The real premier league: India's billion-dollar cricket revolution

From Bollywood stars in their corporate boxes to the children playing on every street corner – they're all going cricket crazy. As the Indian Premier League teams the world's biggest players with billion-dollar business deals, Angus Fraser witnesses the birth of a very different ball game
Click to follow
The Independent Online

From the moment when India's cricket-crazy fans experienced the high-octane frenzy of 20-over cricket while watching their side win last September's World Twenty20 Championship in South Africa, and the sport's administrators realised they could transform this bite-sized form of the game into a multi-billion-dollar industry, the Board of Control for Cricket in India was always going to create a product that would blow away its competitors. And the Indian Premier League (IPL), which begins under the lights in Bangalore tomorrow evening, when the Bangalore Royal Challengers take on the Kolkata Knight Riders in front of 55,000 delirious spectators, has done just that.

Over the course of 45 days and 59 matches, most of the world's top cricketers will be paid sums of money that would make a Premier League footballer bristle with envy. The terraced areas at the grounds of the eight franchised teams will be packed full of noisy, passionate and excitable supporters. The corporate boxes will contain India's rich, famous and glamorous. Bollywood actors and actresses will be there, along with businessmen and cricket administrators from elsewhere in the world hoping to cash in on or copy the most talked-about event the game has seen for many years.

India's passion for cricket is unmatched anywhere in the world, and for many years its companies have bankrolled the International Cricket Council, sponsoring its tournaments and filling advertising slots on television and in grounds. In all it has been supplying the game's governing body with approximately 80 per cent of its income.

But these have not been philanthropic gestures made by millionaires with nothing better to spend their money on. Yes, India's moneymakers like to be seen socialising with big names, and in their eyes there are none larger than cricketers, but the nation's ever-growing middle class is becoming wealthier and wealthier, and the best way of influencing how and where these tens of millions of people spend their money is through the sport they adore most.

If you want to get people to use a Visa card, get Sachin Tendulkar to promote it; if you want to sell a motorbike, the most common form of transport in India, pay Mahendra Singh Dhoni to have his picture taken sat on one. Tough, ruthless businessmen may act more like soppy schoolgirls when either of these superstars enters a room, but they have committed millions of dollars to the IPL with one objective – to make money. It is an activity at which Indian businessmen have become very adept .

The marketing operation behind Indian cricket boasts many of the country's best brains, and they will need to be at the top of their game to turn such considerable investments into profit. Association with, and entry to, the league did not come cheap. The 10-year television-rights deal cost $1bn (£630m) – in the UK it will be broadcast on the Setanta pay-channel – and the money spent buying the eight franchises totalled approximately $750m. Interest is high but a lot of advertising, sponsorship and tickets need to be sold if everyone is to leave sated.

India's love of cricket and devotion to its teams make English football fans' passions seem like holiday romances. Cricket is the number-one sport in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, neighbours of India, yet there is nowhere near the same fanaticism in those countries. The sport's expansion from a social game played on village greens in the south of England during the 17th century roughly follows the path of the British Empire. Organised cricket began to be played in India in the mid-1800s, but it was not until 1932 that the country played its first Test match against England, at Lord's. The inaugural game had been supposed to take place in India in 1930 but the tour was cancelled following Mahatma Gandhi's call for civil disobedience.

India lost the Test by 158 runs and had to wait a further 20 years for their first victory, an innings and eight run win over England in Madras in 1952. A first series win over Pakistan soon followed but the Sixties were a dire decade with only 40 per cent of the team's home matches producing results.

It has been said that cricket, with all its laws, rules and regulations, was the perfect game for India, in that it briefly brought organisation and discipline to what is essentially a chaotic existence. Indian cities are a hive of activity. The country may contain countless wealthy men and women but poverty remains extremely prevalent. Yet those without a bed to sleep on do not drift around aimlessly feeling sorry for themselves. To survive they need to be industrious, and that is just what they are.

There are many Indians who enjoy the country's colonial past, but more who resent it. The IPL has given those keen to impress the chance to flex their muscles and show the world what progress they have made. India's booming economy makes it an emerging superpower and, by creating the IPL, they are showing the world that they should be taken seriously.

Cricket would not have become the vehicle for such posturing but for two events. On 25 June 1983 India rocked the cricketing world by defeating the all-conquering West Indies by 43 runs in the World Cup Final at Lord's. The unexpected victory changed cricket in India forever, and overnight it became the nation's single biggest obsession.

One-day cricket was the format India specialised in and for the remainder of the Eighties it had arguably the best limited-overs team in the world. Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Ravi Shastri, Dilip Vengsarkar and Mohammad Azharuddin became iconic figures, winning series in Australia and England, along with several multi-team tournaments in Sharjah and Bangladesh.

