Saturday, June 14, 2008


When walking through a shopping center or a cluster of sidewalk shops in India, it’s not uncommon to see a group of intently focused men, all staring into the store. “What’s going on?” you wonder. It doesn’t take long to make an easy guess. They’re watching cricket on the shop TV. Team India is probably playing another in a series of endless matches against a national rival, probably Pakistan or Australia, the two teams India most loves to beat, Australia because it’s the best and Pakistan because.........well, because it’s Pakistan.

Cricket, that classic British import, is by far the national sport of India. Nothing comes close to challenging it. It’s the only game I see kids playing in the parks outside the occasional basketball or soccer game. Indians love cricket with a passion but few play once they grow up as India isn’t much of a sports-playing nation like America, but they love to watch. Little kids play and idolize the star players, but once adolescence comes, parents and the extended family exert tremendous pressure on children to attend to their studies. The future is depending on it. Who has time to play games when the next level of examinations is always looming to determine whether you get out of the village and into the right school to become an engineer, or end up tending shop at the local mall or roadside dhaba? Playing sports is a luxury few can afford beyond childhood but the passion for boyhood games carries into adulthood. Isn’t it like that the world over?

In a country of one billion, India has but a single national cricket team, so you can imagine how much the players are lionized when the nation's honor rests on their shoulders. When they win, they are heroes paraded in the streets. After a loss, the nation goes into mourning with a flurry of accusations and recriminations. I think it’s not too far fetched to say that cricket is the unifying force in India, cutting across language, religion, caste and region to bring the nation together in a common bond. “The Boys in Blue” are a symbol of national pride, and the fact that they are fairly good and often win (except against those dastardly Australians) is even better.

It was against this backdrop of sporting nationalism that something revolutionary happened this spring. A new form of the game, called Twenty20 cricket, has been gaining in popularity and a professional league was formed of city-affiliated teams, organized along the lines of soccer’s Premier League in England. Called the Indian Premier League (IPL), eight teams were organized to compete against each other in a two month season. Each is owned by an industrialist, business conglomerate, or Bollywood star such as Shah Rukh Khan, India's biggest movie star, who owns the Kolkata Knight Riders. International players were invited to put their names into a pool to be bid upon by the teams and the owners weren’t talking small change either. Many received hundreds of thousands of dollars, or even millions in some cases, to play in a season of less than 20 games. As you can imagine, many of world’s best came to give all the teams an international cast.

Huge amounts of money were at stake and many predicted a flop—Indians won’t root for foreign players or city-based teams, the new format will “cheapen” traditional cricket, it’s a marketing scam. Some wondered if the international mixing of players would undermine the concept of a national team. Others saw it all as just a gimmick. Some newspaper columnists predicted, and secretly hoped for, disaster. They longed for the mighty to fall, but it didn’t happen.

The first season of the IPL was a resounding success: full stadiums (50,000+), nightly TV coverage, a nation glued to their screens, huge ratings, fast paced action (at least by cricket standards), celebrities, imported cheerleaders (borrowed from the Washington Redskins) with skimpy outfits, lightshows, fireworks, close games, and controversy over a perceived decline in public morals. Throw in a couple of headline-inducing fights and you have all the ingredients for great theater and spinning cash registers. The games even drew a 30% audience share of women, an unprecedented number for cricket, although the purists sniffed that the ladies only watched because of the Bollywood glamour, further proof that the Twenty20 version of the grand ole game is declasse.

If you know nothing about cricket, you might be wondering what this is all about, so let me give you a short lesson. Cricket is played on a large circular field with most of the action happening in the center where the “wickets” are set. There is no foul territory. The bowler takes a running start and throws the ball (the throwing arm must be kept straight without bending at the elbow) at three thin posts (wickets) that suspend two small “pins” balanced on top. The bowler can hit the wickets on the fly or, as is usually done, he can bounce the ball in front of the batter, often putting spin on it so that it takes a tricky hop. If the pins are knocked off the wickets, the batter is out. The batter defends the wicket with his bat, knocking the ball anywhere into the playing field. If it is caught on the fly, he is out. Once he hits the ball, he has the option to run to a second set of wickets about 60-70 feet away or, if he thinks he won’t make it in time, he can stay put and await another ball. If he runs, the fielder will try to knock the pins off this second set of wickets before he arrives, causing him to be “out”. Think of running to first base in American baseball. If he makes it to the base, he remains there while another player bats. If the second batter also gets a hit, the first batter can run home and score a run.

