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What the IPL says about India

Cheerleaders in action in Mohali ESPNcricinfo Ltd

An alien descending on India about now would find India a state where life is centred around three-hour cricket matches that spill over into seven-hour parties after the game; where the most powerful people in the country converge for their daily fix of fame and power; where multi-million dollar sponsorship (or rights) deals are being announced with mind-boggling nonchalance; where new franchises are being sold at a 300% mark-up on the original price; where

But for the sudden announcement of tennis heartthrob Sania Mirza's marriage to former Pakistan captain Shoaib Malik, and the ensuing controversy, it has been impossible to keep the Indian Premier League off the front pages for the past month and some. Indeed, the comebacks of Michael Schumacher and Tiger Woods, both spectacular stories in their own different ways, have been relegated to the ranks of the also-rans.

In its third season, one thought the clamour for the IPL would be on the wane; more so after the controversy following the (limited) auction of players in January, when Pakistan cricketers were sidelined, ostensibly by franchise owners, but effectively by the league. The criticism that followed was scathing and widespread, and would impact the tournament.

On the contrary, this year's tournament has generated more frenzy among the public, more eyeballs for TV viewership, and more moolah for everybody associated. So much so that the IPL is now touted as the sixth most valued sports property in the world at $4.2 billion, a figure Lalit Modi, chairman of the governing council as well as the IPL's commissioner, disdainfully dismissed as "yesterday's valuation" in an interview to business paper Mint on the eve of the tournament.

What makes the IPL such a rousing success? Does it not dilute the importance of the game, putting so much emphasis on razzmatazz and brouhaha? Isn't there a fatigue threshold for this slam-bang variety of cricket? Piyush Pandey, of the advertising giant Ogilvy & Mather, and a former first-class cricketer, had an explanation as fascinating as it was simple.

"I believed that the IPL would find few takers after the first few matches in the first season itself," he said. "But when the last match was played, my mom asked me unhappily, 'What will I do every evening now?'" That's revealing in itself about the appeal of Twenty20 cricket (I wouldn't say only the IPL), which cuts across gender and age barriers and has brought in spectators and viewers in droves.

Several social historians over the past three years have argued that the IPL manifests the emerging India and its lifestyle eloquently: that this event fulfils the aspirations of achievement and self-assertion in the globalised world, of which India now finds itself a part; apart, of course, from providing full-scale entertainment. The truth of such propositions is open to scrutiny, but they offer an interesting insight into a phenomenon that has had the world abuzz.

The success of the IPL has set off a number of arguments, both in India and abroad. Its detractors find it, without putting too fine a point on it, vulgar, loud, crass, commercial, lacking in class and finesse, and finally, just not cricket. Purists are particularly enraged because they believe that too many things are being tinkered with, and that if this continues the game will lose its originality and tradition: that India, now the financial powerhouse of cricket, is playing around too much with the format without a care for the essence of the game.

My understanding is that some part of this anger is genuine concern for the game, some part actually fear of uncertainty and change, and a large part of it baseless, with no locus in fact or history. The format of cricket has been tweaked and tinkered with often, and almost never by India. Limited-overs cricket originated in England - the cradle of the game. Coloured clothing, floodlights and white balls came from Australia. Twenty20 was, again, born in England, and we first sighted cheerleaders during the World Twenty20 in South Africa in 2007.

Indeed, let alone being radical, I would say that Indian cricket - administrators and players - has been rather slow on the uptake in improvisation, innovation and in terms of being a game changer in a major way. Apart from a long history of being divided among themselves, the players have been content to follow the path laid out by other cricket-playing countries, notably England in the past and Australia more recently.

The most radical aspect of Indian cricket that I can recall is captains rolling the new ball along the ground in the 1960s and 70s to wear the shine off early so that the spinners could be brought on pronto; the most diabolical was the match-fixing scam at the turn of the last century, where India found itself at the epicentre of the scam. But it is fair to believe that the malaise was spread all over the cricket world, and perhaps involved cricketers from other countries before it did Indians. In any case, match-fixing can be traced to the very origins of the game in England, and was hardly a new phenomenon, though it certainly was the most undesirable.

