First come the pompoms.
They descend on the lobby of Old Delhi’s Comfort Inn hotel in four large polymer sacks. Glittering tentacles of coloured foil peek through holes, indicating the precious goods inside.
Then come the girls. Twenty bleary-eyed figures take up their spots in the modest lobby. Some try napping on the couches while their managers work through check-in formalities; some stand on the hotel stairs and smoke. Most have something to complain about: They haven’t been able to sleep for more than 4 hours yet again, they’re hungry, it’s hot, their phones are acting up.
The cheerleaders, who auditioned in South Africa but have been culled from various countries, have been in India since the first week of March, when the third season of the Indian Premier League (IPL) kicked off. They’ve acquired cotton “Alibaba” pants and chunky silver jewellery. These jostle for space with GAP T-shirts and Louis Vuitton fakes on their petite frames.
Even a couple of weeks away from the end of the season, the girls have hectic schedules. Two groups of 20 girls each travel across the country for daily matches. Two league games each day means that both cheerleading groups work every day.
On an average day, the cheerleaders wake up at 6am, take a 9am flight for their next destination, check into a hotel at noon, grab a quick bite—a nap, if they’re lucky—before getting dressed to make an early entry into the stadium to avoid crowds. Slap that schedule with after-hour parties, and what you have is a 20-hour day.
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A platinum blonde called Juliette bites into an apple on a couch in the lobby. She is a basketball cheerleader back home in Ukraine. Apples are all she can eat lately—everything else is making her sick. She can’t tell me her second name. Because of the controversy that IPL’s “obscene” cheerleading routine generated in IPL’s Season 1 in 2008, the event organizers—DNA Networks—have heightened security measures for the girls.
Bouncy: (from top) Cheerleaders in Delhi on 17 March. Manvender Vashist / PTI ; Smit does a cheerleading drill; and (from top) Blom, Smit and Schrickker strike a pose. Priyanka Parashar / Mint
Her South African colleagues are more forthcoming, but only after a nod from a DNA representative. They agree to talk over breakfast. After 15 minutes, having donned their uniforms, Nikita Smit (23), Lindi Blom (20) and Claire Schrickker (22) have transformed into their glamorous avatars.
The IPL cheerleaders are a motley crew—mostly in their early 20s, largely dancers or cheerleaders back home in South Africa, Ukraine or Russia, but each is in it for a different reason.
Smit is a cabaret dancer in a casino in Bloemfontein, one of South Africa’s three capital cities. She was part of IPL’s Season 2 that was held in South Africa last year and decided to audition for the third season because it was so much fun. She’s been following cricket from childhood and quite loves the game. She likes some things more than others though: like the middle-order batsman Subramaniam Badrinath from Chennai Super Kings. “He’s a great dancer too,” she says, smiling coyly.
Pointing to the silver jhumkas (earrings) she picked up from Mumbai’s Colaba Causeway, Smit says she’s loving every minute of her India trip. Cheerleading, after all, comes with perks such as red-carpet entry to the after-match parties. “We’re tired all the time but it’s still fun. Many of the cricketers are great party people,” she adds, conscious now about disclosing too many names.
A DNA representative accompanies them at all times, bringing them fruit and water when they’re on the stadium’s podium. At first, these reps also had to prompt them to cheer. There were instances in the early games, Smit recalls, when some cheerleaders did a jig for the wrong team.
“I knew nothing about cricket when I arrived but now after 20-odd matches and observing the game from such close quarters, I follow every bowling style,” Blom chips in. Hailing from Cape Town, she is a hotel management student who’s saving up for higher education in Australia.
Her friend Schrickker is a professional dancer and intends to pursue dancing as a career. She has danced for several Bollywood films shot in South Africa. But apart from Cash she can’t really name any. “They all had really difficult names,” she explains.
While the 22-year-old can’t tell one Bollywood movie from the other, she knows the Bollywood stars. And the IPL allows her to meet many. “I like how engrossed Shah Rukh Khan is in the game...it’s so much fun to watch him cheer,” she says.
South Africa’s large Indian population ensures that the girls can tell their butter chicken from their rogan josh. Smit, in fact, has taken to ordering butter chicken and naan on every rare occasion when she has more than 15 minutes for a meal. “I often fall sick because it’s too spicy for me but it’s worth it,” she says.
Through their exacting travel and work schedule across different cities, Bangalore has been a saving grace. All three agree unanimously on how they have loved their stays in the Garden City. “It’s the weather and the quietude. It’s also very clean,” says Blom, adding, “Slumdog Millionaire had prepared me for Mumbai but I didn’t think it would be so bad...the shanties and the stray dogs made me want to cry.”
While waiting for the three girls in the hotel lobby, I see one of the other cheerleaders step down to ask the hotel staff the whereabouts of a cigarette store. The attendant refuses to let her step out, offering to get the cigarettes himself. “Is it dangerous?” she asks. The attendant replies, “Not dangerous but not so good.”
How does it feel to be so protected? Their recruiters here have kept them shrouded in much mystery. And somehow the mystery girl image isn’t something that pairs well with the stereotype of a cheerleader: an easy-going crowd-pleaser. “We can step out in groups if we inform one of our managers with some notice,” says Schrickker, adding that even though she’d love to sightsee some more, she’s beginning to feel homesick. “I miss my dad,” she says.
With instances of lewd comments and complaints by an Uzbek cheerleader in Season 1, this security concern is perhaps warranted. But Schrickker actually believes that the crowds are too quiet here. “Yes, they ogle at us but that crowd spirit is missing. Back in South Africa the crowd is more into the game,” she says.
As a cabaret dancer, Smit knows how to dance for entertainment. “Cheerleading is not just dancing. It’s about pleasing the crowd and there’s no denying that,” she says.
It’s this very sentiment, and the cheerleaders’ crowd-facing routines, that had caused outrage in Season 1. Protesters condemned the introduction of cheerleaders as an insult to traditional Indian modesty. Union sports minister M.S. Gill openly criticized the “indecent” dances of the scantily dressed cheergirls. Even Rahul Dravid, then the captain of Royal Challengers Bangalore, had referred derogatorily to their inclusion making for “bikini cricket”.
Two seasons later, the outfits have become more conservative—the skirts come with mandatory leggings. But there is still enough momentum against this “show of vulgarity” to have attracted a short-lived ban on cheerleaders in IPL matches in Jaipur two weeks ago.
Despite these hurdles, or perhaps because of the media space that these controversies are getting them, cheerleaders have managed to make their way into other Indian sports. The recently concluded Hockey World Cup in New Delhi had cheerleaders; so did the fifth Commonwealth Boxing Championship that took place in March. The cheergirls are now the face of a growing number of advertisements and promotions, with advertisers such as Vodafone Essar Ltd taking up the cheerleader theme for its award-winning ZooZoo campaign.
Smit, Blom and Schrickker clearly enjoy the focus. They have ready poses for our cameras. Travel, applause, parties, attention—really, what’s not to cheer?