The cricket stadium at Feroz Shah Kotla in Delhi used to be uncomfortable and squalid, now itís comfortable and vulgar. The concrete terraces have been replaced by plastic seats, thereís a giant video screen for replays, the lavatories are better, but the improvements seem besides the point because they donít play cricket there anymore.
I went to watch the Indian Premier League fixture between a team called the Delhi Daredevils and another called the Rajasthan Royals. It didnít feel like a cricket match; it was either a neighbourhood game played by very rich kids with extremely cool gear or a charity game played by celebrities for a good cause (themselves). The Delhi Daredevils won. That much was clear. Not much else was. Disoriented by the strobe lights that dazzled my stand at the end of every over, I thought for a while that the Sri Lankans were playing because the Rajasthan Royals were turned out in a Sri Lankan dark blue. Then I saw Maharoof bowling for the other side and came to my senses.
But it didnít matter who was playing because the only player who mattered, the asli khilari, had done his turn on the field before the game began. Akshay Kumar, the film star, had been hired as the mascot (if thatís the right word) for the Delhi Daredevils. So before the match began, he did a few wire-assisted stunts mid-pitch before retreating to the new pavilionís balcony. He took the crowdís attention with him.
For most of the three hours that the Ďmatchí took to complete, the people in my bay had their backs to the game the better to adore Akshay Kumar who showed he was a good workman worthy of his hire by standing on a chair, making as if to step off the balcony railing, cheering for the Daredevils and even throwing the tee-shirt he was wearing to his fans. That last action summed up the the event: after a sporting contest, itís the winning player who throws a wristband or a shirt to the screaming hordes; after an IPL tamasha, itís much more likely to be the featured film star.
As a cricket match, it was awful and not only, or even mainly, because it was one-sided. It was a non-contest because it was incoherent. Nobody in my bay knew the names of the Indian players who hadnít played for the country. That wasnít their fault but normally, in the course of a cricket match, you get to know the players specially if youíre at the stadium because you watch them move about when nothing is happening; cricket has lots of Ďdeadí time in between individual deliveries and overs that helps the spectator into a state of relaxed alertness.
In an IPL match, the organizers do their best to kill this idle time because their souls are so in sync with that sacred cash cow, the commercial, that they canít imagine what regular people in a stadium would do with themselves in the ninety-or-so unedited seconds in-between overs. Thatís where the strobe lights, the snatches of Hindi film songs, the fireworks, the cheerleaders in their little skirts and the animated logos boosting the home side, come into play.
The IPL formula seems to go like this: take an abbreviated game, buy multi-star teams, chuck into pot with a ladleful of film-star flash, bus in a non-paying public with tiny attention spans, distract them with fireworks and other diversions, and sell the lot to an ambitious television channel. Only, somewhere along the way, Lalit Modi and his Money Men, mislaid the cricket.
The cricket played thus far has been low-grade rubbish. The innings played by McCullum or Hussey or Sehwag tell us more about the bowlerís predicament in the Twenty20 format than the batsmanís gifts. In this ultra-compact version of cricket, the gameís natural bias in favour of the batsman is exaggerated to the point of caricature. Each individual batsman can bat as long as heís not out and the batting side has the insurance of ten wickets over a measly twenty overs whereas the poor bowler canít bowl more than four overs, no-balls are penalized by free hits and the slightest deviation down the leg side constitutes a wide. Every bowler is the fall guy, the mug who helps the batsman make the paying public cheer.
Did I say paying public? My mistake. In the build-up to the Delhi match, I was pleased to hear that a system for buying tickets online had been put into place. When I asked a friend, who now works for one of the franchises, what percentage of the spectators in the stadium had paid for their tickets, he grinned and said that I shouldnít ask the question because he couldnít give me an honest answer.
Perhaps it doesnít matter that IPL matches are watched by free-loading spectators. It may be that cricket doesnít need a paying public, given the fact that itís underwritten by its television audience. Itís the millions of couch potatoes and the eyeballs they add up to that make big money possible in cricket. So why shouldnít cricket as televised tamasha pay its way? Nobody, after all, has ever lost any money betting on the Indian fanís appetite for Coarse Cricket.
There is a real possibility that the IPL will work. The players like the money, the franchisees adore the publicity, the television channels gloat over their sold Ďinventoryí and Mr Modi loves playing Midas. If it succeeds, Test cricket, if it survives at all, will survive as a sporting curiosity, rather like billiards or Real Tennis. Once the IPL shows that itís financially sound, the implications for the first-class game will be catastrophic. Already first-class cricket exists only as a nursery for Test cricket. Given the money that the IPL has to offer, why should any ambitious cricketer waste his energies on the four-innings game? A player stands to make more money in the six-week season of the IPL than in years of Test cricket.
Nor can you argue that stardom within Twenty20 cricket depends on a playerís international exposure because all successful club leagues eventually create their own star system. Already rookies like Robin Uthappa and Ishant Sharma stand to make as much or more money than veteran internationals like Ricky Ponting or Rahul Dravid.
Allen Stanford, the American billionaire, has proposed a winner-take-all five match Twenty20 face-off between a team of Caribbean all-stars fielded by him and an English XI. The purse? A hundred million US dollars. Should the IPL find a reliable television audience for the Twenty20 game, we can expect longer league seasons, more tournaments and more extravaganzas of the sort Stanford wants to stage. Along the way, the ICC and its chairman will become obsolete in the same way as the Soviet Union and Mikhail Gorbachev did when the Russian Federation took over. No prizes for guessing whoíll play Boris Yeltsin.
But Iím hopeful that the IPL venture will fail. There are crucial differences between the EPL and the IPL. The EPLís audience has been built over a century of league football; itíll be very hard for the IPL to instantly produce the traditional partisanship, the long-brewed loyalty that sustains club football.
Secondly, as Mike Marqusee pointed out in an essay in The Hindu, English and European club football is played in the traditional, ninety-minute format that has always defined the game, whereas the Indian Premier League has invested massive sums of money in an abbreviated, untried version of the game with no history, no undergirding loyalties and a very narrow geographical base.
Thirdly, where the EPL sells football, the IPL has made the fatal mistake of selling razzmatazz. Over time, this will trivialize the league because the glitz will make it hard for its potential fan base to take the matches seriously. Loyalty, in the end, is a serious business.
Finally, the IPL will fail (pray god) because any form of cricketing theatre in which bowlers are cast as extras, canít possibly create the tension essential for great drama.