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The IPL: Cricket's unexpected smash hit

It has surpassed all expectations with half a million British viewers. So who's watching?

When ITV was offered the rights for the IPL for a price that would have struggled to secure the Premier Darts League, let alone the Premier League, the broadcaster's expectations were not great. Three weeks later and it cannot believe its luck.

The Twenty20 tournament has so far delivered viewing figures described as "unheard of" for the channel. With the demise of Setanta, the IPL had been left without a UK broadcaster and offered the rights to ITV for a comparatively lowly sum – a negligible one according to industry experts. In return ITV 4 has garnered an audience that has frequently been more than 10 times its average afternoon viewing figures and often treble the size of its peak-time average. It's money well spent.

The last two Sundays have earned peaks of 563,000 and 530,000 respectively. On that first Sunday, England's Test in Bangaladesh attracted an average audience of 151,000 – ITV 4's average for its nine hours of IPL transmission that day was 297,000. This on a channel that has a usual day-time return of fewer than 50,000, and this for a tournament that averaged 33,000 on Setanta last year.

ITV 4, which has a one-year deal to show the tournament, may be available to more viewers than its pay TV rivals, but nevertheless they are remarkable figures. The peak share of 3 to 4 per cent last weekend compares favourably to the world cycling championships that were shown at the same time on BBC 2. "We are delighted with it," said Niall Sloane, ITV's controller of sport. "It has surpassed all we had hoped for. It has reinvigorated our daytime schedule."

Prior to agreeing the deal, ITV commissioned analysis which offered guarded support, but the channel took a "more bullish view" and has been handsomely rewarded. The bulk of the audience is estimated to be made up of British Asians – ITV is awaiting a demographic breakdown – and it is the Indian continental diaspora that Lalit Modi, the ambitious commissioner of the IPL, is desperate to tap into.

An enthusiastic tweeter, he recently posted his "delight" at the burgeoning UK audience which has lapped up the show hosted by Matt Smith and the Indian actress Mandira Bedi. He is similarly happy with the domestic TV audience too, not surprisingly since the opening game between Deccan Chargers and Kolkata Knight Riders attracted 42m viewers according to TAM, India's television ratings industry, a 41 per cent growth on year one. Five million watched the game on YouTube, which paid a comparatively modest $7m to become a rights holder.

The figures keep coming. After initial scepticism over the wisdom of looking to add further franchises to the existing eight, the two new ones attracted a joint fee of $703m at an auction on 21 March. When the IPL was set up two years ago, the total bid for the eight teams was $700m.

The coverage is not to everyone's taste, however. It is the most nakedly commercial broadcast seen in this country and ITV's production team struggles to ensure it remains within Ofcom regulations. On screen adverts are blurred and one that runs along the bottom of the screen is covered by an ITV strap. Every detail of the game and its surroundings, from timeouts to catches, is branded to within an inch. Even the commentators who accompany the world feed are not above blatantly promoting products: one last week discussed the amount of minutes available under the mobile phone deal offered by one sponsor. It makes the Premier League (English football version) look as demure as one of John Major's old maids cycling to communion.

The concern for Modi, and the point ITV will await post-event analysis to ponder, is whether the IPL has a limited reach. Has Modi reached too high too soon? It is reported that the fan base still identify primarily with players, such as Sachin Tendulkar, rather than franchise teams. Most of the franchises do not yet make money and rely on wealthy benefactors.

But for the time being at any rate it is a phenomenon that is noisily attracting attention in some unlikely quarters of the globe. Later this month the Dalai Lama will take in a game, although he is perhaps not representative of the target audience Modi is pursuing.

League leaders: IPL by numbers

563,000 ITV 4's peak figure on 21 March when Chennai Super Kings beat King's XI Punjab in Chennai.

151,000 The average number of viewers who watched Bangladesh against England on Sky Sports on 21 March. ITV 4 had an average of 297,000 for the IPL on the same day.

33,000 The average number of viewers the now defunct Setanta Sports attracted last year for the IPL.

42,000,000 The number of television viewers in India for the opening game of this year's IPL.

$1.6bn The amount paid by Sony to show the IPL in India until 2017. The figure ITV paid to show the event in the UK has not been made public, but is believed to be modest.