Despite the one-day triumphs, the Eighties brought limited Test success, the side winning just 10 of the 79 matches it played. But at the end of the decade, on 15 November 1989, a diminutive and angelic-looking 16-year-old named Sachin Tendulkar made his Test debut against Pakistan in Karachi. Tendulkar scored 15 in his only innings but, ever since, he has carried the aspirations and emotions of more than a billion people.

Winning the World Twenty20 Championship kick-started India's love of 20-over cricket, but it was the World Cup victory of 1983, and Sachin Tendulkar, that ignited the country's infatuation with the sport, a passion that shows absolutely no sign of relenting. Victories are greeted with gifts being showered on the team; defeats are followed by effigies being burnt in the street. Suicide rates are known to rise when the Indian cricket team is performing badly.

How Tendulkar has coped with such pressure and expectation is a miracle in itself. India has many social problems, but they are all forgotten and forgiven if the cricket side wins a match or Tendulkar scores a hundred. Harsha Bogle, a highly respected Indian cricket commentator and close friend of Tendulkar, has often said that if either of the above events take place, 100 million Indians will happily go to sleep at night without food. It sounds ridiculous but, amazingly, it would appear to be true.

Many of the impoverished fans are children, millions of who can be found playing cricket, barefoot, on any piece of scrubland they can find. They all want to be Tendulkar, using old pieces of carefully shaped fencing as bats, and tennis balls covered in tape to make them travel through the air faster. When driving between cities, hundreds of pitches can be seen in barren fields and at the end of shanty-lined streets. When school finishes, they come alive.

Watching cricket in India, particularly one-day cricket, is an extraordinary experience. I have been fortunate to attend many major sporting events but very few can compare to what takes pace in Eden Gardens, Kolkata or the MA Chidambaram Stadium in Chennai, during a limited-overs game. The official capacity of many of such grounds is just a guide, with 80,000 fans often filling a 60,000-seater stadium.

When Tendulkar and Virender Sehwag are in full flow, smacking the ball to the boundary with ease, the atmosphere is electric and the noise deafening. It is impossible to hold a conversation with the person sitting next to you. As deafening is the quiet when Tendulkar gets out. When you leave the ground you feel emotionally drained.

My only visit to India as a player was in 1989 to compete in the Nehru Cup. England played India in a day-game at Kanpur, which started at 9am. The England team arrived at the ground at 7.15am to begin preparations and a heavy, smoggy, mist greeted us. When we walked on to the ground we could hear a dull murmur in the distance but we could not see the stands at the far end. On reaching the middle, a wall of humanity suddenly began to emerge in front of us. The terracing was packed full of 30,000 expectant fans. The gates had been shut for an hour.

In Tests it is slightly different. The crowds are not quite as big, but when word gets around that Tendulkar is batting, work is pushed to one side and grounds quickly fill. Thousands of spectators arrive during a 30-minute period, swarming down the bare terraces like water rushing from a dam. When he is out, they get up and leave. It must be very disconcerting for the next man in.

The adulation has made Tendulkar one of the wealthiest sportsmen on the planet, earning in excess of £20m a year. Unsurprisingly there are drawbacks – for almost 20 years his life has not been his own. It is reported that he has to wear a false beard and glasses if he wishes to leave his Mumbai home during daytime to play with his children in the park. The 34-year-old apparently owns a couple of Ferraris – Formula One racing is one of his passions – but he can only go out driving in the middle of the night when the roads are empty. Creating a stir during the day would bring the city to a standstill.

Mahendra Singh Dhoni, India's exciting wicket-keeper batsman, is expected to take over Tendulkar's mantle when he finally decides to retire. How India reacts to the news is hard to imagine. No player has scored more one-day runs than the "little master" (16,361) and only Brian Lara has been more proficient in Test cricket. Tendulkar is just 171 runs away from passing Lara, who scored 11,953 Test runs during his glittering career, and he will not go before he has passed that landmark. His current tally of 81 international hundreds is unlikely to be beaten for some time, if ever. Ricky Ponting, the Australian captain, with 60, is the only realistic current challenger.

Dhoni, at 26, is already a millionaire several times over and his stock will only rise when he becomes India's Test and one-day captain. On rare visits to his humble beginnings in Ranchi, Jharkhand, one of the poorest and most corrupt areas of India, Dhoni causes a huge stir. Young girls queue up at his local barber's shop hoping to get a lock of hair.

The rise in cricket's popularity has meant that every Indian cricketer, past or present, runs the risk of being mobbed when he walks down the street. I never made a Test tour of India – amazingly, England only toured the country once in the Nineties – but I have covered two Test series there, initially as a commentator with BBC's Test Match Special in 2001 and then with The Independent in 2006.

