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Since 1st March, 1999
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Commerce meets cricket, at fine leg

Bangalore, April 17: The girl screwed up her eyes against the sun and asked: “What’s the name of the game again?”

Brijesh Patel, swashbuckler of yore turned mover-shaker of the Karnataka Cricket Association, let out a sardonic little grunt and said: “Cricket, it’s called cricket.”

But the girl was already out of earshot, flouncing away on the park, a ballerina in blue jeans, cellophane fairy wings wrinkling and flowering under her arms.

Patel’s cry was drowned in the whiplash music belting off the speakers banked round the circumference. There was a band being set up. A team was unscrolling extravagant brand banners down the floodlight pylons. Another was fine-tuning strobe lighting around a two-tier wooden stage. “Got to get the angles right, that’s critical,” someone shouted.

He could well have been talking cricket; alas, he wasn’t. He was merely instructing the Washington Redskins, the first team that’ll be at play here tomorrow — a band of blonde cheerleaders imported from America, minis, pompoms and all.

Sourav Ganguly’s Knight Riders and Rahul Dravid’s Royal Challengers come on next. By then, the Redskins, or Redskinettes as they are often called, may have put cricketing fine legs well out of fashion.

The Chinnaswamy Stadium this morning was an elaborate movie set unveiling itself, crate after open crate of showbiz gadgetry, blonde after butterfly blonde. Where were the cricketers? Mostly indoors.

And the Challengers skipper Rahul Dravid light-heartedly complained about it at an evening media meet. “Yes, there’ll be a bit of song and dance, I suppose, that’s clear, we’ve been barred from the ground all day, the girls have had the run of the place. Anyhow, I’m looking forward to seeing them tomorrow.”

But just in case you got him wrong, Rahul had a rider to add: “When the game begins, of course, the idea will be to keep our eyes on the ball, the cricketing ball,” he said, affording a smile. “This is not a frivolous thing, this is serious. There are a lot of reputations to be made or broken, there is a lot of money riding on it.”

Begin to look at some of the figures the Indian Premier League (IPL) has already churned out and Dravid’s might sound like an understatement.

Already a $2-billion extravaganza. Millions of other dollars spent buying up the eight teams. Millions more gone in the player auctions: M.S. Dhoni, the most expensive player at $1.5 million, Andrew Symonds, for all the invective flung at him justly or unjustly, picking up $1.35 million.

And you look at the environs of Chinnaswamy Stadium today and wonder aghast – there’s still more money spilling away. Fleets of limos waiting to ferry the stars, battalions of liveried bearers waiting to serve in the impromptu back-pavilion eateries, reams and reams of PVC advertising; there’s so much of it they won’t be able to put everything on display in time.

There’s so many tonnes of beverage -- water and fine wine -- stacked up in the belly of Chinnaswamy, Bangalore will be swept in a flood if there’s a leak. Cricket’s about to board a luxury liner; nobody, save those getting to ride, is sure it will return untainted by the novel pleasures its being treated to.

The Knight Riders captain, Ganguly, who appeared back to back with Rahul, sweaty from a short stint at the nets in a secluded corner of the park, sounded equally convinced as Dravid that cricket and commerce were about to alchemise into serious magic.

“Test cricket will remain my first love, and that is true for all serious cricketers. But don’t be light-hearted about this version,” he warned, “there is too much talent and too much money involved here, this is a very very important competition.”

Who between, someone wondered. Between the Badshah of Bollywood and the Badshah of Booze? Between Shah Rukh Khan and Vijay Mallya? Always the pugilist, Ganguly retorted with a punch: “Well, I don't know about Shah Rukh and Vijay, but I can tell you I’ve already handed Rahul a pair of boxing gloves.”

But that isn’t a prospect seductive enough for all. Ram Guha, quintessential Bangalorean, cricket buff, celebrant of Indian pop culture, isn’t going, not even to cheer the Challengers of Bangalore.

“It isn’t a city team,” he says, “Jacques Kallis, Ricky Ponting and Praveen Kumar are playing. Now they are all good players, but they can’t get the Bangalorean in me going somehow, and that’s going to be one of the problems with IPL. Cricket somewhere is about jingoism and pride, let us see how the club concept plays out, I am not sure. Who will I root for? I am not sure. I don’t mean to me dismissive, but this doesn’t excite me terribly.”

For all his pointed scepticism, though, Guha, the academe, has quickly enunciated his thesis on the IPL phenomenon. “A lot of people think this is cricket riding on filmstars. I think the opposite. I think this is filmstars riding on cricket. I think they have realised that somewhere in the last few years, cricket outstripped Bollywood in the mass culture stakes, they all want to climb on to this bandwagon now. Cricket is an exploding phenomenon.”

Not with the Redskins, though. But it shouldn’t quite matter that they still aren’t sure what the name of the game is; they’ll be rooting for it on their fine legs.

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