paddle to buy players? What do you mean there’s six different cultures all in different teams [playing] with young Indian players?’

“There’s me, this has-been cricketer who had retired 18 months beforehand. [The other teams] all had their coaches with them and I’m the captain-coach. We lose the first game and go on to win it.”

They were soundly beaten by the Delhi Daredevils, before winning their next five games. Warne, the only non-Indian to captain a team in 2008, references Brendon McCullum’s unbeaten century in the league’s first ever fixture as another defining factor, an indicator of the levels that could be reached.

Warne's fellow overseas players in his triumphant Royals team included South Africa's Graeme Smith, Australian pair Darren Lehmann and Shane Watson and the Pakistan trio of Younis Khan, Sohail Tanvir and Kamran Akmal.

‘Amazing growth’

Warne is speaking at the launch of the Rajasthan Royals Academy at Reed’s School in Surrey. The first of its kind in the UK, it is an initiative that reinforces the exponential commercial growth of a six-week tournament.

“It’s amazing how quickly [the IPL] has grown,” reflects Warne. “After only 10 years, I think when you consider all the other big franchise sports, this will be the fastest growing huge franchise.”

In 2017, Star India purchased the global broadcast rights to the tournament from 2018 to 2022 for $2.55 billion. For a competition that lasts six weeks from beginning to end, it is a figure that highlights the league’s enormous reach. It marked a five-fold upsurge on the initial agreement.

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Indeed, the league’s first broadcast deal – a 10-year arrangement with India’s Sony Television network and the Singapore-based World Sports Group (WSG) – was worth $1.026 billion across the decade. The contract included a $908 million fee for the telecast rights, as well as a further $108 million for the tournament’s promotion.

“Some of the pay packets for the players are huge,” Warne adds. The Australian legend cost Rajasthan $450,000 when he was picked up at the tournament’s first auction.

At the 2014 auction, Indian all-rounder Yuvraj Singh’s signature fetched $2.3 million. In 2015, the same player was bought by the Delhi Daredevils for $2.7 million.

“The global reach and eyeballs that are watching these games is probably more than any other sport worldwide,” Warne says of the ever-growing numbers attached to the competition. “The global interest in the IPL and on their franchises is huge.”

Warne was both captain and coach of the Rajasthan Royals in 2008, having retired from international cricket in 2007.

Virat Kohli – India’s superstar

Perhaps, there is no greater validation of the IPL’s success since than Virat Kohli. Arguably the world’s leading batsman across all of the sport’s three formats, Warne sees a fundamental link between the India skipper’s improvement and his IPL experience.

“Don’t underestimate the IPL and the opportunities and what it has done for Indian cricket,” he says.

“I remember Virat Kohli was very young when I first played in 2008. He couldn’t really play the short ball.

“But being exposed to all the fast bowlers that were around at his franchise in Bangalore, suddenly [he was] practicing against it all the time, playing against it all the time, when at that stage they didn’t experience that in India.

“There are 10 guys in the IPL now that can bowl at 150 kilometers per hour, so they’re facing it all the time and they have got better.”

Virat Kohli has made four IPL centuries, as has Shane Watson. Only Chris Gayle has more (six).

Such is Kohli’s talent – his personal statistics, especially in one-day cricket, are historically unparalleled – he has remained a cheerleader for Test cricket even as the IPL has risen as an aspiration for any young Indian.

“I think we’re very lucky in this era,” Warne says. “We’ve got Virat Kohli who’s currently the biggest superstar in cricket saying: ‘Test cricket is the most important form of the game.’

“So that flows onto the Ranji Trophy (India’s first-class competition), and now suddenly that’s more important, so all these players want to perform in the Ranji Trophy to get picked.

“That creates more interest in Test cricket, more people watching, more people attending. That has a follow-on effect to the world game. Young kids these days have so many more opportunities, a young boy or girl can go play T20 if they want to, but they still always have Test cricket if they want to.

“The most important thing is to play for your country. If you do that well and are lucky enough to have that opportunity, the rest of it will look after itself.”

Unrivaled legacy

At his very best, Warne’s ability to spin the ball at speed made him unplayable.

