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Samanth Subramanian

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Why the Indian Premier League Scares Even a Committed Capitalist

Posted: 04/06/10 06:44 PM ET

For the third year now, the Indian summer has been inaugurated by the Indian Premier League, a cricket tournament of such manic intensity that its followers are left limp and dazed and, frankly, a little sick of cricket at the end of it all. In its classical form - most frequently the butt of derision in America - a single game of cricket stretches over five days of patient, genteel play. The IPL, however, has compressed each game into three-and-a-half hours, and it has stuffed 60 of these capsules into 45 days. The tournament, played between eight Indian city clubs, features cheerleaders and perpetually hysterical commentators and torrential hitting. This isn't your grandmother's cricket; in truth, this isn't even your elder sister's cricket.

The purists have caviled, but cricket-wise, your attention wouldn't pass unrewarded. The IPL has become to the sport what MGM once was to Hollywood, luring into a single home many outsize (and some admittedly piddling) talents. The caliber of cricket, therefore, is often superb. Last month, one gentleman with an ebbing hairline and bottomless gumption scored a hundred runs off 37 balls; the effect is somewhat like a crate of firecrackers going off right under your nose. Even a relatively run-of-the-mill game is almost cartoonishly crammed with action, sure to contain many instances of the atavistic thrill of watching a man hit a ball really, really hard.

But while the IPL is faster and more incendiary than the sport has ever been, it's also more commercial than the sport has ever been. During live telecasts, there is quite literally not a single second where there isn't an advertisement of some sort on the screen. Like a master dowser, the IPL's impresario, Lalit Modi, has found deep wells of revenue where none previously existed. At the start of this season, one study valued the IPL brand at $4.13 billion, and last year, Columbia Business School put its students to work on an IPL "case," sealing its status as a business model as much as a cricket tournament.

It's sorely tempting - and perhaps not all inaccurate - to seek in the IPL a precise metaphor for the modern Indian economy, and more than a few observers have yielded to that temptation. The Indian cricket board - the owner of the IPL, and now the richest, most powerful board in the world - has been able to bend the international cricket calendar around its own priorities, like a black hole warping the fabric of space-time. Private money has poured into the tournament, uncaring of the financial crisis that has coincided neatly with the IPL's lifetime. A couple of weeks ago, an Indian corporation paid $370 million to buy a newly created franchise - and it has to spend still more to fill its team with cricketers; in 2003, by comparison, the Russian tycoon Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea, a leading, century-old soccer club in the English Premier League, for $233 million. The IPL is brash and young. It is in constant motion. It demands to be watched.

So why, when I watch the tournament now, do I watch it with equal measures of fascination and repugnance? Not because the IPL is a symbol of capitalism - far be it for me, a willing beneficiary of India's adventures in money-making, to complain about that - but because it's a symbol of capitalism gone horrifically wrong. The IPL purports to be a free market but is in fact controlled by one man: Lalit Modi, whose power and stature have grown so Rabelaisian in merely three years that Bollywood has already asked to mine his life for subject material. (One player, Ravindra Jadeja, dared to try negotiating a new contract for himself this year. He was promptly banned for the remainder of the season.) The IPL pursues revenues at the expense of other valuable resources: Test cricket, but also domestic cricket, the inevitable breeding grounds for young talent. In its grubbing for money, in fact, the IPL is dismissive of anything old-fashioned, anything aesthetic; even the four seconds between one ball and the next, held sacrosanct through more than a century of cricket, have been sold for inconsequential advertisements. Meanwhile, owners buy teams for staggering quantities of money and with the fuzziest possibilities of recovering their investment; they desire only to dice up the risk and sell it in parts to sponsors and other companies, a practice that should surely sound familiar to us today.

These stories function like cautionary parables, tied to the faint rumors we hear about the India outside the IPL - rumors of profiteering, of mining and real estate oligarchies, of willful disregard for the environment, of bureaucratic collusions and monumentally foolhardy lavishness. It isn't because we recognize the tangibles of capitalist India in the IPL that we find it so compelling. Instead, it's because the IPL brims over with everything we fear will possibly transpire in India's approach to capitalism - and it's already playing, in uncomfortably high definition, at a sports bar near us.