Sunday, April 20, 2008
By Emily Wax
The Washington Post
A companion video from the Post is here.
The Washington Post
Squeezing through the gates of a sold-out 55,000-seat cricket stadium in steamy evening heat, Hashim Kerala made no attempt to hide his reason for coming to the season's opening match: Cheerleaders. Washington Redskins Cheerleaders, to be specific.
In white go-go boots, yellow spangled short shorts and bikini tops, they pompomed their way onto the field, bursting right through local notions of modesty. The result was something that few in this cricket-obsessed nation thought possible: tens of thousands of male cricket fans finding it hard to keep their eyes on the game.
"The cheerleaders are heroes in their ability to make people excited," exclaimed the merry Kerala, a 30-year-old doctor of traditional ayurvedic medicine, as friends crowded around him, cheering in agreement. "They have great spirit."
"They're the only reason I am here. I wanted to treat myself," declared Setty Bishum, 55. The crowd swept him along, but he shouted back one more observation: "It's a new era for cricket -- hooray for American cheerleaders!"
In many corners of the world, cricket is seen as slow-moving and stodgy, a vestige of British colonialism that is a cross between baseball and napping. Organizers of the newly founded Indian Premier League are hoping to drastically change that perception overseas, and bring new verve to the game for the home crowd as well.
So they've brought in 12 Redskins Cheerleaders, who, in addition to performing, are mentoring a squad of Indian women. The league is also trying to win fans over to a shortened format of the game that is formally called "Twenty20," known colloquially as "cricket on crack." It condenses nearly a week of match play into three hours, with shorter "overs," which are similar to innings in baseball.
It can all be seen as a metaphor for India itself, which is growing younger, hipper and more willing to take chances, awash in cash as its economy expands at 9 percent per year.
"This is the spectacularization of the game of cricket. One-third of these people are here to see the Cheerleaders," said Boria Majumdar, a sports historian and a commentator for India's TimesNow news channel. He was conducting live interviews from the stadium. "Sexuality and cricket is the way forward. And it's time India wakes up to the fact that it's a different society. It's a modern society. There's no use keeping it all under wraps."
Beer and airline billionaire Vijay Mallya, who calls himself the king of India's good times, agrees. He owns the Bangalore Royal Challengers cricket franchise and invited the Redskins Cheerleaders to the game, which pitted his team, on home turf, against the Kolkata Knight Riders.
They're owned by Shah Rukh Khan, India's top movie star. His team fielded its own cheerleaders, both male and female. But their black-and-gold uniforms were much less revealing than those worn by the Americans.
The Redskins Cheer Choreographer, Donald Wells, said the Indian cheerleaders he's working with are already adept at shaking their hips and staying on the beat. He noticed that Indian cheerleaders were very expressive with their hands -- Indian classical dance has countless hand motions -- and joked that they probably wouldn't need pompoms.
"The Indian girls who tried out so far were so beautiful and so good, they were practically better than us," said Sharica Brown, 27, a Redskins Cheerleader from Baltimore, as she snacked on a plate of nachos before the game at Bangalore's Hard Rock Cafe. Nearby, Indians in heavy-metal T-shirts downed cheeseburgers and jostled to get a glimpse of the visitors. The women said they were enjoying India and had already been filmed in a Bollywood music video. Some had also indulged in a shopping spree for sparkly Indian-designed shirts and chandelier earrings.
Jazzed-up cricket has already become a huge business. Some players are reportedly earning nearly $200,000 a week during the tournament. Sony signed a $1 billion deal for exclusive rights to film and photograph Indian Premier League games over the next 10 years. Several international news agencies, including Reuters, the Associated Press and Agence France-Presse, stayed away from the match Friday to protest what they consider unreasonable restrictions by Sony.
Cricket purists complain that the abbreviated version of the game is cheapening its traditional stately tone.
"Twenty20 Terror?" read the headline of an editorial in the Times of India, a major English-language newspaper. The paper noted worries that money might spoil the "good taste of cricket," but it also saw the shortened game, which was invented in England, as a sign of the times.
But it is often not only the fast-motion format of the new game that offends cricket purists.
The American women's presence has caused a stir across India, a conservative, Hindu-dominated country where even at the beach, women often shun swimwear in favor of saris, which are made of at least six yards of billowing fabric that covers everything from the neckline to the ankles, sometimes leaving the belly exposed. It's a country where the top female tennis star, Sania Mirza, who is Muslim, is often criticized for wearing short skirts on the court.
Some TV pundits pointed out that the Redskins Cheerleaders are showing more skin on the cricket pitch than most Indian men will see before marriage.
At the game, the crowd roared every time the Cheerleaders appeared on the big screen. "I wish I could wear a bikini, but that's not allowed for Indian women," said Bollywood actress Rakhi Sawant during a heated pregame debate on an Indian cable sports channel. Across South Asia, modesty is still an essential part of everyday life. Public affection is severely frowned on. Protests erupted last year after Richard Gere publicly kissed Bollywood starlet Shilpa Shetty.
Indian society has shown a grudging acceptance of hip-shaking sexuality in movies and music videos, but not in daily life.
Friday's event went smoothly. Though some newspapers had predicted protests, there were none. But there were Indian rock bands, smoke machines, stilt-walking butterflies, ballet dancers in clear plastic cocoons, trapeze artists, a laser-light show and a fireworks display. And, of course, cricket.
The Cheerleaders said that the Indians treated them very warmly, although they were sometimes ogled in a way they were not used to. "I just think they are just very curious," said Jenny Zaleski, 28, from Alexandria, Va. "Let's just say we were stopped on the street a lot for our pictures."
In the end, the Cheerleaders might have been too much of a distraction for the Royal Challengers, who lost to the Knight Riders by 140 runs.
A companion video from the Post is here.