The cricket stadium at Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi used to be uncomfortable and squalid, now it's comfortable and vulgar. The concrete terraces have been replaced by plastic seats, there's a giant video screen for replays, the lavatories are better, but the improvements seem beside the point because they don't play cricket there any more.
I went to watch the Indian Premier League fixture between a team called the Delhi Daredevils and another called the Rajasthan Royals. It didn't feel like a cricket match; it was either a neighbourhood game played by very rich kids with extremely cool gear or a charity game played by celebrities for a good cause (themselves). Delhi won. That much was clear. Not much else was. Disoriented by the strobe lights that dazzled my stand at the end of every over, I thought for a while that the Sri Lankans were playing because the Rajasthan team were turned out in a Sri Lankan dark blue. Then I saw Farveez Maharoof bowling for the other side and came to my senses.
But it didn't matter who was playing because the only player who mattered, the asli khilari (the real champion), had done his turn on the field before the game began. Akshay Kumar, the film star, had been hired as the mascot (if that's the right word) for Delhi. So before the match began, he did a few wire-assisted stunts mid-pitch and then retreated to the new pavilion's balcony. He took the crowd's attention with him.
For most of the three hours that the "match" took to complete, the people in my bay had their backs to the game, the better to adore Akshay Kumar who showed he was a good workman worthy of his hire by standing on a chair, making as if to step off the balcony railing, cheering for the Delhi team and even throwing the t-shirt he was wearing to his fans. That last action summed up the event: after a sporting contest, it's the winning player who throws a wristband or a shirt to the screaming hordes; after an IPL tamasha, it's much more likely to be the featured film star.
As a cricket match, it was awful and not only, or even mainly, because it was one-sided. It was a non-contest because it was incoherent. Nobody in my bay knew the names of the Indian players who hadn't played for the country. That wasn't their fault, but in the course of a real cricket match you get to know the players, specially if you're at the stadium because you watch them move about when nothing is happening; cricket has lots of "dead" time in between individual deliveries and overs, which helps the spectator into a state of relaxed alertness.
In an IPL match, the organisers do their best to kill this idle time because their souls are so in sync with that sacred cash cow, the commercial, that they can't imagine what regular people in a stadium would do with themselves in the 90 or so unedited seconds between overs. That's where the strobe lights, the snatches of Hindi film songs, the fireworks, the cheerleaders in their little skirts, and the animated logos boosting the home side, come into play.
The IPL formula seems to go like this: take an abbreviated game, buy multi-star teams, chuck into pot with a ladleful of film-star flash, bus in a non-paying public with tiny attention spans, distract them with fireworks and other diversions, and sell the lot to an ambitious television channel. Only, somewhere along the way, Lalit Modi and his Money Men mislaid the cricket.
The cricket played thus far has been low-grade rubbish. The innings played by Brendon McCullum or Michael Hussey or Virender Sehwag tell us more about the bowler's predicament in the Twenty20 format than the batsman's gifts. In this ultra-compact version of cricket, the game's natural bias in favour of the batsman is exaggerated to the point of caricature. Each individual batsman can bat as long as he's not out, and the batting side has the insurance of ten wickets over a measly 20 overs. The poor bowler can't bowl more than four overs, no-balls are penalised by free hits, and the slightest deviation down the leg side constitutes a wide. Every bowler is the fall guy, the mug who helps the batsman make the paying public cheer.
Did I say paying public? My mistake. In the build-up to the Delhi match, I was pleased to hear that a system for buying tickets online had been put into place. When I asked a friend, who now works for one of the franchises, what percentage of the spectators in the stadium had paid for their tickets, he grinned and said that I shouldn't ask the question because he couldn't give me an honest answer.
Perhaps it doesn't matter that IPL matches are watched by freeloading spectators. It may be that cricket doesn't need a paying public, given the fact that it's underwritten by its television audience. It's the millions of couch potatoes and the eyeballs they add up to that make big money possible in cricket. So why shouldn't cricket as televised tamasha pay its way? Nobody, after all, has ever lost any money betting on the Indian fan's appetite for coarse cricket.
There is a real possibility that the IPL will work. The players like the money, the franchisees adore the publicity, the television channels gloat over their sold "inventory", and Mr Modi loves playing Midas. If the IPL succeeds, Test cricket, if it survives at all, will survive as a sporting curiosity, rather like billiards or real tennis. Once the IPL shows that it's financially sound, the implications for the first-class game will be catastrophic. Already first-class cricket exists only as a nursery for Test cricket. Given the money that the IPL has to offer, why should any ambitious cricketer waste his energies on the four-innings game? A player stands to make more money in the six-week season of the IPL than in years of Test cricket.
Nor can you argue that stardom within Twenty20 cricket depends on a player's international exposure because all successful club leagues eventually create their own star system. Already rookies like Robin Uthappa and Ishant Sharma stand to make as much or more money than veteran internationals like Ricky Ponting or Rahul Dravid.
Allen Stanford, the American billionaire, has proposed a winner-take-all five-match Twenty20 face-off between a team of Caribbean all-stars fielded by him and an English XI. The purse? $100 million. Should the IPL find a reliable television audience for the Twenty20 game, we can expect longer league seasons, more tournaments and more extravaganzas of the sort Stanford wants to stage. Along the way, the ICC and its chairman will become obsolete in the same way as the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev did when the Russian Federation took over. No prizes for guessing who'll play Boris Yeltsin.
But I'm hopeful that the IPL venture will fail. There are crucial differences between football's English Premier League and the IPL. The EPL's audience has been built over a century of league football; it'll be very hard for the IPL to instantly produce the traditional partisanship, the long-brewed loyalty, that sustains league football.
Secondly, as Mike Marqusee pointed out in an essay in the Hindu, English and European club football is played in the traditional 90-minute format that has always defined the game, whereas the IPL has invested massive sums of money in an abbreviated, untried version of the game with no history, no under-girding loyalties, and a very narrow geographical base.
Thirdly, where the EPL sells football, the IPL has made the fatal mistake of selling razzmatazz. Over time this will trivialise the league because the glitz will make it hard for its potential fan base to take the matches seriously. Loyalty, in the end, is a serious business.
Finally, the IPL will fail (pray god) because any form of cricketing theatre in which bowlers are cast as extras, can't possibly create the tension essential for great drama.