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India 2008: Cricket Goes Prime Time

Just past twilight on May 8, storm clouds gathered over Calcutta and lightning flashed alarmingly as we made our way into the VIP stands at India’s largest cricket stadium, Eden Gardens. The crowd of 70,000-plus, paying anywhere from $10 to $150 per ticket, was undeterred as rain pelted down and tarpaulins were quickly spread over the grass. They had come to see the local team, the Kolkata Knight Riders, take on the Royal Challengers Bangalore.

It was the midway point in the inaugural season of the Indian Premier League, or IPL, which plays an abbreviated and explosive version of cricket. Traditionally the game stretches over five days or three days or, at the shortest, a single eight-hour day. In the IPL, matches last just three TV-friendly hours.

These same two teams had met a few weeks earlier in the IPL’s historic debut (Calcutta won by a whopping 140 runs), showcasing the league’s flashy new style: cheerleaders gyrating in skimpy, dazzling outfits, popular music blaring on the PA system, photogenic Bollywood stars in the stands. Many orthodox observers have derided the IPL as “comic cricket” and a “circus.” As an itinerant cricket commentator and chronicler of the game around the world for three and a half decades, I found myself a stranger in this new paradise.

Over the winter a formula for the league had been worked out whereby wealthy Indians and corporations were invited to put together eight teams, each of which would play 14 games in six weeks. Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani, one of the world’s richest men, put up $112 million for the team in his native Mumbai. Liquor tycoon Vijay Mallya bankrolled a franchise in his hometown of Bangalore for nearly the same, and film star Shah Rukh Khan paid $75 million for Calcutta’s.

The players were then bought in a televised auction. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, the national team’s brilliant wicketkeeper (similar to a catcher in baseball), went for the highest price, $1.42 million, to the Chennai Super Kings. The flamboyant and hard-hitting Yuvraj Singh cost the Kings XI Punjab $1.04 million.

These large sums were to be offset by the lucrative TV rights, acquired by Sony Max and World Sport Group for close to a billion dollars. In case there had been any creased foreheads at Sony or WSG, the ratings skyrocketed and laid low even India’s most popular soaps and serials. The response at the turnstiles was also way above projections, and sales of shirts, helmets, and other souvenirs have generated millions of dollars.

The rain-delayed match between Bangalore and Calcutta finally got under way just before 10 p.m., meaning it would stretch well past midnight. Still, there was enough color, sound, and razzmatazz to make World Wrestling Entertainment proud. The spectators, mostly young newcomers to the sport, cheered every ball, did the Mexican wave, and danced wildly, emulating their Caribbean counterparts. Their enthusiasm was as much for the beautiful people in the galleries as for their favorite son, Knight Riders captain Sourav Ganguly. Megabucks celebrities were on hand—Shah Rukh Khan and fellow screen star Juhi Chawla for the home side, supermodel Katrina Kaif for the visitors. In the end Calcutta won by a wafer-thin five runs.

But the league’s finale, played in Mumbai on June 1, was the ultimate showpiece. The sellout crowd, which paid hefty prices for seats, was treated to a thrilling contest between the Chennai Super Kings and the Rajasthan Royals (the league’s least expensive team, assembled by Lachlan Murdoch). The match was decided by the smallest margin in cricket—a single run, with the Royals taking the first-ever IPL title.

During the league’s six-week run, there were a few spectacular controversies, including an episode where Mumbai star bowler Harbhajan Singh slapped Punjab bowler Sreesanth after a match. But it was a wonderful tournament for the club coffers, as huge money poured into the game and much more has been promised. Indian cricket has graduated from sport to entertainment. And it will never be the same.

Kishore Bhimani is a television sports commentator and a columnist for The Statesman in Calcutta.