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Cricket's Indian revolution: fast play and more pay

The Indian Premier League is altering the game and pulling in the best players from around the world.

By Mark Rice-OxleyCorrespondent / May 8, 2008

FAST CASH: Players in the new Indian Premier League can make $1.5 million in six weeks.

Sourav Ganguly/WENN/Newscom

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Hampshire, England

To the uninitiated, it is a baffling sport. Matches can last five days – and still end in a draw. There are rules for when you can have tea, and long periods seem to elapse when nothing much is happening.

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But suddenly cricket, a game of attrition exported by the British to the rest of the Empire, is undergoing a startling revolution. And the catalyst isn't from the land of the game's birthplace, but from an American billionaire and – gasp – a former colony, India.

The game has been condensed from days into a three-hour prime-time ready TV slot that defies almost every tradition of the sport. White uniforms are out. Lasers, scantily clad cheerleaders from Washington, D.C., and rock music are in.

There is now more action, more big hitting (for once a British sport has more scoring than its US counterpart). Think of it as a soap opera compared with a five-act Shakespeare play; one is full of melodrama and adrenaline, the other is absorbing, complex, sometimes hard work but ultimately richly rewarding.

This incarnation of cricket is called Twenty20 – referring to a limit of 20 "overs" which are akin to "innings" in baseball. The format was actually initiated in England five years ago. And it's been a success in pulling in the after-work crowd and giving a complex, arcane sport a universal appeal.

But in the past month, India has taken the concept to a new level of popularity and prosperity. The Indian Premier League (IPL) is making the rest of the sporting world stand up and take notice.

"Twenty20 is changing everything. The game we are used to seeing played over four or five days is moving into the background," says Matthew Thacker, publisher of All Out Cricket magazine.

The new Indian league is playing to packed stadiums and soaring TV ratings, pulling in more fans than in the rest of the cricket world combined and, most critically, a cool billion dollars in television and other media rights have set the standard.

So rapid is the game's growth that US billionaire Sir Allen Stanford is ready to pour in as much as $1 billion of his own money to set up a rival to the IPL. Stanford told the BBC that "Twenty20 ... has the potential to be the most popular team sport in the world."

But amid the heady ambitions to vault cricket above its more glamorous sports cousins lurk persistent concerns: that Twenty20 will come to define the game, eclipsing the more subtle arts of the longer version; and that India's purchasing power will suck in the best players from all around the world, leaving other countries with second-best fare.

"You have a new form of the game which is proving wildly popular combined with this huge change in the power and politics of cricket because of the growth of India as a market," says Matthew Engel, editor of the sport's authoritative reference book, Wisden Cricketers' Almanack.