May 25, 2018
Sport
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India
Cricket Sweeping New York?

Not just yet

By Dan Packel

The final night of the third season of the Indian Premier League should have been a triumph for league commissioner Lalit Modi. In just three years at the helm, Modi had transformed the face of Indian cricket, delivering a potent injection of capital and glamour into what was already the nation’s most popular sport.

But as soon as the championship trophy was awarded, Modi received word that he’d been suspended.

Cricket arrived in India along with railroads, the ossification of the caste system, and the impoverishment of the countryside — all consequences of the British imperial project. And while the latter two phenomena are far from historical curiosities (given an upsurge of Maoist violence in India’s hinterlands), they’re less and less visible from India’s surging cities.

But in all parts of India, cricket is unavoidable. It’s long been the NFL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, and the NHL all rolled into one.

There are key differences, though: fans historically channel their fervor towards the national squad rather than a local team; the important matches last for either eight hours or five days; and they don’t serve beer.

Since India’s economy began liberalizing in 1991, India’s private sector has boomed. Growth rates have topped 7% for the last decade, foreign investment has flooded in, and the urban middle class has ballooned.

The list of India Premier League franchises could double as a guide to the nodes of India’s boom: they’ve arisen in Mumbai, Delhi, Chennai and Bangalore, and even Kolkata, in Communist-governed West Bengal.

These are the locales most transformed by the rising consumer class, eager to shell out up to 5,000 rupees (over $100) for a ticket to a cricket match.

And Modi — part prophet, part charlatan, part convicted kidnapper (as a cocaine-dealing undergrad at Duke University in the 1980s) — was the first to figure out how to manipulate the powerful but inert bureaucracy behind Indian cricket, to seize opportunities.

On a humid March evening, shortly before Modi’s fall, I joined a crowd of fans wearing blue Mumbai Indians jerseys outside Mumbai’s Brabourne Stadium. The home team was competing against the Royal Challengers of Bangalore, named after a whiskey brand owned by Vijay Mallaya, one of India’s most prominent plutocrats. The Indians didn’t lack for powerful financial backing, either. When rights to franchises for the league were awarded in 2008, Mukesh Ambani — deemed by Forbes in 2010 to be the fourth wealthiest man in the world — shelled out a league-high $111.9 million dollars for the Mumbai side, narrowly topping the price paid by Mallaya.

A capacity crowd of over 20,000 fans inside the stadium was evidence of the league’s strength. It didn’t hurt that the Mumbai Indians were led by Sachin Tendulkar, possibly the greatest batsman of cricket’s modern era. Worshiped by hundreds of millions, hess one of the world’s most popular athletes. At only five feet and five inches tall, Tendulkar is proof that in cricket-batting, finesse trumps brawn. When the Mumbai native started warming up in front of the East Stands where I was seated, the fans around me began roaring: “Sa-chin, Sa-chin.”

But the reception for cheerleaders was equally enthusiastic. A mix of blondes and brunettes, in short skirts and calf-high boots, and with exposed midriffs, they came out together and jogged along the perimeter of the field. During the warm-ups and game breaks, they waved their white pompoms and danced with coordinated zeal. When they spun around, one could see the backs of their tops emblazoned with the logo for White Mischief, a vodka brand belonging to the Bangalore team’s owner.

Glamour now needed to match, even trump, the action on the field. Two Bollywood stars own teams, and serve as “celebrity brand ambassadors.” Post-match parties are fodder for local society pages.

The debt to the NFL is obvious. In the IPL’s inaugural season in 2008, the Royal Challengers imported over a dozen cheerleaders from the Washington Redskins,  to sport red and gold hot pants and halter tops, and wave pom-poms. The controversy-seeking media loved it, as did sexually repressed young men from around the country. Cricket purists and tradition-defending elders, not so much.

For the third season, the league’s 40 regular cheerleaders, all recruited from South Africa, were trained by professional choreographers to dance to Bollywood hits. Ten “backups” hailed from Ukraine. (No concession is paid to South Africa’s fraught racial history or to its substantial Indian population: all 50 women were non-Indian and white.)

Modi also opened his checkbook to lure top cricketers — turning the 45-day event into a global all-star tournament.

Shortly after the cheerleaders arrived, but not before the PA system played the global pregame anthem of the moment — “I Got a Feeling,” from the Black Eyed Peas — the match began. I stood up with the rest of the fans in section 14, focused on the action, and hoped that tonight would indeed be a good, good night.

But the Indians were soon struggling. The Royal Challengers were rapidly picking up wickets (the equivalent of outs), eliminating the Indians’ best batsmen. After a middling performance that was still greeted with shouts of adoration every time he struck the ball, Tendulkar too went down, sending a hush over the crowd, and not just those wearing his replica jerseys or waving signs that equated him to a god.

At the break in action, Mumbai’s low target was discouraging.

“Iâ??m not saying we will win,” said my neighbor, who’d come to the match, his first, at the urging of his 12-year-old son. “But we can win.”

Even this guarded optimism was soon revealed as misplaced. The Challengers were scoring runs at a rate that would easily eclipse the target. A graceful catch (barehanded, of course — no leather mitts allowed) of a looping shot brought the crowd back to life and momentarily halted the assault. But the Royal Challengers soon regrouped, and worked steadily towards a comfortable victory.

My familiarity with the basic rules ensured that I could keep abreast of the general action on the pitch. But presumably, the subtleties that keep real cricket enthusiasts enraptured were lost on me.

And as I sat, struggling to retain my enthusiasm, I was beginning to see through Lalit Modi’s hubris. The game may have been revolutionized in India, but talk of introducing professional cricket to the United States, and turning the IPL into an international force as lucrative as soccer’s English Premier League, now seemed a little far-fetched.

It seemed easy to believe at first, as interviewers fawned and members of Indian cricket’s governing body sat on their hands, content to watch the money pour in. But none of us dreamed that Modi would bring himself down.

Modern man that he is, he was done in by a Tweet. Dissatisfied with the outcome of an auction for the rights to two expansion franchises, he broke the league’s confidentiality clause by revealing the names of the stakeholders behind a winning bid.

The first casualty was junior Minister of External Affairs Shashi Tharoor, who resigned after being accused of influencing the bid. But soon Modi was also on unsteady ground.

Shaken from complacency, both the Indian media and the supervising board members began to dig for further improprieties. They didn’t have to go very deep.

Tales of tax evasion, sweetheart deals, and usurped authority competed for column inches with coverage of the semi-finals and finals. Embarrassed into action, Modi’s overseers moved quickly. After he refused to resign, they suspended him.

And that abruptly halted the madcap dalliance between cricket and capital. Stodgy administrators are now shaking their heads over the hit of razzamatazz. The future of cheerleaders, parties and celebrity representatives is suddenly up in the air. The moment for illusory visions of global domination has passed.

The IPL won’t just crumble. But don’t expect to see many blue “Tendulkar” Mumbai Indians jerseys, emblazoned with MasterCard logos, on the streets of New York any time soon.

Dan Packel is a writer based in Mumbai, India, and the former “Think Local” columnist for the Philadelphia Weekly.

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