Why you should care
Because the gentleman’s game is adapting to the 21st century.
Cricket is a monster here in India, a King Kong-like cultural force that smashes through TV sets, radio waves and maidans, devouring all competing forms of entertainment in its path. Indians’ mad passion for the sport can be difficult for outsiders to grasp, and when a match of true national importance is on TV (like India’s victory over Sri Lanka in the 2011 Cricket World Cup Final), hundreds of millions tune in to watch.
But the sport, long valued for its gentlemanliness and its place in Indian history, is changing — and not every fan is pleased.
The Indian Premier League (IPL), a more commercially accessible version of the game Robin Williams joked was “basically baseball on valium,” enters into its seventh season on April 16, and it could eventually replace traditional forms of the sport. The talent level is impressive, the pace is fast, and games tend to be louder than the decor on a Mumbai taxi.
The IPL reached 129 million Indian homes in 2013 — making it the country’s only sporting event to earn ratings comparable with that of the 2011 World Cup. And since its greatest fan base lies among the young, the league attracts big-name advertisers like Vodafone and Pepsi .
Cricket watchers can consume the sport in any of three ways: Long five-day test matches, filled with tea breaks; ODI, or one-day international matches like those featured in the Cricket World Cup; and IPL’s T-20 matches, a condensed, four-hour version named for its limitation of 20 overs for each team across a single inning.
Cricket lingo: An over is a set of six balls bowled (much like an inning in baseball). One bowler delivers all six balls for the batsman to hit.
Considering that the IPL isn’t the only league to use an abbreviated style of play like T-20, it’s the league’s accessories that seem to have made it such a unique phenomenon.
Like the formula of many mainstream Bollywood blockbusters , IPL steals its basic themes from abroad, and then either Indian-izes them or bumps them over the top. The round robin structure and team badge designs are adapted more or less from European football’s globally popular English Premier League. But the more controversial stuff has been imported from American shores.
There’s the booming music, fireworks and — bring it on — cheerleaders. Scantily clad young women, most of whom are white — much like the Bollywood extras Indian cinema exults in — dance during the game’s celebratory moments and during analysis breaks. This penchant for sensory overload injects the IPL with a vibe once associated with the now-defunct XFL, rather than its more sedate older brother, the NFL.
True, the XFL collapsed after one season, but the talent level of the IPL is so astonishingly high — the league features cricket’s brightest superstars from India to Australia to the West Indies — that even if older fans scoff at the extra frills, the game of cricket, brilliantly played, is firmly at the league’s core.
Aakash Chopra, a veteran of India’s national team, played two seasons for IPL’s Rajasthan Royals and Kolkata Knight Riders before retiring to become an analyst for the network StarSports. He grew up loving the leisurely pace of test cricket but acknowledges that a new generation is drawn to IPL’s bombastic energy.
“I’m a purist at heart but I’m also a realist,” Chopra says. “I have no qualms with accepting that the IPL is much more popular now. We don’t live in the stone ages, and cricket has to evolve with the times.”
Chopra’s inarguable point is that for a sport to survive, it needs to make money. Like the NBA in the states, kids need to grow up wanting to be the next superstar, the next LeBron James. In India, the IPL is serving up that star power.
Charu Sharma, 54, another prominent commentator, ran IPL’s Royal Challengers Bangalore in 2008. He claims the league’s increasing popularity is inevitable, largely due to the amount of money being made off the sport.
Just how much? Sharma says the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI), a privately owned body that runs the IPL, has never experienced this level of revenue flow, and he estimates that the organization makes roughly 10 million American dollars per year from each of the eight franchises in the league.
“The IPL is India’s latest cash cow,” Sharma quips. “There’s a huge economy, an ecosystem here. The players, the commentators, everyone is making more money off of this thing than anything the sport of cricket has ever seen before.”
But when money flows in India, corruption is often not far upstream. In May 2013, three members of the IPL’s Rajasthan Royals franchise were arrested on allegations of match fixing. Gambling on IPL matches is rapidly becoming a national pastime, and India’s criminal underworld is rumored to monitor the games and players closely.
Still, corruption rarely stops Indian elites from making more money, and despite the match-fixing incident and the IPL’s slowly building legacy of scandal , advertising revenue shows no sign of ebbing. But if the league comes to embody cricket in the mind of fans, it will surely have its detractors.
“For the true fan, it has to be test cricket,” says Chopra. “T-20 has a small canvas, so if you want to know who the best players are for IPL or anything else, you need to watch test cricket first. But once this generation passes, the youth may only know about IPL’s brand, and I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Can hope alone convince a teenage boy to trade in cheerleaders and fireworks for cucumber sandwiches and cups of tea? Not likely.
Michael Edison Hayden is an American writer based in Mumbai. You can follow him on Twitter @MichaelEHayden.