His talent truly arrived on the global scene in 1993; the image of his delivery to Mike Gatting, christened the ‘ball of the century’, has more than stood the test of time.

He was named the Wisden Leading Cricketer in the World on three separate occasions, and one of Wisden’s five cricketers of the 20th century. As a legacy, Warne’s is unrivaled – the sport’s greatest ever leg-spinner.

A man of 708 Test wickets, Warne is well aware of the challenges facing five-day cricket amid reports of dwindling interest levels. He, though, is remaining upbeat; encouraged by his position on the MCC’s World Cricket Committee.

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“We just had the numbers presented to us,” he says. “The one that stood out was that this is the highest interest rate of Test match cricket. So, the attendances might be down a little, but the interest and people watching and the eyeballs is much more than it’s ever been.

“Now, is that because there’s more access? 33% of the worldwide public watch everything on a tablet or iPad, so kids will be watching anything they want to watch on that. There’s television, social media, there’s so many different outlets.”

Indeed, last year’s IPL final between Sunrisers Hyderabad and Chennai Super Kings drew a peak of 10.3 million simultaneous viewers on online platform Hotstar: a record for the live streaming of any event worldwide.

When the competition gets underway on Saturday, its curtain-raiser will feature Kohli’s Royal Challengers Bangalore and the Super Kings, last year’s champions, captained by the peerless MS Dhoni – a man whose fame and status have long-since transcended his sport. RCB, as Kohli’s team is known, are viewed by many as the tournament’s perennial underachievers.

Runners-up on three occasions, the Bangalore franchise has never won the IPL despite a rich tapestry of superstars including the big-hitting axis of Kohli, AB de Villiers and Chris Gayle.

Ravi Jadeja was a key member of the Rajasthan Royals team that won the inaugural IPL.

A land of opportunity

The sheer scope of the IPL in a cricket-obsessed nation has allowed Warne to look back at his Rajasthan success with a rare satisfaction. More than simply winning in 2008, the Australian legend’s greatest influence was in his methods.

The victory would be the making of Ravi Jadeja, then an unheralded 19-year-old. A decade on, he is one of the world’s best spinners, an integral part of India’s national side. The form of Yusuf Pathan, who had only recently arrived on the scene, would propel him into the top tier of T20 sluggers. He would join the Kolkata Knight Riders for $2.1 million in 2011 IPL auction.

“If you think of the IPL, there is a lot of downtime,” Warne explains. “There is a lot of time in hotels, a lot of time traveling, in airports waiting in lounges, on buses.”

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A notion he repeats is that of “opportunity:” the chance for youngsters to soak up as much knowledge as possible from their star colleagues and to change their lives.

As Warne says: “To sit around a dressing room for Yusuf Pathan, Jadeja and a few other young Indian players; to be mixing with players like Shane Watson, Graeme Smith – who was captain of South Africa, myself as well as captain and coach; to interact and watch the way we train; to pick their brains – ‘How do you face this type of bowling? What you would do in a certain situation?’

“That was something that I did for the first four years as captain and coach. I just said: ‘Okay guys, ask questions.’”

The Royals were the heart-warming tale that the IPL needed. Cynicism was replaced by a recognition of the league’s possibilities.

“If you think of just India, there are 1.3 billion people and they all love cricket, let alone the rest of the population of the world,” Warne explains.

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“The opportunities are there. A lot of players who might be on the fringe and might not have had the opportunity to play against international players on a regular basis, suddenly have because people are looking for a great buy – paying ‘unders’ for a decent player.

“For the opportunity for the younger player to grow now and be part of a franchise – even if they don’t play – just to watch and experience it and get them hungry for it, is a huge thing.

“I think the IPL is probably the biggest learning curve for any player – whether you’re an experienced player or a young player. I think the young player obviously benefits the most.”

The competition has become a breeding ground for the sport’s next generation. Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan and Mujeeb Ur Rahman, as well as Nepal’s Sandeep Lamichhane, are proof that neither age nor nationality act as barriers.

Meanwhile, the development of Rishabh Pant – voted the competition’s emerging player of the year in 2018 – into a major part of India’s squad is a reminder of the IPL’s impact on its own shores.

As Warne sums up: “The IPL has really helped the Indian team, but it has also helped other countries as well.”