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02 Jun 2008 07:11
After the smoke trails of fireworks have evaporated and the cheerleaders have put away their pompoms, India has begun to question whether its new billion-dollar cricket league is a sign of a nation breaking free of a colonial legacy or just a crass money-making machine.
There is little doubt the Indian Premier League (IPL), which ended on Sunday night with the winners bagging $2-million in prize money, has changed the domestic game for good. In India, it is said that cricket is more a religion than a sport.
When India won the Twenty20 world cup last year, two million people took to the streets to welcome the young squad home.
Twenty20 is barely recognisable from slow-paced five-day Test matches. IPL games involve three hours of high-octane batting and bowling, accompanied by dancers and a booming Bollywood soundtrack. There are no draws, no white flannels and no tea breaks.
For the first time since the 1960s, thousands have packed stadiums over the past six weeks to watch local sides, all packed with international stars. The game’s razzmatazz may have infuriated critics but it has also emptied cinemas and seen audiences for television soaps evaporate.
Bollywood films launched during the league have flopped, say multiplex owners, because people are too interested in Twenty20. Analysts say more than 250-million people have watched the league on TV. Broadcasting it at prime time has proved sports can “compete eyeball-to-eyeball” with other shows, said Anurag Batra of exchange4media.com, an Indian media analysis website.
Shopping patterns too have changed. Malls reported a 20% drop in visitors during the matches.
The IPL, say its detractors, is “the opium of the middle classes”. “It is aimed at that upwardly mobile section of society who want something to do in between coming home from work and sleeping,” said Ramachandra Guha, a historian and author of a book on Indian cricket.
He added that the infatuation with the new format has magnified some of the country’s worst traits: ingrained racism and sexism. Two black cheerleaders were allegedly prevented from performing at some games, “because of the colour of their skin”. Others have complained of a torrent of ogling and lewd abuse from crowds. The dancers were eventually banned from performing in some cities by local politicians.
In a strange way, all this was predicted by the editor of [cricketing bible] Wisden last year. He said the game was getting so commercialised that there would be physical violence between players,” added Guha, pointing to the Indian bowler Harbhajan Singh’s ban for slapping his teammate and fellow bowler Sreesanth in an IPL match.
The money in the IPL is staggering. Mukesh Ambani, the head of Reliance Industries and one of the world’s richest men, and the billionaire Vijay Mallya, each paid about Â£55-million for a franchise, while Bollywood’s biggest star, Shah Rukh Khan, spent close to Â£40-million along with two partners for a team in Kolkata.
That is likely to be a wise investment. Mumbai stockbrokers say that within 10 years, each team’s annual revenue should be Â£60-million. “It is an attempt to sell cricket as a reality show—[providing] a new entertainment genre which cuts across the classes,” said Alchemyonline.
With all the money now in cricket, it is little wonder that last week the batsman Sachin Tendulkar announced he would buy a home in his native Mumbai—for Â£5-million. As with the English football premiership, the influx of money has globalised the game. Australian batsman Andrew Symonds made Â£250 000 from four appearances for Hyderabad’s Deccan Chargers.
In some way, the new game is a reflection of India’s emerging “consumerist meritocracy”, which emphasises performance regardless of patriotism and politics. “There is a sense of loyalty that is team-based and that is a new thing and probably a good thing for India,” said Mukul Kesavan, a writer and cricket columnist.
Twenty20 was invented in England in 2003 and was initially shunned by the cricket authorities in most other countries—including India. Having embraced the format, the Indian Premier League (IPL) is destined to grow into one of the world’s biggest sporting competitions over the next 10 years. Although small by international standards, average club revenues are predicted to quintuple in that time to Â£60-million a year. By comparison, Arsenal football club’s turnover in 2007 was Â£177-million. But the IPL could raise revenue by lengthening the contest—there is speculation it may double to 12 weeks. - guardian.co.uk Â
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