ipl 2009

...and a Bit of Cricket

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As the carnival unfolded in a foreign field, the crowds were sober by Indian standards, actresses in luxury boxes tried to look jubilant, food sellers made money, and batting technique made a triumphant return

Leaving aside Lord's, Brabourne and Wimbledon, most sports stadiums around the world are blue collar in character. They are meant for the masses. These are places where thousands congregate to witness athletic combat. The seats are similar. Nobody’s posterior gets preferential treatment.

In these throbbing cauldrons of the working class, however, there exist bubbles of exclusivity called hospitality or corporate boxes. They are a modern but gilded evil. Out in the cheap seats, it is hot or wet, depending upon the weather. Inside a hospitality box, it is a different world. The lighting is seductively low. The air temperature is controlled. People drink from champagne flutes and not plastic glasses. They ingest fancy finger food of Mediterranean provenance. Their cheers are driven by monetary concerns and not the grasp of sporting nuances.
P308 is one of 110 such boxes at the Sahara Park, Newlands, in Cape Town. It is the suite of the Rajasthan Royals, defending champions of the Indian Premier League (IPL). A few weeks ago, Raj Kundra, boyfriend of Shilpa Shetty, bought a stake in the team. On this day, the first of IPL 2009, Kundra, Shilpa and her sister Shamita are right in front of the enclosure so that they can hog the focus of TV cameras while rooting for the Royals. They believe in the noble cause of self-promotion. Rajasthan are playing the Bangalore Royal Challengers, another predictably named team in the IPL. Shilpa’s parents are also present. There are other people associated with the team or its sponsors. Food and drinks are served by staff wearing fake, ample moustaches of the Rajasthani kind.
Bangalore bat first and bat poorly. Shilpa is happy. There is a sign on a beam in the room, ‘Cricket etiquette: Remain seated during overs. Move only between overs.’ It is laughably outdated. Shilpa gets up from her seat when she wants, punching the air with her delicate right wrist on which hangs a large watch. She flashes signs and smiles to the earthlings in the seats below, who then take one of those pointless digicam pictures which will probably be deleted the very next day. Now and then, Shilpa tugs at the hem of her blue Royals T-shirt or the waistband of her white Dolce & Gabbana jeans.
There is euphoria in the box. A party has been planned irrespective of the result, says a Royals staffer, wearing a turban. Now that victory seems somewhat likely, the spirits are even higher. Some, however, realise that anything can happen. “I hope we kill this one,” says Raghu Iyer, the team’s chief marketing officer. There is a hint of apprehension in his voice. Rajasthan fold up for 58. Shilpa now has an expression which is a mix of amusement and resignation.
It is a memorable opening weekend of the IPL because it shatters conventional wisdom and sees the triumph of individuals defined by substance in an event defined by hype. Bangalore’s victory is brought about by Rahul Dravid and Anil Kumble, men deemed unsuitable for Twenty20 and subjects of mockery last year. Bangalore, they said in 2008, were a ‘Test20 team’. Dravid makes 66. Kumble takes five for five. Dravid becomes Man of the Match. He celebrates his 50 with a pointed gesture. Later, he denies he was making a point.
But his words are like arrows and make his feelings apparent. “The pitch was not like in India where you can just tee off,” Dravid says, sagely. “You needed to play cricketing shots.”
Earlier, in the opening match of the tournament, the Man of the Match is Sachin Tendulkar. He would have turned 36 by the time you read this, and some felt that by now Twenty20 would not be his cup of Boost. But he remains precious. The victory of the Mumbai Indians brings cheer to Rahil Ladhani, a bespectacled 12-year-old from Vile Parle, Mumbai. Rahil loves pets. He recently brought home a pigeon and named it Masakali. Currently touring the African continent with his family, he misses his avian friend. But a visit to the Mumbai Indians box gets him a team T-shirt and the boy warms up to the IPL. He wears it at breakfast the next day.
IT IS A poor opening weekend for Bollywood. Because on Sunday, the teams to which Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta belong also lose. The Kolkata Knight Riders, who had to pay for excess baggage because of the sheer weight of some egos, are particularly emasculated. But Shah Rukh grins and bears it. “I-shant! I-shant!” he screams as Ishant Sharma slogs a few to push the score past 100 and at least cover the team’s modesty. From below, a youngster in a faded red Ferrari cap shouts back, “Baith jaao, nahin to awaaz baith jaayegi.” (Sit down, or your voice will.)
The Newlands Sahara Park at Cape Town is an agreeable location. Table Mountain is a towering, spectral presence on one side, now covered in mist. Only when the sky is clear does it reveal its heft. A rail track passes along the ground.
The stands of the stadium have charming pale green roofs and little turrets. The smell of beer and roasting meat, typical of sports arenas overseas, clings to the moist air. There is music too. And so the people of Cape Town come, wearing masks and wigs and protecting themselves from the sun or rain with hats made from Kentucky Fried Chicken buckets.
Even if an ice-cream vendor says, “This is not our game, this is an Indian game.” On the first day, the turnout is a little over 17,000. On the second, it is 12,000. The capacity of the ground is 22,000. Though the attendance is not bad for a start, the passion and cacophony of IPL 2008 is missing. “Last year, Chepauk was rocking,” says drummer Sivamani. “I miss that and I miss my fans.” Shaun Pollock, the Mumbai Indians coach, says, “At the Wankhede Stadium [in Mumbai], almost everyone is on top of you.” The reason for the relatively low intensity here is obvious. Local spectators do not feel a strong connection with the teams.

