Fever Pitch

September 24, 2009

From the Populous Magazine archive: Issue 01, 2009

In India cricket is more like a religion than a mere sport. Mihir Bose, former sports editor at the BBC, explains how the Indian Premier League has spearheaded the country’s world domination of the game.

It was the English who first struck leather with willow. And it’s Lord’s, in London, which still calls itself the headquarters of cricket. But it’s Indian money that runs the sport.

India provides 80 per cent of global cricket income and, when this nation of over a billion moves, the cricket world moves with it. Just look at India’s tour of New Zealand earlier this year. According to the New Zealand cricket authorities, the income they make when India visits dwarfs anything they earn from any other source – well over $25 million were earned from TV rights and sponsorship to the Indian market.

The Indian Premier league (IPL) is the most successful domestic cricket tournament in the world. In public auctions IPL franchise-owners have paid millions to lure the world’s best cricketers to their teams.

The league has completely transformed the sport. Until its arrival, ambitious cricketers from round the world seeking money were forced to come to England to play in English county cricket. Now top cricketers can earn millions for just a few weeks of Twenty20 cricket. Two of England’s leading cricketers, Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen, had no hesitation in playing IPL just before an international Ashes series. All of which means that, for the first time, a major team sport is not controlled by the West. It marks an important moment in world sport, if not social history.

For decades the economic axis of world cricket had been England versus Australia. This all changed when India emerged as the sport’s economic giant, with a huge domestic market lapped up by the country’s TV channels. At the heart of this was the IPL, a sporting sensation imbued with what Indians call “masti”. It’s a Hindi word meaning “mischief and fun”.

The starting point of masti was September 24, 2007, in Johannesburg. That evening the first World Twenty20 final took place between India and Pakistan at the Wanderers stadium. The Indians had certainly not expected to get to the final, or even fare very well in the tournament. When this new form of cricket was invented by the English, they had initially rejected it as worthless. Originally they didn’t even want to take part. In the end they agreed but sent a virtual second eleven to South Africa, minus some of their biggest names. Sachin Tendulkar, their greatest batsman, didn’t make the trip, nor did Rahul Dravid, the man who had captained India to their Test series victory in England just a few weeks earlier.

India Provides 80 per cent of global cricket income. The IPL is the most successful domestic cricket tournament in the world.

The Indian captain was a young man called Mahendra Singh Dhoni from the very unfashionable Indian town of Ranchi (renowned back home for its mental asylums). He had never captained the side before.

But suddenly the Indians were in the final against their bitterest rival, Pakistan, and, after a titanic struggle, they secured a dramatic victory in the last over of the match. It was only the second time in the history of cricket that India had won a major world tournament.

The Indians had gone to South Africa expecting nothing. They had unexpectedly discovered gold and were now determined to mine it. Just six months later, in April 2008, they launched IPL, a domestic Twenty20 tournament that went on to take the world by storm. It was India’s Twenty20 cricket revolution, the biggest change in the sport for decades; possibly even the biggest change since overarm bowling was legalised more than a century and a half before.

What IPL did was bring something called “tamasha” to world cricket. It’s a colloquial Hindi term meaning ‘an activity of fun, frolics, and excitement’, all rolled into one. Cricket had always been a tamasha, and a hugely popular sport across the Asian nation. But in 1947 when the country became independent, it was by no means certain that cricket would be the dominant sport. Most Indian leaders under Gandhi didn’t like cricket, or even sport in general. Cricket also had rivals: both hockey (India didn’t lose an Olympic hockey match between 1928 and 1960) and football were very popular. But Indian business saw in cricket a vital marketing tool.

Encouraged by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, it soon became the national sport.

  • Most of the stadia they play in are very large – one with a capacity of 90,000. What they lack in modern facilities they more than make up for in atmosphere.

1991 was a crucial year. With the Indian economy facing collapse, and the country running out of foreign exchange, the government, under pressure from the World Bank, was forced to open up and allow foreign investment into what had been one of the most protected markets in the world. Cricket benefitted massively from this investment. 1991 was also the year when cricket finally became one global family. For the first time in its cricket history, South Africa, having abandoned sporting apartheid, played a non-white country.

Appropriately it launched its rebirth with a one-day series in India. That historic tour made the Indian cricket board realise it had television rights it could sell. Before that Doordarshan, the state broadcaster, had televised domestic cricket. Far from paying anything, it had often demanded fees from the sport’s governing body to cover the production costs.

But IPL has taken Indian cricket to a new level. Attracting both Bollywood stars and businessmen as franchise-owners, it had soon engineered a 10-year television deal with Sony worth $1.5 billion. Cricketers from around the world were offered football-level wages – hundreds of thousands of pounds for just six weeks’ work – while evening matches, finishing well past midnight in order to escape the stifling heat of April and May, proved so popular that thousands packed the grounds. Domestic television channels had to adjust their programming. No domestic cricket tournament anywhere in the world had ever been so popular.

The revolution was masterminded by Indian entrepreneur Lalit Modi. To make the league work the organisers shamelessly borrowed from the West.

Not only did they take the original English invention of Twenty20 cricket, but they closely studied English football’s Premier League and the American NFL to work out how the tournament should be structured and how income from television and sponsorship should be shared.

From the English Premier League they borrowed the concept of having city-based teams.

America provided the idea of sports franchises and of the televised auctioning of players, with franchiseowners bidding millions. Nothing like this had even been attempted in cricket before. Modi also brought on board Western sports agencies such as IMG. The involvement of Indian entrepreneurs and Bollywood film stars spiced things up further.

In 2009 when, for security and political reasons, the IPL couldn’t be held in India, Modi successfully moved it to South Africa, just weeks before the tournament was due to start. It proved how modern Indians can react to events with great speed.

It is clear that international cricket is struggling to come to terms with India’s rise as the greatest power within the sport. How the rest of the world adjusts to this new reality will provide the next, fascinating chapter in the history of the game.

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