Friday, April 17, 2009

Cricket extravaganza set to begin

The mass transportation across the Indian Ocean Lalit Modi referred to has been reasonably fluent, which reflects well on the ad hoc hosts and the drive and efficiency of Modi himself.

On Tuesday evening, at a press conference that turned into a double act between Lalit Modi and Shah Rukh Khan, the chairman and commissioner of the IPL began an answer by waxing eloquent about a 'carnival of cricket' and ended it by referring to the testing conditions that await Indian batsmen in South Africa. The order in which he made his points may have been instructive: this year, as last, the IPL is basing its ruthless business model on entertainment. Now, as then, cricket feels suspiciously like a means to an end. Perhaps the sooner we get used to the idea, the sooner we can all move on.

It may not be easy. An email that landed from the company employed to do the IPL's public relations cheerily alerted us to the floats which were scheduled to drive around Cape Town as part of Modi's plan to seduce the locals. They would, it said, contain players and other celebrities. No matter that the IPL has moved to another continent: Shah Rukh and Preity Zinta, interviewed by Mark Nicholas during the mid-innings break in Monday's one-day international between South Africa and Australia in Port Elizabeth, remain irrepressibly to the fore.

The mass transportation across the Indian Ocean Modi referred to has been reasonably fluent, which reflects well both on the ad hoc hosts and the drive and efficiency of Modi himself. Blockbusters are not supposed to take an unexpected twist as early as the second chapter, so the fact that a 36-day, 59-match tournament is taking place at such short notice is a miracle in itself, even if Modi's claim that all has been 'smooth sailing' is stretching the self-congratulation a little.

In reality there are plenty of thorny issues beneath the surface. The small matter of the suiteholders at Newlands, who pay good money every year to watch cricket from the comfort of their own personalised boxes but have now agreed (some of them, at least) to make way for the IPL's great and good, needed hours of Easter-holiday meetings to resolve. Castle Lager's parent company, SABMiller, have reluctantly consented to pay for the privilege of serving beer at the grounds which have been their own private drinking dens for years. And now we are going to have time-out dreaded by those who fear the Americanisation of the sport but regarded as a no-brainer by the money men who spy extra advertising opportunities.

These, though, are the details, and the bigger picture, for the time being at least, is less finicky. Ticket sales for Cape Town's back-to-back double-headers (expect more new terminology as the tournament progresses) have been so overwhelming that Newlands was a sell-out within a couple of hours of tickets being made available; this week an extra 5,000 seats were conjured from very nearly thin air. That probably tells us what we already knew: that South Africans love their sport and Cape Townians their cricket, even at the end of a domestic season which might have sated other nations' appetites. But it's impressive nonetheless: grey England, with the competing attraction of the County Championship, could not have pulled off a similar stunt.

Modi has made all the right noises, of course. He was gratitude personified on Tuesday evening, cooing over Cape Town's welcome and even tugging at the heart strings by claiming that the decision to relocate to South Africa was the 'most difficult of my life'. Shah Rukh, meanwhile, did his bit by pointing out that it was in South Africa in late 2007 that he first fell for short-form cricket. India pushed him in the right direction by lifting the World Twenty20 and even revealed that his house is full of South African furniture. This is a tournament that knows it is a temporary guest, but as the thorny issues indicate it is clearly determined to behave like the man about town.

All of which leaves us with the cricket, for it's easy to forget that all the celebrities, all the mutual back-slapping, all the professed affinity between two nations, would be nothing without a bat and a ball. Genuine questions await. Will Shane Warne overcome a year of rustiness to rip his legbreaks and rally the Rajasthan Royals? Will Kevin Pietersen slip effortlessly back into the role of captain? Will Sourav Ganguly overcome his irritation at John Buchanan's multiple-skipper theory? Will Delhi Daredevils live up to their billing as pre-tournament favourites?

Last year the cricket provided its own answer to the hype and hyperbole. If it does the same again, the minor inconveniences of the build-up may even be forgotten.