In 2001, an insight of what it is like to be an Indian cricketer was experienced when leaving a ground with Gavaskar. Jonathan Agnew and I strolled out of the ground and to our taxi without trouble but Gavaskar needed a police escort to help him make the 30-yard journey. When Gavaskar got into the taxi it was suddenly surrounded by hundreds of supporters tapping at the window and looking in as though one was an animal at a zoo. Looking at a sea of faces, even though they were smiling, was quite intimidating and it took at least five minutes for the crowd to disperse and for us to get away.

During the five-year interlude before my next visit, overseas players became iconic figures there too. The demand for cricket meant that television companies were now filling days with Test and one-day matches played elsewhere in the world even though India were not playing. England's 2005 Ashes win had made their players stars in India, and when driving along the main road from the airport to central Mumbai in 2006 one was greeted by a huge poster filled by the faces of Michael Vaughan and Andrew Flintoff.

That advert was complicated, in that companies were not permitted to openly advertise alcohol. For an Indian businessman it is a minor problem. To overcome the predicament and get the message across, Kingfisher, a beer producer, was producing a mineral water with exactly the same logo and name. It was this bottle that Vaughan and Flintoff were holding in the billboard images.

The two nations may not like each other on a cricket field, but Australians are the main overseas stars in India, with several of their top names appearing in Bollywood films. International stars playing in the new league include Jacques Kallis, Matthew Hayden, Daniel Vettori, Muttiah Muralitharan, Glenn McGrath, Andrew Symonds, Adam Gilchrist, Shane Warne, Chris Gayle, Shaun Pollock, Lasith Malinga and Ricky Ponting (players centrally contracted to the England international set-up are discouraged from playing in the IPL for its inaugural season by their paymasters at the English Cricket Board) but Brett Lee is the most sought-after player, regularly spending time in the country filming cricket segments of movies. In 2007 Lee, a keen guitarist, wrote and performed a song with Asha Bhosle, a legendary Bollywood singer. It reached number three in the Indian charts.

It is not just in India that the team gets unrivalled support. India's migrant population flock to watch cricket in every corner of the globe. In 2002, when Sourav Ganguly's side successfully chased down 325 to win one of the finest games of one-day cricket imaginable, Lord's witnessed an atmosphere, created solely by the Indian fans, like never before.

Indeed, my final game for England took place against India in the 1999 World Cup at Edgbaston. As the home side we expected to the overall support in the ground to be behind England. We were wrong. Eighteen thousand of the 21,000 crowd were supporting India. It was like playing in Delhi.

Nobody quite knows how the IPL will work out and how successful it will, ultimately, be, but one thing is for certain: Twenty20 cricket, and the IPL, are here to stay. Snags will arise and there will be no shortage of controversy. It is not only in the dressing rooms that humongous egos will need to be satisfied. Team loyalty will be hard to identify. Indian cricket fans support Indian cricketers, not franchises. The Mumbai Indians will play half of their matches away from Mumbai, but Tendulkar will not feel as though he is playing an away game. Lee, meanwhile, will feel as though every game is an away fixture, especially when he is bowling at an Indian batsman.

Much has been made of what the star players are being paid – anywhere between $650,000 and $1.5m for six or seven weeks' work – but several of each squad's members will earn just $30,000, less than the minimum wage for a county cricketer. Whatever happens over the next six weeks, the face of cricket is unlikely to be the same again. Many are predicting the tournament and its expansion will bring about the demise of Test cricket. The 50-over game could be in peril, and that may not be a bad thing, but with good administration Test and Twenty20 cricket can coexist, providing players with glitz and money along with cricket that satisfies their desire to achieve.

The game has not been prepared to accept it, but India's administrators, on the back of the money it supplies, have been controlling cricket for quite some time. The Harbhajan Singh racism affair in Australia highlighted just that. In January this year Harbhajan was alleged to have called Andrew Symonds, the only black player in the Australian side, a monkey, and when the accusation was initially upheld there was a real possibility that India would withdraw from the tour. On appeal, the accusation was dismissed but Cricket Australia appeared very reluctant to confront the Board of Control for Cricket in India about its actions, for fear of losing millions of dollars.

That one country can have such an influence on another does not go down very well with many in England but it would be hypocritical for English sport to complain about the situation. English football and rugby clubs are the biggest pirates in the world, sifting through the leagues of Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Africa with briefcases full of money, encouraging young men to turn their back on their countries to play for them.

With power comes responsibility, and the big players in Indian cricket are currently making the right noises. The immediate and possibly long-term future of the game lies in their hands. Will they abuse it for self gain or act in the interests of the sport? Only time will tell.