Indian cricket league relocates to South Africa

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — With one last strategically placed hit, the Royal Challengers Bangalore’s batsman finally sealed victory for his team against rival cricketers the Delhi Daredevils. The scene was routine for the Indian Premier League, except that the match MVP receiving his oversized 100,000-rupee check was South African — and so were the supporters cheering him on.

Because of security concerns related to India’s recent elections, the whole 59 cricket matches of the IPL were moved to South Africa, leaving teams like the Rajasthan Royals and the Kings XI Punjab playing in cities such as Cape Town, Durban and Pretoria. The move is virtually unprecedented in the world of sports and would be akin to moving the National Football League to Japan or the English Premier League to Brazil.

The IPL counts some of the world’s best cricketers, but its appeal goes beyond sport. Indian pop music, dancers and fireworks assure that fans remain entertained for the duration of a three-hour match. The frequent presence of A-list Bollywood actresses on the grounds adds to the glamour of the events. It is this combination of entertainment and world-class cricket that has made the IPL such a success among South Africans.

Dean Thompson of Vereeniging, a small city south of Johannesburg, said he had never watched the IPL before this year but couldn’t resist the opportunity to see local talents in action. “We’ve come to see the South African players, basically,” said Thompson, 37. For his wife Margaret, 34, the sideline show was just as appealing as the game. “It’s a very good atmosphere,” she said. “It brings a fun aspect to the cricket.”

True to its global roots, the IPL was not conceived in India but in England during a 2007 meeting between Lalit Modi, vice president of the Board of Cricket Control for India, and Andrew Wildblood of the sports management company International Management Group. Modi, who had studied in the United States, wanted to establish an India-based cricket league modeled after U.S. sports franchises.

Less than a year later, the eight franchises were sold to investors for a total of $723.6 million, and some star players fetched more than $1 million at auction. The inaugural league, held in the spring of 2008, was a resounding success, in part because of the form of cricket used for the tournament.

Unlike the traditional five-day "Test" and one-day international matches, Twenty20 is a fast-paced version that fits neatly in television schedules and allows for the IPL’s 59 games to be played in about six weeks (the name “Twenty20” refers to the maximum of 20 overs, or series of six balls, that each team plays during the match.) The Rajasthan Royals, a team now co-owned by Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty, beat the Chennai Super Kings to secure the first IPL title.

When concerns emerged that the security for the league could not be assured during India’s elections, organizers looked to other countries to organize the competition. South Africa, one of the world’s cricket powerhouses, quickly secured the winning bid. It had organized the first Twenty20 cricket world cup in 2007 and is set to host another international cricket competition, the Champions Trophy, in October after it was moved from Pakistan for security reasons.

“We’ve got a very good relationship between the two cricket boards,” said Cricket South Africa spokesman Michael Owen-Smith. “You can see it in the way that Cricket South Africa was able to take the decision very quickly to help India with this. It was literally done in 48 hours, and the tournament itself was put together in three weeks, which is almost miraculous.”

South African cricket authorities count on the IPL to help cricket become the country’s national sport. Owen-Smith said cricket is now South Africa’s second-most popular sport after soccer. Jon Swift, a sports columnist for South African newspaper “The Citizen,” said that the fact that stadiums are full despite chilly temperatures shows that new cricket fans are being won over.

“It’s brought a whole new sort of life to cricket in this country,” Swift said.  “It’s rejuvenated the whole game.”

If South African stadiums fill up for IPL games, part of the credit goes to the country’s Indian community, which represents about 2.6 percent of South Africa’s population. Many are the descendants of workers brought to South Africa in the 19th century to labor in sugarcane fields.

Ashwin Desai, a sociology researcher at the University of Johannesburg, said the glitzy and well run IPL offers Indian South Africans the opportunity to be proud of their heritage.

“Given the fact that Indian South Africans were so cut off from India for so long, this kind of interaction is of course very exciting for people,” Desai said.

But Desai warned that the glamorous image Indian South Africans develop from watching the IPL and Bollywood is a distorted reality that ignores the deep inequalities that exist in current-day India.

Vinesh Hannamon, 32, said he came to the Challengers-Daredevils game because the IPL is “such a hit.” The Johannesburg resident said the show is “lovely” but has room for improvement.

“They should go a little more Indian,” he said. “The dancers are white and black. They’re not Indian.”

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