Nights at the circus
From the time the Indian Cricket League was conceived, the question on everyone's lips was: will it grow or will it be stillborn? If one takes popularity as the yardstick, the grand finale on Sunday evening at the packed Tau Devi Lal Stadium would have put to rest all speculation. The stadium, which is about equidistant from both the Sector 16 ground in Chandigarh and the Punjab Cricket Association's stadium in Mohali, can normally accommodate around 6000, but that figure swelled to 10,000 for the final, with people thronging the railings of various stands, and packing themselves into the grass banks that ring the ground outside.
Subhash Chandra, the head of the Zee group, the league's backers, and Kapil Dev declared the inaugural edition a success as they unveiled plans for the future, but their smiling faces hid uncertainty. For the moment the matter of whether the public would recognise the ICL had been dispelled, but one question remains: did those people throng to the ground to witness a sporting spectacle, or was it the other delights on offer that sucked them in?
The verdict from Panchkula has been no different to those from other parts of the world when it comes to the carnival atmosphere of Twenty20. "Entertainment" was the most popular response if you asked young and old on Sunday for the reason for their attendance at the final. For his part, Kapil has no problems with that. "Sport to me is entertainment and I'll let the public decide what is good for them," he said. Then, in what seemed like an aside, but was delivered in seriousness, he added, "If the crowd would like horse-jumping or a dog show, we'll get them."
Of course, definitions of entertainment vary. For die-hard cricket fans the sight of Chris Cairns blasting sixes over the stands was a dream come true. For others it was the glitter, the dancing girls, the music. Young girls, not quite impressed with the ICL's line-up of players, came in to watch the final nevertheless, to experience something different. For them it was all about the festive spirit.
Shrieks, whistles and horns swept the stadium every time a performer stepped on to the stage. Tanushree Dutta, a former Miss India, now a Bollywood starlet, had the crowd's eyeballs glued to the big screen and stage during the final. On the preceding days, Bollywood beauties Kareena Kapoor, Malaika Arora Khan, and Yana Gupta, and popular singers Kailash Kher and Sukhwinder had performed before completely full to near-vacant stands.
If anything can grapple with the might of cricket in India, it is Bollywood. No wonder, then, that some in the BCCI took umbrage recently at Shahrukh Khan's turning up at Twenty20 games and ODIs, in what they saw as an attempt to promote his films using the cricket. The ICL, backed by Chandra's clout in Bollywood, brought the cast of the forthcoming Sunday - Ajay Devgan, Irrfan Khan, and Ayesha Takia - in for the final. Those three together may not have been able to match the star value of Khan, the reigning emperor of the Hindi movie industry, but Chandra understood that something was better than nothing.
The other stars who stole the show were the cheerleaders, referred to here as "dancing girls", none of them Indian. At the end of the evening, amid the Chennai Superstars' victory celebrations, one bunch of the girls happened to pass through the ground, moving to the other end. The crowd, which had been allowed inside the ring to mingle with the players, turned eagerly to the young women as they walked nervously past, in single file. Fortunately, there were bouncers on hand to see the girls across safe. The atmosphere had something of a college festival or a carnival about it.
It wasn't just the young who had been lured by the glitter and the razzmatazz. Families formed a big chunk of the crowd that braved the numbing cold to watch the Superstars put it across the Chandigarh Lions for the million-dollar prize.
|"Sport to me is entertainment and I'll let the public decide what is good for them. If the crowd would like horse-jumping or a dog show, we'll get them" Kapil Dev|
Among the incentives was the fairly priced tickets. Engineering student Vikas Dhiman, a 21-year-old Panchkula native, got a free ticket along with the one he bought for Rs 100. On weekends, for Rs 150 one could watch two games. There were no restrictions on bringing bottles of water or other beverages into the stands. The usual red tape that exists at a regular cricket stadium in India was absent, and the crowd management was smooth, all of which served to make the spectator experience that much more comfortable.
Disappointingly for the organisers, though, by and large, except on the opening and closing days, the turnouts were sparse. Even if a fair number of the league games were played over weekends, and there were stars like Brian Lara, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Chris Cairns on view, the masses didn't pour in. Reportedly, most of those who did turn up were pass-holders from the Haryana Urban Development Authority, which rented the ground to the ICL, and friends and relatives of the various sponsors and organisers.
There may have been a yawning gap between what was on offer in Panchkula and the international Twenty20 experience, but those who did turn up seemed to enjoy themselves. Will they be back for another edition? Chances are, they will. As long as the entertainment is dished out, the actual cricket will not matter much. The curtains have just gone up on the ICL show.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo