A hiker sees a despondent man about to commit suicide by jumping off a mountain cliff. The hiker, eager to save the life of a fellow human, asks him, “Why are you ending your life? Where are you from?” The man replies, “The village of Vandzene in Latvia!” The hiker says, “Can you believe it…I am from there too! What faith are you?” The man replies, “Christian!” The hiker says, “Me too! What denomination?” The man replies, “Lutheran!” The hiker exclaims, “Gosh, me too. Orthodox or reformist?” “Reformist!” The hiker, astonished, “Me too! Pre-1400 reformist or post-1400 reformist?” The man, with thoughts of ending his life receding having found a kindred soul, says with a smile, “Pre-1400 reformist!” The hiker, a post-1400 reformist, with a vicious look on his face, screams, “You heretic, infidel…you deserve to die!” and pushes him off the cliff.
You will figure out why this joke is pertinent as you read along. But first, let’s talk about the Indian Premier League (IPL). When IPL franchisees open counters to sell tickets, I suggest you buy a season pass or two. It will be an experience like nothing else.
International cricket, played in the five-day and one-day formats, has been losing audience the world over. Most matches between countries today are played to empty stadiums and yawning crowds. But professional and college football in the US and soccer in Europe attract hundreds of millions of fans every weekend.
What gives? Why such astonishing apathy when the best cricketers are in display…and why such amazing excitement when two local teams are battling? For two reasons: One, it’s not love that sells sports tickets, it is hatred; two, the more localized a team, the greater the hatred for the opponents.
We love watching India play Pakistan because Pakistan is our political enemy. We delight in thrashing Pakistan. Next is Australia because we hate their guts and are in a state of denial about their supremacy in the sport. The vim and animation take a steep fall when we play, say, Zimbabwe.
Like politics, sports is local. People identify first with their city and then with their country. Mumbai folks wax euphoric about being a Mumbaikar and so on. IPL got the format right. Largely, the local business dons and celebrities own local teams, and the teams will feature local players. The identity and branding would be anchored around the city. The More the localization, the greater the passion for the city team and the more hatred for other cities. Now you get the prologue joke that sought to point the moral and adorn the tale of micro and localized animosities.
IPL Twenty20 will create a new and enormously lucrative era in cricket. Millions of SMSes will fly among friends, each rooting for their own team, and the media will lap it up and play up the rivalries. IPL will create a wonderful city spirit. By 2015, international cricket, Test and one-day formats will fade into oblivion. Because, despite the moaning and hand-wringing of purists, cricket, like any other sport, has to entertain and enrich, or atrophy.
There will soon come a time when all party and office conversations will revolve around the local team and their exploits. Since I am originally from Andhra, my affections are with Hyderabad. ‘Gults’ are long on skill and less on hype; men of fire and chilled steel. When IPL starts, the only question is not whether Hyderabad will win against the other tin-pot teams…but by how much.
Satya Prabhakar is CEO of Sulekha.com and blogs at http://satya.sulekha.com. Comment at firstname.lastname@example.org