Indian Premier League set to shine

Originally Published: March 12, 2010
By Amar Shah | Special to Page 2

CricketAP Photo/Charles VergheseThe Indian Premier League has begun, and the world is ready to watch.

Akon must be a cricket fan.

Perhaps the inspiration for his 2006 hit "Smack That" comes from his affection for smacking a sixer (cricket's version of a home run); after all, the Grammy-nominated R&B star is in Mumbai, India, this week to help usher in the third season of the Indian Premier League.

The six-week cricket tournament is equal parts Super Bowl, World Cup and March Madness, all tossed on a thali of hype and hoopla.

Akon joins such pop-music luminaries as Lionel Richie, UB-40 and an ABBA revival as performers for an Olympics-style opening ceremony that seems like a cheesy '80s flashback but instead helps kick off a extravaganza a month and a half long. Its optimistic promoters hope it will become the most-watched sporting event on Earth.

The IPL launched in 2008 and has changed the classical face of traditional cricket. Forget long matches lasting five days plus tea breaks. Here is the Twenty20 format, a quicker, whirling-dervish form of the game whose matches last the length of another bat-and-ball sport. More important, it has imported something we're quite familiar with: good, old-fashioned American show business.

Washington Redskins cheerleaders were brought in, Bollywood celebrities were recruited as owners, and billions of dollars were spent marketing and advertising a sport that's inscribed into the psyche of a country of 1.2 billion people like Bible verses on Tim Tebow's cheeks.

The commissioner and creator of the IPL, Lalit Modi, is, according to some, a cross between Don King and Gandhi, a man described by the Times of London as "a modern Charlemagne, with a little touch of Frederick the Great, the Prussian king." Modi was a student studying in the United States when he came up with the idea for the IPL.

Cricket is arguably the second most popular sport in the world and is played across the world from England to Australia to the West Indies. As surprising as it may sound, cricket was once more popular than baseball in the United States. But the real passion for the sport lies in South Asian subcontinent, home of nearly 2 billion people. Modi's business model was to replicate soccer's English Premier League with the atmosphere of an NFL game.

Cricket is usually played between nations. Teams usually go on extended tours during the year. The IPL has eight domestic teams spread out across India that will play some 60 games during a six-week span and will crown a champion April 25. Players from various countries are selected during a preseason auction. The pay's not bad -- the best players will easily make more than $1 million for just month and a half of work. Last year, the winner of the tournament was the Deccan Chargers. The IPL is routinely the most watched television program in India, and the league is now estimated to be worth around $4.6 billion.

I experienced the fervor and insanity of the IPL firsthand when I went to two live matches in Delhi and Mumbai during the inaugural season. So immersed was I in such teams as the Mumbai Indians and Rajasthan Royals that I nearly forgot about the family wedding I had come for in the first place.

I still wear the black and gold Kolkata Knight Riders jersey I bought at the behest of my wife. (Insert David Hasselhoff joke here.) But alas, I must buy a new jersey because the team owner and Bollywood's biggest actor, Shahrukh Khan, just changed the team color to purple. The new jerseys are designed by famed fashion designer Manish Malhotra. This is like Ralph Lauren designing uniforms for the Los Angeles Lakers. However, I think the real reason for the color change is the Knight Riders have performed like the IPL version of the Los Angeles Clippers.

The opening ceremony Friday was bombastic, ostentatious and gaudy. I loved every minute of it, including the sauntering dance routine of Bollywood's Deepika Padukone.

Akon has come and gone. He's actually teaming up with Shahrukh to sing on the soundtrack of his new movie.

Lionel Richie takes the stage and finishes entertaining the crowd.

The tournament is about to start. The Kolkata Knight Riders take on the Deccan Chargers in the first match.

I have a feeling that more than a billion people are dancing on a ceiling, including me.

Amar Shah is a sports producer based in Los Angeles.

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