How India forgot all about the IPL

The Twenty20 tournament reaches its climax tomorrow but its move to South Africa has turned off the fans back home. Richard Edmondson on how the hype dissolved in Delhi
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Bishen Bedi echoed the thoughts of many of his countrymen when appearing on a New Delhi TV debate show recently. Should the second series of the Indian Premier League go ahead, he was asked, if the tournament's collision in dates with the nation's general election meant security would be spread rather thinly?

"No, there should be a cancellation," the great Bishen, former Test captain, replied. "We should cancel the elections."

Cue thunderous applause around the studio and a nudge and a wink from Bedi. I know. My ribs know. I was sitting next to him on the panel.

Bishen, the audience and a majority of the Indian nation did not get their wish, however. Just days later, it was announced the IPL of 2009 would be switched to South Africa, where the six-week slogfest comes to a close this weekend. The cricket-watching masses of India never quite recovered. Your party is never as much fun if it's being hosted in someone else's house.

And this has been the fundamental problem of IPL II, which culminates in Johannesburg tomorrow. It has not been held in the land in which it was created and all the excitement in the world – like that created yesterday by the Deccan Chargers' Adam Gilchrist – cannot change that.

The IPL has not been what it was in its first heady, raucous incarnation. The players themselves recognise the fact. "It wouldn't do justice to those roaring crowds in India if I don't put it on record that they're being missed," VVS Laxman, of India and the Deccan Chargers, said. "The noise, the crowd, they cannot be compared to any other place in the world."

Muttiah Muralitharan, of Chennai Super Kings, added: "There is no point pretending that the buzz is the same as in the first IPL. The crowds have been decent so far, the spectators have created a good atmosphere. But it is different. The games lack the passion, intensity and noise created by Indian crowds."

Viewing figures from Sony Max on the Tata Sky platform showed that while domestic Indian viewers were tuning into the IPL, they were just as quickly tuning out. Cricket, the secular religion of the country, has been spurned compared with last year.

One agency – aMap – reported early ratings were 16 per cent lower than the equivalent period 12 months ago. The figures are based on the number of viewers and the time they spend watching. "Even though larger numbers of viewers watched the first two matches, curiosity did not sustain as much as last year," Amit Verma, aMap's chief executive, said.

The latest figures show that from the start, and consistently, viewing figures have underperformed the original version. That has coincided with a near 50 per cent drop in sponsorship revenue from last year's peak, from television fees right down to back-of-shirt advertising.

It seems more has been less. The new IPL "strategic break" after 10 overs has been perceived as a blatant advertising hole in proceedings. But there have been vestiges of IPL I in its successor in South Africa.

The film star Shahrukh Khan, possibly the most famous man in his nation to be a nobody everywhere else, has cheered on the team he part-owns, Kolkata Knight Riders. Shilpa Shetty (left), perhaps the most famous woman in the world to be a nobody in her own nation, has been doing the same for Rajasthan Royals, the team she part-owns.

There had been hopes the games at Kingsmead in Durban would produce the heaving and vocal crowds which were such a compelling backcloth to IPL I. Almost a million Indians live in South Africa, the largest group outside India itself and Pakistan. Most of them are in Durban. But there was no sweetness in the numbers there either.

The IPL has not even been the talk of the town in the capital, Delhi. "There is a huge difference this year," Neville Lazarus, a Delhi television producer and cricket aficionado, said. "Last year it was all over the place: on billboards, television channels and in the newspapers. It was in your face every day. This year you could be forgiven for imagining it's not taking place at all."

Lazarus puts part of the problem down to empty seats in the stadiums. "You only get that sense of passion and excitement when the ground is almost flowing over," he said.

"In the matches in South Africa you can actually see empty seating. Empty seating behind Sachin Tendulkar of all people? In India, Sachin never bats in front of empty seats. It's not as if people have to sit there all day either. The whole thing's over in three hours. It might have been better if it had been held in England with the great Indian diaspora they have over there."