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Page last updated at 15:37 GMT, Tuesday, 22 April 2008 16:37 UK

But is it really cricket?

By Soutik Biswas
BBC News, Bangalore and Calcutta

(Photos: Sandipan Chatterjee - Indian Express)
Cheerleaders were brought in from America. Photos: Indian Express

On a muggy afternoon last weekend, a spectator leapt off an upper tier stand during a cricket game in Eden Gardens stadium in the eastern Indian city of Calcutta.

He survived the fall with broken bones.

The middle-aged man did not fly off his seat because he was carried away by the game.

He simply wanted to have a closer peek at Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan who had turned up in the stands below to cheer a team that he owns in the new Indian Premier League cricket competition.

The multi-million dollar competition has been hyped as one which will revolutionise the game with a fizzy cocktail of cricket, entertainment and celebrity shows.

Starved

So how do you serve up entertainment to embellish a game which is religion for millions of Indians?

It's a fairly uncomplicated recipe.

Young fans of the Kolkata Knighriders
Young fans of the Kolkata Knightriders

Take a large helping of Bollywood stars, saute it with some more Bollywood music, and then add whatever you can lay your hands on - cheerleading girls, stilt walkers, cyclists furiously riding around the ground, acrobats hanging from the stadium roof.

It appears to be working in an entertainment-starved country where an evening out in the big cities essentially means flocking to shiny, air-conditioned malls to shop, eating unappetising precooked food, and catching a Bollywood movie at the overpriced cineplex.

During what promises to be a blazing Indian summer, the 44-day competition needs to pull out all its stops and entertain parched fans, many of whom still have no loyalty to the newly created city teams.

No wonder then that, for the inaugural ceremony, the organisers hired cheerleaders from America, stilt walkers from Holland, stunt acrobats from Germany and laser operators from China and Malaysia to serve up a visually stunning show.

It was helped by 250,000 watts of sound and 50,000 watts of lighting through lasers and sky tracers.

Many of the players on the field were imported too. The only strong Indian presence appeared to be again, Shah Rukh Khan, who as one commentator said is "seen everywhere and anywhere these days". He had come to cheer his team and egg on the crowds.

Bollywood brew

Bollywood's Shah Rukh Khan works up the cricket crowd
Bollywood's Shah Rukh Khan works up the cricket crowd

Even Calcutta, a city known for its unflagging loyalty to local star and former Indian captain, Saurav Ganguly, appeared to have forgotten him at the weekend game - there were posters of Khan in the stands, and the star's local fan club walked in carrying huge cut outs of their icon.

At the games Khan can be seen heading an entourage of B-list stars, bling music composers, fashion designers, bouncers and security guards. All eyes are usually glued to them.

In star-struck, hierarchy conscious India, Bollywood stars are like Pied Pipers who lead their legions of fans to love and hate what they love and hate.

Purists fear that in this quest for offering entertainment to woo crowds, the dividing line between entertainment - read Bollywood- and cricket is becoming precariously thin.

The result is very few are actually watching the game at all.

In a Mumbai weekend game, Bollywood's Saif Ali Khan, Kareena Kapur, and Anil Kapur ran along the ground sporting the team's jerseys emblazoned with the name of their upcoming film in a brazen marketing push.

In Delhi, another actor, Akshay Kumar, known for his daredevil and comic acts on screen, found himself suspended from a cable midway through the act, and had to be unclipped and let down.

A Hyderabad team commercial showed the captain VVS Laxman teaching a rather sheepish looking local film star to play cricket.

People like Vijay Mallya, the flamboyant owner of the Bangalore team and a brewery and airline baron, believe that all the entertainment will not distract from the game.

"Entertainment enhances the game. Look at the Olympics ceremonies, look at American baseball. They all have glamour and entertainment. Here we are adding glamour to what is already a pretty glamorous game in India," he says.

'Game is sacrosanct'

Others like Venkat Vardhan, who heads a leading Indian event management company that is rolling out the entertainment for the Bangalore matches, feels onfield entertainment during cricket matches should be carefully conceived.

Priyanka Gandhi in the crowd
The charismatic Priyanka Gandhi, daughter of Congress party chief Sonia Gandhi
"The game is sacrosanct. But the combined energy of classy entertainment and good cricket is a good thing. What is wrong is to make the players entertainers. Let entertainers entertain, and cricketers play the game".

But such "classy entertainment" like getting skimpily-clad foreign cheerleading girls is sometimes threatening to go out of hand at the competition.

In Bangalore beer-addled spectators exhorted the girls to come down and dance with them, screaming in unison to a Bollywood song: "Come to us, come to us, now!"

And in Mumbai, swooning men implored the shimmying girls: "Madam, madam, shake hand, shake hand!".

Analysts say cricket and the cult of celebrity are feeding off each other at the competition.

"The cricket uses celebrities to feel good about itself. The celebrities use the cricket to stay in the headlines. It's a symbiosis of a particularly cynical kind," says cricket writer Lawrence Booth.

Meanwhile, as Bollywood stars dance and cheerleading girls do the jig, electronic scorecards are yet not working in many stadia, and at the weekend match in Calcutta, there was no drinking water available for more than 70,000 spectators.

Also, a floodlight blew its fuse stopping the game for half an hour and the dustbowl cricket pitch invited the wrath of players and analysts alike.

Clearly, there is nothing revolutionary about all this, and how it will change the game - for the better- is unclear.

Additional reporting from Prachi Pinglay in Mumbai


SEE ALSO
How will the IPL change cricket?
17 Apr 08 |  Cricket
Indian Premier League team guide
15 Apr 08 |  Cricket
Will India's cricket league work?
27 Feb 08 |  South Asia

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