As the Deccan Chargers begin their innings against Kolkata on Sunday evening, the attention of most South African fans is on the FA Cup semifinal between Everton and Manchester United. The match being played at Wembley, London, goes to a penalty shootout. Outside Mr Calamari and Big Six Pizza, two food stalls at the ground, a big group of fans well soaked in alcohol collects. They chant and jump. Everton win. There is a roar. Not many like Manchester United here.
The hope is that South African players in the IPL will keep local interest alive. One of them is JP Duminy of the Mumbai Indians. Yusuf Anwar, a lecturer of mathematics and science at the College of Cape Town, knows Duminy’s one-time coach. “He was an old-fashioned type of guy,” Anwar says, a shawl around his shoulders and hands clasping a book in which he will try to obtain Shah Rukh’s autograph for his daughter. “Once when he called, Duminy was in a bar.
‘Why are you drinking?’ the coach asked. ‘I got a century,’ Duminy said. ‘How did you do in yesterday’s game?’ the coach asked. Duminy said, ‘I got a century yesterday too.’ The coach let him have his drink. We knew he would make it big. ”
Anwar, from Bangladesh, then talks about his visit to Mumbai a few days ago. He says a taxi driver showed him the houses of, among others, Shah Rukh and “Lawta Mangeshkar.”
UNLIKE THE teams, there are no disappointments for the food vendors. In fluent Marathi, Mukhtar AM Dalvi, who is based in Cape Town, shares details of the performance of Mumbai Curry World, an eatery in the stadium run by his family. Dalvi, an architect who is in the food business for extra income, guesses he has fed 5,000 people on the day. Mutton curry and veg curry are his best selling dishes. The banner of the stall is modelled on the Indian national flag. The right vertical of the letter ‘M’ in the word ‘Mumbai’ curves to resemble a crescent moon. Above the top left corner of the ‘M’ is a star. “It is to indicate to customers that the meat is halal,” says Dalvi.
The feeding of the players is done by Wembley Caterers. A team of about 20 prepares food for almost 350 people, working from 5 am to midnight. It is mostly Indian food. But there is a special request on behalf of a team for mashed potatoes and noodles. The request is granted. There is also pasta and salad. Since the players are wary of calories, dessert does not get more sinful than fruit salad or jelly and custard.
The press conferences are drab. Most throw out verbal cadavers for the media to scavenge on. Mahendra Singh Dhoni is an exception. He does justice to most questions with indepth answers. He even has the courtesy, or PR skill, of saying, “Sorry to keep you waiting.” This is not something you can expect from Yuvraj Singh. He and Punjab coach Tom Moody sit at the table in the media room. Moody holds his microphone. Yuvraj’s lies in front of him. The media coordinator asks him to hold it in his hand. “I will do it when I’m answering a question,” Yuvraj says.
The double-header has come to an end. A huge white bus carrying the Kolkata Knight Riders is leaving the stadium. Sitting right in front, by himself, left hand fussing with hair and right hand holding a mobile phone to the right ear, is Sourav Ganguly. This is your farewell image of the opening weekend. You get back to the hotel ready to shut your faculties down. The games are over, the drama is over. What more is there to see? Then, at the hotel, you see a strong man with curly hair and a lot of tattoos. You wonder if it is him. A hotel staffer confirms it indeed is Jonah Lomu, the rugby legend. He is playing, of all things, ping pong.