Tue, Jun 03, 2008 - Page 18 News List

IPL shows changing face of cricket and society across India

THE GUARDIAN , LONDON

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, the Rajasthan Royals, bagging US$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, 2 million people took to the streets to welcome the young squad home.

Twenty20 also signifies a step change in attitude, which views speed, money and meritocracy stamped on a traditionally restrained and relaxed culture.

Twenty20 involves three hours of high-octane batting and bowling, accompanied by dancers and a booming Bollywood soundtrack.

Thousands have packed stadiums over the past six weeks to watch. The game’s razzmatazz has 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.

Shopping patterns too have changed. Malls reported a 20 percent 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 an acclaimed 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 color of their skin.” Others have complained of a torrent of lewd abuse from crowds.

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 US$108 million for a franchise.

That is likely to be a wise investment. Mumbai stockbrokers say that within 10 years, each team’s annual revenue should be US$120 million.

In some way, the new game is a reflection of India’s emerging “consumerist meritocracy,” which emphasizes 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.

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