Wednesday, 15 April 2009

The IPL - it's big, it's brash, it's biblical...

(A version of this article appeared in Varsity in April 2009)

NFL: The Global Sport Summit
Is Lalit Modi really cricket’s Moses? It was Ravi Shastri who first described the IPL supremo as a “Moses of the game, who has shown the path to blazing success.” There is, of course, a fair chance that Shastri only made this pronouncement because his contract as an IPL commentator explicitly required him to do so. Nonetheless, it’s worth contemplating this comparison for a minute, especially given what Modi himself has said about his agenda: “We have taken some bold steps. We're going forward and trying to change the world order.”

Let’s rewind a couple of years. “Let my people go – to Twenty20 cricket matches,” Modi declared to the world, or words to that effect. The success of Twenty20 in England had initially been ignored by those in charge of Indian cricket. It took their national team’s dramatic triumph in the inaugural ICC World Twenty20 to really spur them into action. Expanding the fledgling inter-state competition that had taken place in 2007 would have been a sensible next step, but a certain Mr Modi had other ideas. Big ideas. His vision borrowed more from Premiership football than it did from county cricket, with the world’s best players auctioned to the highest bidders, city-based franchises, billionaire owners and billions of fans. Not shy of American-style razzmatazz, Modi brought in cheerleaders and big fireworks displays, but most importantly, he brought in Bollywood: every franchise (through either its owners or brand ambassadors) got film stars on board to grab more headlines and fill more column inches than runs alone could ever manage.

By this point, cricket’s Moses had his mission, his vision, his people – not Israelites but IPLites. Next came the plagues. Not frogs, boils and locusts, but controversial internationally coordinated embargoes on players, administrators and even commentators with any links to the rival Indian Cricket League. It wasn’t just any old Twenty20 cricket matches Modi wanted the people to go to, it was his matches. By hook or by (shepherd’s) crook, he would get his way.

Thus amid much fanfare, the Indian Premier League was created. And it was good. For all the grumblings by pessimistic and puritanical pundits, the tournament was a spectacular success . The one thing Modi could not control directly – the sport (is it cricket?) – was thrilling. Twenty20 may not be the same test as a Test, but the league's format ensured that those who just hit and giggled didn't get the last laugh. Reassuring patterns emerged. India’s young guns blazed, Aussies were awesome, Sanath still sizzled, Shoaib Akhtar still devastated – and then disintegrated. Together with all this went just the right amount of drama and surprise, though even the Rajasthan Royals' classic underdog story was penned by a familiar hand; cricket's favourite overweight blond, whose nickname happens to be Hollywood, worked his magic once again.

Alas, disaster struck. Before the second season could begin, the threat of international terrorism forced the IPLites into exile in the wilderness of South Africa. Modi led them fearlessly across the sea in a logistical operation that was truly biblical in scale – booking 30,000 hotel rooms at 3 weeks’ notice is a miracle in my book, if not in Exodus. Life in the wilderness would be tough – smaller squads, smaller crowds, no home-and-away format and no home cooking – but the IPLites had only to think of the bigger (live TV) picture.

The next chapter of this tale remains to be written. Perhaps credit-crunched sponsors will leave the IPLites needing manna from heaven to survive. Perhaps the exile will last several years. Moses died before reaching the Promised Land. What is the IPL's promised land, and will Modi get there? Whatever happens next, however, the IPL story is already akin to a biblical epic. You might say this article is a testament to that.

Ten Commandments Lalit “Moses” Modi delivered to the IPLites:

1. I am the IPL, thy God. Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
2. Thou shalt make thyself into an idol, so that lots of fans pay to watch matches and buy up plenty of merchandise.
3. Thou shalt not make wrongful use of my name, nor of any of my trademarks (no sixes - only DLF Maximums, please).
4. Remember the Sabbath – rest assured that a double-header of matches shall be played.
5. Honour thy father and mother, and franchise owner, and above all thy multi-million-dollar contract.
6. Thou shalt murder all types of bowling whenever possible.
7. Thou shalt not commit adultery. By adultery I mean jumping into bed with anyone affiliated to the League That Shall Not Be Named. And by jumping into bed I mean breathing the same air.
8. Thou shalt help me steal the limelight from every other event in the cricketing calendar.
9. Thou shalt lie about whether thou hast caught the ball cleanly, so that my sponsors shall get plenty of airtime while the TV umpire's decision is pending.
10. Thou shalt not covet thy teammates' WAGs, nor any of the cheerleaders I have flown in from the USA. Well at least don't text them. Shane, didst thou get that...?

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