Sunday, May 24, 2009

Would the Indian Premier League have worked in England?

    It is a small sign, roughly about the length of a cricket bat, but a sizeable symbolic statement of how the Indian Premier League has taken over South African cricket. Lalit Modi's named parking space at Centurion Park was guarded by two heftily built goons on Friday night.

    No matter how important and powerful Modi may currently be, and become in the future, there is absolutely no chance the MCC would have given him a named parking spot outside the pavilion at Lord's if he had chosen to supplant the IPL in England instead of South Africa.

    The decision to choose South Africa as a venue for the second IPL may well go down as one of the most important for the future of Twenty20 cricket. It has been a roaring success built on bums on seats and there is now an air of invincibility around the IPL team that threatens to run out of control. America, Canada, England, Australia, the Moon, Mars... the list of future conquests is Romanesque in its ambition and scale. "It is just a matter of the bandwidth of the mind," said Modi. "I have to think it through."

    But while they feel flush with triumph under African skies, there is no doubt that the IPL has been a non-event in England. Its home on Setanta has perhaps not helped, and neither has the lack of English playing interest nor the fact our most iconic cricketer was injured playing for a team named the Chennai Super Kings. The Twenty20 Cup begins for the final time in its present incarnation on Monday and ticket sales are slow. The World Twenty20 follows a week later and inevitable comparisons will be drawn with the IPL much to the annoyance of various governing bodies.

    Modi is the public face and driving force of the IPL but it is IMG, the sports marketing gurus, who really run the show. They are mightily relieved they did not have to cram the IPL into an English county season. To compete with the Premier League and deal with an ECB scurrying around organising their own game. Here they have clean grounds to show off their flashy plasma screen boundary advertising boards and carte blanche to shower the place with DLF IPL (note the subtle name change from the Indian Premier League) signage.

    They also do not have a sceptical British public to convince. The South Africans love their sport. They ignore the teeth grinding embarrassment of watching local schools being handed wads of cash by Modi, like the Queen dishing out Maundy money. As for the Bollywood Babes competition, and phrases such as "She's a beaut" from the television commentary boxes, even the South Africans have baulked at that.

    But it is the miracle of watching South Africans queue outside Centurion Park to watch a match involving the Deccan Chargers and the Delhi Daredevils, with barely a South African player in sight, that is the crowning achievement.

    The overwhelming majority of the crowds have been Indian. Many of the post-match parties and functions have been Indian. This is still an Indian tournament. The cost of tickets, the IPL hiked the price for the final from 200 rand to 300 rand when they realised they could fill the ground, has put off many from the poorer black community. The Indian middle classes were the target of the first IPL. They remain its patrons here. Perhaps if Modi had diverted his private jet to London rather than Johannesburg an audience that has never felt wanted by English cricket might now be filling our grounds. An opportunity missed? Time will tell.

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