Lack of star power may short-circuit the ICL
If you’re a sports aficionado, a late-November game between the Lions and the Jets means a battle of attrition between two of American Football’s perennial strugglers. It’s not usually a match-up that you pencil into your calendar as a highlight of the sporting year, and there’s seldom much at stake other than professional pride.
But last Friday, at an obscure stadium on the outskirts of one of north India’s smaller cities, the Lions of Chandigarh and the Delhi Jets fought out a twenty-over game that could have far-reaching ramifications as far as the game of cricket is concerned.
There may have been only 6,000 people watching, but that represented a full house for the Tau Devi Lal Stadium, a far more modest venue than Ford Field or Giants Stadium.
As is the case with their North American namesakes, there were few marquee names on view. The Lions were led by Chris Cairns, the New Zealander who flirted with greatness throughout an injury-interrupted career, and also included the South African Andrew Hall, an effective all-rounder but hardly a show-stopper.
The Jets were captained by Sri Lankan Marvan Atapattu, a man who had a successful international career only after the most horrendous start imaginable – he scored one run in his first six Test innings. By twenty-over standards, it was an uninspiring game.
The big hits were few and far between, though the fielding was far superior to that usually seen at domestic matches in India. The Lions, who have home-field advantage right through the inaugural Indian Cricket League with all the matches being played in Panchkula, just edged it at the end, with Hall bowling a tidy final over that cost just five runs.
The result didn’t matter though. What did was the response of the crowd packed into the hurriedly constructed stands, many of whom had opted to give TV coverage of the Indian run-fest at the Eden Gardens a miss.
The outfield may have been patchy and there may have been a lack of genuine stardust in the middle, but the assembled throng lapped up the entertainment on offer.
Kareena Kapoor, a Bollywood star, was central to an off-field performance that included song, dance, cheerleaders and fireworks – in short, everything that you might get to see at a Super Bowl.
The striking contrast was with the Twenty20 tournament that the Indian cricket board organised last April in the wake of the Blue Billion’s dream turning into a nightmare at the World Cup.
Though the format was a novel one as far as India was concerned, it ended up just like any other domestic tournament, with matches played out in eerie silence and utter indifference from fans seduced only by the bright lights of international cricket.
You couldn’t blame them either. As far as the board is concerned, the fans are almost a necessary evil, cattle to be herded into shabby stands and provided with facilities worse than that found in most stables.
No one can bring in their own food or water, and the indifferent refreshments on offer include junk food and colas – only those endorsed by the board of course.
As for the toilets, God forbid you should ever need to use the facilities. At the Eden Gardens, India’s answer to the MCG and Lord’s, two toilets cater to a cavernous stand that houses thousands and the press box.
If start of play is 9am, it’s safe to say that these are unusable by half past nine. Often, there isn’t even running water.
When you then get a competition that actually appears to care about the average punter, an enthusiastic response shouldn’t be surprising. The ICL staged a coup of sorts by pricing the cheapest tickets at a hundred Rupees [£1.25], a far cry from BCCI events where sub-standards seats in the sun go for five times the price.
Will the concept work, and force the Indian board to look to change? That’s still doubtful, given the lack of big names in the ICL. Brian Lara and Inzamam-ul-Haq lead the Mumbai Champs and the Hyderabad Heroes, but like Cairns and Lance Klusener (now with the Kolkata Tigers), they’re has-beens on the lookout for a fast buck.
Not one big name currently plying his trade in international cricket is on board, with Mohammad Yousuf now facing court action after reneging on his contract.
By comparison, the ICL’s rival Indian Premier League claims to have agreed terms with a sizeable number of international cricket’s great and good. It appears certain that only one will be left standing eventually, and given the Indian predilection for stars, it will most likely be the ICL that shuts shop or sells out.
If Indian domestic cricket is ever to be vibrant, the only way is to ensure the participation of the top players in at least some of the games. A Ranji Trophy semi-final at the Wankhede Stadium in April 2000 best illustrated that. Tamil Nadu piled up 485, with Robin Singh – currently India’s fielding coach – and Hemang Badani – now of the ICL’s Chennai Superstars in the – scoring big hundreds.
A few dozen and the obligatory stray dog had watched the opening day’s play, but once Sachin Tendulkar started to show signs of playing a special innings, word spread quickly. By the third day, thousands – stockbrokers, diamond merchants, tea vendors and journalists supposed to be on the desk – had come through the turnstiles to watch one of the great innings in domestic cricket.
Tendulkar finished unbeaten on 233, and Mumbai had a precious five-run lead that they would build on en route to yet another trophy. Tendulkar has hardly played for Mumbai since and the crowds have responded by staying away.
Ultimately, all the Kareena Kapoors of the world won’t bring them back. Only a Tendulkar, a Ganguly or a Dhoni can do that.