One thing that frustrates most American viewers is this. Think of how it would be in baseball if the batter didn’t have to run after hitting a ground ball, only going if he thought he had a good chance of reaching first base. He could bat for a long time, simply swatting away balls from the wicket. That’s exactly what happens in cricket. Some batters will stay alive (“in the crease”) for hours because it’s hard for the bowler to hit the wickets when the batter has a big, flat-faced bat. Since there are eleven batters to a side, the game can drag on for a loooong time. When a bowler actually does “collect a wicket”, it’s cause for great celebration, chest bumping, team high fives and all the rest.

Cricket, as some say, is American baseball on valium. It’s really, really slow with a full game sometimes lasting for days. Twenty20 Cricket addressed this by limiting the number of “overs” for each team to twenty. An “over” is six pitched (“bowled”) balls. In traditional Test cricket, all eleven players per side are allowed to bat, no matter how many “overs” are needed (There is another shortened version that limits “overs” to fifty.). With Twenty20 allowing fewer pitches, a premium is thereby put on offensive production and teams don’t have time to settle for a steady, monotonous succession of easy, one run singles or with simply defending the wicket. Instead, they are forced to go for the big hit, a six-point home run (a “six”) when the ball is hit on the fly over the outfield boundary line. The second alternative is to hit the ball on a roll or bounce beyond the outfield boundary for four points (a “four”). This makes the game more exciting because just as in baseball, it’s the homerun that gets the fans onto their feet. As an added bonus, the shortened format leads to games of only three or four hours, the same as a typical Bollywood movie.

It was especially satisfying to see this year’s IPL championship won by the Rajasthan Royals, the team that spent the least amount of money. Compared to the big market teams like the Mumbai Indians or the Delhi Daredevils, the Royals had less glitz and hype but made up for it with a great player/captain by the name of Shane Warne from Australia. Think of the contrast between the New York Yankees and the Milwaukee Brewers and you’ll get the idea. On top of that, all the four smaller market teams (Rajasthan, Mohali, Jaipur and Chennai) made it to the playoff finals while all four high profile outfits (Bangalore, Kolkata, Delhi, Mumbai) didn’t. As a startup enterprise, few expected teams to turn a profit the first year, but in the end, some of the teams did and everyone is looking forward to next year.

As you can tell, I’m a starved American sports fan. I’ve probably taken an interest in the league simply for a lack of alternatives, but there is something more to my interest than entertainment. I find it interesting to witness the birth of a sporting phenomenon and I’m intrigued by its social implications. Cricket is an international game and has always had a reputation of being somewhat stodgy. Might it now become more popular? How will it change with international success? With big, big money flowing and a fantastic launch, I’ll wager that even more players will come to India next year and the league will expand further. Will India become a sports capital? Might not similar leagues take root in other cricket countries? Will American fans take notice? Are the NRI’s (non-resident Indians) doing so already? Will Indian girls become cheerleaders?

Sports are reflective of the culture and consciousness of a country. It’s been said that baseball is a reflection of how America used to be in the past whereas football is a reflection of how it is now. Cricket is a gentleman’s game in which participants take a knee to the “spirit of the game.” We all know what it means when something “simply isn’t cricket.” The game honors a spirit of fair play, rule of law, order, leisurely pace, and gentlemanly virtues. You might say that India is sometimes marked by the utter absence of these qualities in daily life, but I think it matters that these are traits with which a society identifies to which it aspires.

Some locals worry that the new league will somehow weaken fans fanatical interest in their national team. I say, “I hope it does!” After all, they say, once we start to take a liking to those Aussies on the local team, how can we summon the passion to hate them when they play against India in the next international test match? Might we actually come to like those duplicitous Pakistanis or oily Bangladeshis?

From a strictly sporting view, the new league has given dozens of young, local players a chance to step forward. When there is only one team of consequence in the entire country, what are the chances of ever playing for it? Why bother? Now there are more, leading a young kid to think, “Maybe I don’t have to grow up and be a computer engineer after all.” Of course, some will say it isn’t good to invest one’s life in hopeless dreams, but I’m happy to see kids have a choice. Maybe a few of the older ones will go out into the sunshine and play for a change. Maybe the success of cricket will spill over into the other, totally neglected sports that languish here on the sidelines such as basketball, tennis, golf, soccer and field hockey (Really, it’s actually quite a good game). Maybe a few more young athletes will be given a greater chance. If so, I’m all for it.