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ICL camp upbeat ahead of launch

Walk into the Tau Devi Lal Stadium in Panchkula and you’d think a rock concert is about to hit town. Volunteers go about their work in a relaxed atmosphere – light towers being set up, temporary stands erected, lawn-mowers puffing away – and it’s tough to miss a big dais mounted at the end of the ground. Listen carefully and names of Bollywood actresses like Kareena Kapoor and Yana Gupta, and pop groups like Band of Boys float in the air.

However, cricket tournaments, especially massively-hyped, apparently path-breaking, ones like the Indian Cricket League, deserve better. The stadium is too small – almost like one used for college games – and the outfield dangerously patchy. The organisers prefer to take refuge in the “weather hampering our plans” line but that couldn’t have been true for seven months.

The vibes, though, are all gung-ho. Sandeep Patil, the former Indian middle-order batsman currently coaching the Mumbai Champs, says it’s a “miracle” that the stadium has been ready in 28 days and adds, “its the same outfield for all teams”. Himanshu Modi, the ICL business head, is also upbeat. “We kept in mind many things while building the stadium. We needed to make allowance for scaling it up later. It’s an architecturally well-designed stadium.”

Late in the afternoon, Brian Lara, clothed in a garish orange Mumbai Champs suit, walked onto the outfield, one which was being treated with urea and other fertilisers. There was some doubt over Lara’s participation in the tournament, with the talk of him shifting to the BCCI’s Indian Premier League. Modi, however, laughed off these suggestions. “The reason I kept quiet was that I know our friends [BCCI] were trying to reach him out. I was having a daily laugh with him on the phone. And they tried whatever they could but a contract is a contract. And people want to honour it.”

This isn’t Modi’s first run-in with the Indian board. In fact what irks some in the ICL camp is the board’s interference with every step. “How will you feel if someone was constantly stopping you from doing something interesting?” says Erapalli Prasanna, the former Indian offspinner who’s currently a match referee at this tournament.

Modi says the BCCI’s actions only endorse the good work that the ICL is doing. “It’s almost like they’re saying, ‘What they do, we will also follow’. We did ICL, they did IPL. They are endorsing our own format. We keep getting these individual comments in the press – from Rajeev Shukla, Lalit Modi, IS Bindra, Niranjan Shah – but officially from the BCCI has ICL got a letter till date? Not one. Have I written letters to them? Yes, three. I’ve not got a single official reply signed from their secretary. We’re just asking them to take an official stance. Officially our members have heard only from their state associations. Like the Cricket Association of Bengal not allowing entry into their stadium etc. But nothing from the BCCI.”

A few fans mill about near the impressive practice area, most waiting to get a glimpse of Lara. He has a few knocks against throw-downs from Rajesh Chauhan, the former Indian offspinner. “We’ve had a positive response to ticket sales,” said Modi, hoping that the presence of international stars will attract an audience. “I’m sure the response will only get better because people who come for the first game will see the Bollywood entertainment that is planned.

“We’ve invited filmstars, politicians and other VIPs. The Haryana chief minister is the chief guest on the opening day. He will be addressing the audience. Kareena Kapoor will be dancing too. Yana Gupta is scheduled to perform on one of the days. We’ll have our Sa Re Ga Ma Pa stars (winners of the television reality show) too. The Band of Boys will play almost every day.”

There promises to be some entertaining cricket shows as well. One of the members of the commentary team, former Australian left-arm bowler Mike Whitney, said he might be moving around in the crowd and “having a bit of fun chatting to the spectators”.

Modi makes no qualms about entertainment being their USP. “It’s like our singing contests. We make money out if it but provide singers with a platform to showcase their talents. We hope the cricketers take the chance.” At the end of it all Modi and team will hope they can turn around to the spectators and repeat what Lara asked on the day he retired: “Did I entertain you?” In the answer may lie the success or failure of this tournament.

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