I reckon the larger objection to the IPL is to the tamasha that it is seen to be. It cannot just be about the cheerleaders, for as explained earlier, they are a borrowed concept (and this year they have also been low key). Rather it is the "obscene" display of money, the apparent intrusion of the sponsor and advertiser onto cricket's hallowed ground and into the live coverage, and the massive amounts for which teams and players are bought and sold that appear to have exercised the world's finer minds.

But I venture that the IPL also reflects the upheaval in the Indian ethos, the unshackling of conservative mores in spending and consumption, the rapidly changing dynamics of how Indians now see themselves in the emerging new world order: and all of this projected through the music, colour and pageantry that has defined Indian life for centuries. Indian cinema is a standard expression of this; as indeed the affluent Indian wedding is - even the modern one, where tradition is caught up in copious consumption.

Cricket, as integral to Indian life as films and as celebratory as weddings, is now also replete with songs, dance, and tamasha, set against a backdrop of high-spirited entrepreneurship and new-found economic well-being, with its sometimes grotesque understanding of "feel good". The result, admittedly, is often a cacophony, where the original message can be mistaken, or indeed even lost.

The IPL could be seen as a metaphor for the emerging India, warts and all: freed from economic shackles, playing with recently acquired affluence and (over)confidence. Often with such new confidence comes brashness, yet that brashness also provides the energy for further growth - both economic and social. To say that what existed in the past is binding on the future is to be patronising and, seen in the larger sweep of history, quite silly. India is a billion-strong country with a robust economy; its people now feel empowered to make choices, and who is to tell them what cricket to watch and how?

"The IPL reflects the upheaval in the Indian ethos, the unshackling of conservative mores in spending and consumption, the rapidly changing dynamics of how Indians now see themselves in the emerging new world order"

Yes, this is the new India, and this is its voice currently, not always coherent or correct. At times the decibel levels are at screeching point. Often the subtleties and nuances of an ancient culture, given so much deference across the world, are hard to find in the mayhem. Indeed, ever so often, India in myriad aspects currently appears like the Wild West. I say "currently" with due deliberation, because this may just be a passing phase.

Where cricket is concerned, of course, the purists are right in some sense - the IPL is a tamasha. But it is just as likely that the IPL will evolve, as does society and the nation. It is unlikely to remain permanently brash or "vulgar". Already there are subtle differences between the first and the third editions of the game. Players themselves are reacting to the tournament differently.

And if viewers find the "crass commercialism" annoying, they will also make their displeasure felt. So will broadcasters: this IPL we have had TV ads informing people that they can watch ad-free matches in multiplexes! Pay TV may soon also allow people to buy ad-free packages. Change, goes the clich , is a constant, and the IPL is unlikely to remain static.


Right now the IPL, as mentioned earlier, is a bit like Bollywood, a medium that, as a cinematic idiom, is peculiar in itself and distinct from Hollywood. Comparisons at this stage would be value judgements because Bollywood is also evolving with its exposure to world cinema. The IPL is also not likely to be different.

What is imperative, from an enterprise point of view, is to build in best practices and standards in the league. It cannot work forever on hype, unless, of course, it aims to become a WWE. The controversy over the new Kochi franchise is a case in point. For a major sports league, robust and transparent systems and processes will not only help build value but along with it credibility, which will then multiply manifold.

It would also be presumptuous to see the IPL as the be all and end all of Indian cricket, powerful as the temptation may be. It can't be forgotten that India is currently the No. 1-ranked Test side in the world, and No. 2 in ODIs. It would be extreme folly on the part of the administrators to ignore this aspect and surrender everything to the league.

The elevation of Sharad Pawar as the ICC president in September should provide a fascinating dimension to how international cricket shapes up. Pawar will have to take a top view, not a narrow one, in promoting and developing the sport globally. While he can perhaps justifiably gloat at having been at the helm when cricket's most lucrative league began in India, he now has to take a holistic approach that will have to serve the interests of all cricket-playing nations.

Almost 70% of the game's finances come from India, so a majority of the initiatives and ideas that can sustain not just the finances but also the essential flavour of cricket should come from here. Or at least that should be the aim.

I will risk my neck and say that the IPL, with all its flaws and blemishes, is one such initiative. The success of the IPL does not need validation, it is evident. But that also does not mean it should be seen with jaundiced eyes. It needs to be seen in perspective. And enjoyed for what it is rather than what it should be.