From Bollywood stars in their corporate boxes to the children playing on every street corner - they're all going cricket crazy. As the Indian Premier League teams the world's biggest players with billion-dollar business deals, Angus Fraser witnesses the birth of a very different ball game
From the moment when India's cricket-crazy fans experienced the high-octane frenzy of 20-over cricket while watching their side win last September's World Twenty20 Championship in South Africa, and the sport's administrators realised they could transform this bite- sized form of the game into a multi-billion-dollar industry, the Board of Control for Cricket in India was always going to create a product that would blow away its competitors. And the Indian Premier League (IPL), which begins under the lights in Bangalore tomorrow evening, when the Bangalore Royal Challengers take on the Kolkata Knight Riders in front of 55,000 delirious spectators, has done just that.
Over the course of 45 days and 59 matches, most of the world's top cricketers will be paid sums of money that would make a Premier League footballer bristle with envy. The terraced areas at the grounds of the eight franchised teams will be packed full of noisy, passionate and excitable supporters. The corporate boxes will contain India's rich, famous and glamorous. Bollywood actors and actresses will be there, along with businessmen and cricket administrators from elsewhere in the world hoping to cash in on or copy the most talked-about event the game has seen for many years.
India's passion for cricket is unmatched anywhere in the world, and for many years its companies have bankrolled the International Cricket Council, sponsoring its tournaments and filling advertising slots on television and in grounds. In all it has been supplying the game's governing body with approximately 80 per cent of its income.
But these have not been philanthropic gestures made by millionaires with nothing better to spend their money on. Yes, India's moneymakers like to be seen socialising with big names, and in their eyes there are none larger than cricketers, but the nation's ever-growing middle class is becoming wealthier and wealthier, and the best way of influencing how and where these tens of millions of people spend their money is through the sport they adore most.
If you want to get people to use a Visa card, get Sachin Tendulkar to promote it; if you want to sell a motorbike, the most common form of transport in India, pay Mahendra Singh Dhoni to have his picture taken sat on one. Tough, ruthless businessmen may act more like soppy schoolgirls when either of these superstars enters a room, but they have committed millions of dollars to the IPL with one objective - to make money. It is an activity at which Indian businessmen have become very adept .
The marketing operation behind Indian cricket boasts many of the country's best brains, and they will need to be at the top of their game to turn such considerable investments into profit. Association with, and entry to, the league did not come cheap. The 10-year television-rights deal cost $1bn (630m) - in the UK it will be broadcast on the Setanta pay-channel - and the money spent buying the eight franchises totalled approximately $750m. Interest is high but a lot of advertising, sponsorship and tickets need to be sold if everyone is to leave sated.
India's love of cricket and devotion to its teams make English football fans' passions seem like holiday romances. Cricket is the number-one sport in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, neighbours of India, yet there is nowhere near the same fanaticism in those countries. The sport's expansion from a social game played on village greens in the south of England during the 17th century roughly follows the path of the British Empire. Organised cricket began to be played in India in the …