Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Leg Before Wicket 

Posted by Sasha at 5:01 PM ET

Leher Kala
May 04, 2008

They practise their gruelling dance routines, go sightseeing and shopping. During the long wait between matches, the foreign IPL cheerleaders are figuring out cricket, and India

Evgenia guseva, 23, is having a relaxed lunch in the coffee shop of a decrepit three-star hotel in Bangalore. It’s going to be a long day and night for Guseva and her 11 other leggy Russian mates, for these are the cheerleaders for the Rajasthan Royals. They’ve been in the news for their provocative costumes and lusty cheers, but as you watch this bunch of giggling girls tuck into salad and pasta, they look anything but perturbed by the constant scrutiny of their clothes, their moves and their attitude. “The fruits and vegetables here taste so good,” remarks Guseva, also the oldest of the lot, and the only one who can speak a smattering of English. By default, Guseva has become the leader of the troupe, used for communicating in India by all the girls. It’s their first time in Asia, and the girls from Russia are determined to enjoy every minute of this adventure. “It’s been very hectic. We’ve slept only four hours last night. We’re exhausted but it’s exciting to be here,” smiles Guseva.

Since this troupe from a dance school in Moscow landed in Mumbai, they’ve visited Hyderabad, Jaipur and Bangalore, before heading to Delhi. Four cities in five days, yet, the adrenaline of it all is keeping the girls going. “On the first day, we didn’t understand cricket at all. Now we get it a little,” says Guseva, who’s a trained gymnast, ballet dancer and has been a cheerleader for four years for football matches in Russia. Currently, she’s learning hip-hop and salsa in Moscow and plans to open her own dance school soon. The rest of the troupe is equally multifaceted, with four of the girls in University in Moscow, one studying to be a film director, and another a choreographer. What they all have in common is a love for dance and intense training in ballet since childhood. “The platform at the stadium is very small, so we can’t do any acrobatics,” says Aziza Eondy Daeva, 19, who’s getting restless with just a 10 second slot for their performance. At the IPL match in Hyderabad, the girls decided to risk it and skillfully managed a few sequences on a five by five feet platform, to many cheers and whistles from the audience. However, occasionally, a Coke can would land precariously close to their podium. “There are some rowdy men but we don’t mind the noise behind,” says Victoria, another of the cheerleaders. By and large, the crowds have been supportive and the girls say they find the sheer numbers in the audience invigorating.

When Emerging Media bought the team Rajasthan Royals, they contacted the Mumbai-based Inega Entertainment to scout for cheerleaders, who then hired a placement agency in Moscow. The girls of Rajasthan Royal earn approximately 25,000 per match, and they will perform at a minimum of 14 matches at the IPL, maybe more if the Royals qualify for the semi-finals. The girls acknowledge that its good money, almost 30 per cent more than what they would make at a football match in Russia. “More than money, we get exposure to something completely different, a new country and a new game,” says Olga Yarysheva, 21, while applying a spray of water to her face to cool down. Guseva explains to the girls that cricket is like baseball, and they’ve worked out the cue on when to start their routine; when the ball goes beyond the white boundary. “When our side takes wickets, they have to be prodded to start,” says Anant Vyas, media spokesperson for the Rajasthan Royals.

Piyush Inega of Inega Entertainment who’s made arrangements for the girls’ stay and travel within India says he’s concerned about their safety in the country and he monitors their movements between matches. “They can’t read the English newspapers so they don’t know all the stuff that’s being written about them,” says Inega. “When they go out shopping I have guards around.” However, these girls are chattering away in Russian and seem completely oblivious of the stir they caused in Hyderabad’s streets while shopping. Utterly unselfconscious and naturally uninhibited, they took a stroll to Char Minar to look for bindis and bangles, when they stumbled upon saris and went into raptures. “People stare a lot here,” says Guseva hesitantly.

The other girls are discussing the songs they dance to: Chak De India, Mauja Mauja and Halla Bol, a song by Ila Arun made especially for the Rajasthan Royals. “We need to get used to the different beats to dance correctly,” explains Yarysheva. Now they’re even familiar with the Royals’ cricket team and are beginning to understand the god like devotion that some of the team members inspire. “Shane Warne is the captain,” smiles Yarysheva.

It’s a hot and humid day in Bangalore and the city is gearing up for its first IPL match of the tournament at the Chinnaswamy Stadium. The area is cordoned off and is swarming with the police. Bangalore’s traffic, bad on a good day, is completely out of control. At four in the evening, the girls climb into a non-air conditioned bus to head to the venue for their practice session before the match. At the stadium the girls are handed their passes and ushered into a small hall, bereft of a fan or any seating, forget air conditioning. Clearly, any luxury for their team’s mascots isn’t a priority for Emerging Media. However, the cheerleaders barely notice and are fully focused on their task, a grueling routine to Hindi music for the upcoming match. In a room lit with harsh tube lights, with posters of sponsors huddled in one corner, one of the girls yells out instructions in Russian and they begin a series of coordinated twists and turns, jumps and yells. It’s a high-energy performance that would be motivating to the most phlegmatic player on the field.

After a while, the girls take a break for lukewarm Bisleri, while organisers of the tournament are flurrying about in the chaotic stadium. Eventually around seven, the girls change into their costumes in a no-frills make-up room, some in colourful combinations of green and yellow, others in red and white. Their pompoms, the glittering balls they throw about, are leaving colour on their hands. “The colour would go with vodka, it doesn’t go with soap,” announces Guseva. Their next stop is Delhi and they have loads of questions about shopping destinations in the Capital.

A visit to the Qutab Minar and the Red Fort is on the agenda as well. So far they seem pretty pleased with their India sojourn and think they’ll probably head back here as cheerleaders again. “I only wish people wouldn’t throw things at us from the stands,” says Guseva. The cheerleaders are beginning to figure out Indian culture. It may take a while to smooth out the rough edges, but scantily clad or fully covered, they’re here to stay in cricket.

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