Moment from the cricket match between the Mumbai Indians and the Chennai Super Kings on April 23, 2008: Harbhajan Singh, playing for the Indians, runs out Matthew Hayden, playing for the Super Kings. This is what the play-by-play man on a cricket website types: “Ironically, Hayden is dismissed by his nemesis!”86eac5a5d52c82f86b4a7002bb7bd906-2

What’s this about, you ask? (You mean some of you actually don’t know?) Earlier this year, Singh was playing for India in Australia. An on-field confrontation between Singh and the Aussies inflamed partisan tempers, particularly in India. It didn’t help that Hayden, an Australian star, went on a Brisbane radio show to call Singh an “obnoxious weed,” nor that Singh told a Delhi paper that Hayden was a “big liar.” And now we cricket fanatics watch like hawks as Messrs Weed and Liar, signed up for major bucks in the planet’s newest and glitziest cricket league, go at each other.

Sidelights and subtexts: only two of the charms of the cricket extravaganza known as the Indian Premier League (IPL).

Cricket has been due a shakeup. 30 years ago—when the classic five-day Test game got stale—was the last time it got one. Aussie media tycoon Kerry Packer promoted one-day games for big money, attracting the world’s best players to his league. That revolution spread quickly. The skills the one-day version demands enlivened the five-day game, and now we are used to the two forms co-existing, if sometimes uncomfortably. But the one-day game has become tired and predictable, too: last year’s stultifying World Cup was a nadir for the sport.

Enter the latest form, Twenty20, in which cricket has finally caught up with baseball. Three hours of frenzy and cricketing mayhem, and you have a result. Tests do not always produce a winner, but they have nuance, strategy, even beauty. I remember an American friend’s reaction after I took him to a match here in Bombay. The players, he wrote to his wife, performed “with ballet-like precision.” Fans like me, passionate about such classic virtues, search for them in the three-hour game, but in vain. Instead, Twenty20 match reports are filled with words like “bludgeon,” “biff,” “whack,” and “whip.” No nuance there.

Twenty20 does have cheerleaders, though; one team has actually flown in the Redskins’ ladies. Glamour like that, cricket has never seen, and it seems to signal something new about India. Emily Wax of the Washington Post notes, “It can all be seen as a metaphor for India itself, which is growing younger, hipper, and more willing to take chances, awash in cash as its economy expands nine percent per year.”

Yet the girls of the Redskins have quickly woken up to some other realities of India as well. A front page Hindustan Times report says they are devastated “by the obscenities and lewd propositions targeted at them by Indian spectators.” Besides, some politicians have objected to their “wild dancing,” which “goes against the grain of our tradition and culture.”

Meanwhile on the TV in front of me, the camera lingers longingly on dancing waists, bare backs, and heaving breasts. Just another Bollywood song giving expression to our culture, pay no attention.

Hypocrisy over cheerleaders apart, Twenty20 is a game that could have been tailor-made for India in the 21st century. The cricket world’s biggest audience is here, which means the big money is no longer in England or Australia, but in India. The slam-bang pace of the game fits the self-image of a country rapidly on the rise but impatient with old certainties, brash and self-confident but unabashedly hedonistic. Add to the cricket a substantial dose of Bollywood celebrity—Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta own two IPL teams—plenty of cheerleader cleavage and regular dabs of controversy. What you get is the IPL, dominating newsprint and TV screens all over India through April and May.

Given the hype, you might think the IPL pioneered Twenty20 in India. Yet it is actually the second such league in India and was dreamed up as a response to the first. That first is the Indian Cricket League, which in 2007 put together a similar cocktail of foreign and Indian players, plenty of color, franchises, and high salaries. Even before the IPL got off the ground, the ICL had conducted two tournaments, but nothing on the scale of the IPL. And somewhere in there is a story about India, too.

Both leagues have sent player salaries through the roof. For playing between 14 and 16 matches over six weeks, big name IPL players like Tendulkar, Dravid and Dhoni, as well as some foreign stars, will earn over a million dollars. Sure, these numbers are not up there with the multi-million salaries common in American sports, at least not yet. Besides, for these top players this kind of money is not new. Endorsements alone earn them plenty. The Twenty20 leagues are really a godsend for lesser players, young men stuck in the penurious backwaters of the domestic game who will never make it to the Indian team. For the first time, they can earn something reasonable for their talents. It was that promise with which the ICL attracted swathes of young Indian cricketers, and the IPL games have already showcased more.

Nor is this a story restricted to India. Shane Bond, a fine bowler from New Zealand, signed with the ICL for $600,000, three times his salary from New Zealand Cricket. At 32, with a young family to support, he could hardly turn down money like that. His countryman, Brendon McCullum, who set the IPL alight with an incandescent batting performance on opening night, admitted in an interview that his life “changed forever” on the February day that the Kolkata IPL franchise, owned by Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, bid $700,000 for him. “It was a huge moment for me,” McCullum said. “[Now I can] focus on getting the job done [on the field] rather than having to worry about the financial ins and outs.”

Cricket watchers have hailed money like this as the triumph of the market, finally at work in cricket. “As this market matures,” wrote Amit Varma, 2007 winner of the Bastiat Prize, “we will come closer to finding out the true value of players.” The IPL, he thinks, “is a huge step forward for cricket.”

Really? For signing with the ICL, Shane Bond has been banned from playing for New Zealand—or anywhere else his true value might be appreciated—ever again. The same for others in the ICL. No such bans apply to IPL signees. Why? Because only the IPL, and not the ICL, is sanctioned by the International Cricket Council, the sport’s governing body. It is also the brainchild of the Indian cricket board, the world’s richest and thereby most powerful. Evidently, it is not averse to arm-twisting less wealthy boards like New Zealand Cricket into penalizing players who sign with the competition. It even has the press referring to the ICL as an “unauthorized” league populated by “rebels.”

Here’s an organization that actively works to stomp competition—the very essence of the market—but still attracts applause for being the market-driven shot in the arm that cricket needed, for being “a huge step forward for cricket.” That’s how starry eyed the IPL has left some of us.

The same website I mentioned on opening carried a preview of Harbhajan Singh’s next match. “Look for needle,” it prompted readers, between him and S. Sreesanth, an IPL opponent but a long-time mate on the India team. Sure enough, when the game ended, Singh slapped Sreesanth. Sreesanth covered his face and bawled. Singh was punished by being banned from the rest of the IPL tournament. We cricket fanatics watch like hawks.

A computer scientist by training, Dilip D’Souza now writes for his supper in Bombay. His main interests are social and political issues in India.

 

Share this: