The Cricket World Cup begins this weekend in Australia, and the rest of the globe will be paying attention as India defends its title in what should be the biggest sporting event of 2015. Domestically? We can expect, well, crickets.
Americans don't give a rip about cricket. The U.S. didn't make the 14-team World Cup field, and never has. We formed a national team in 2010 to attempt to qualify for this year's event; a report on the effort noted that the squad had an average age of 37 and didn't have a single player born in this country, hence the nickname "the United Nations Pensioners XI." The only telecasts available through U.S. networks are pay-per-view.
That's not to say we haven't tried to influence the game, though. One of the biggest brouhahas in the sport in recent years was started by an army of young Yanks who in 2008 went on a mission to India to spread a wholly American pastime: cheerleading.
Cricket in India is a big-time sport—big as the NFL, NBA, and MLB combined. But a group of Indian businessman wanted to make it bigger time. So Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, who has long kept up a sideline in cheerleader promotion, helped out by sending a team of cultural ambassadors to introduce Indian cricket to the art of dressing in scanty clothing to dance alongside sporting events..
The New World choreography and risque (by local standards) outfits caused a full-on clash of cultures and generations. While high-rolling cricket magnates were inspired to decorate their sidelines with copycat crews of imported dancers, editorials derided the Redskins women and their cheering IPL peers as "firangi," a term that for centuries has been applied to unwelcome white foreigners. Government officials lumped the visiting cheerleaders in with "bar girls," which throughout Asia is tantamount to "hooker."
And the battle keeps roiling.
"Indians are still trying to figure out if it's an invasion, or an exploitation of their culture," says Mahanth Joishy, the India-reared, New York-based editor of United-States-India Monitor, and an entertained observer of the cheerleader wars.
It's as if Bollywood adapted the "Footloose" script and flipped the setting from a backwater town to the second biggest country on the planet.
The peppy Americans were invited as part of an effort to bring an aged game into the 21st century. Cricket, which finishes behind only soccer in pretty much every poll of world's favorite sports, dates at least as far back as medieval England and was spread through centuries of imperialist aggression. There are now three main playing formats, all of which a lay American might nutshell as: baseball played by 11-man sides on an oval with only two bases and no gloves.
The difference is in how long they take. The cheerleading initiative was the work of the Indian Premier League, which plays the newest and shortest format, Twenty20, or T20. To stick with the imperfect baseball analogies, the traditional format, Test cricket, has two-inning matches with unlimited at-bats per inning. Players wear all-white uniforms and still take tea breaks, as the matches can last five days.
In the 1970s, a faster version called One Day gained popularity. By restricting the number of at-bats per inning, One Day aims to get games finished in eight or nine hours. In 1975, it became the format of choice for the World Cup, and this year's event will be played under One Day rules. Despite the name and restrictions, though, One Day matches still can take two days. That works for a competition held every four years, but isn't feasible for continuous league play.
So about a decade ago, the T20 format cut the game down to the equivalent of a single inning, with 20 outs per team. Traditionalists dismissed it as "cricket on crack," but the IPL thrived, and league officials regard it as the best way to spread the gospel of the sport.
"Test is a marathon, T20 is a sprint. Young people like sprints," says Gladstone Dainty, the Guyana-born longtime president of the USA Cricket Association, the game's primary, if beleaguered, sanctioning body in this country. "T20 and the IPL will open doors, and be helpful in whetting people's appetite for the game." (One sign of the current state of cricket in the United States: Dainty, the game's highest-ranking official here, will not be able to attend the World Cup because of obligations to his day job as an accountant in Hyattsville, Md.)
Right away, the IPL set out to be something big. The inaugural franchises were owned by Bollywood moguls—Shah Rukh Khan, the top box office draw, owned the Kolkata Knight Riders—and top Indian industrialists. The holder of the Bangalore franchise, Vijay Mallya, was chairman of the family-owned United Breweries Group, the second-biggest liquor distributor in the world, with Kingfisher beer its best-known beverage. In true Snyderesque fashion, Mallya showed he liked the big-splash signing: Before the first season, he outbid fellow IPL owners to land Jacques Kallis, a South African legend who had been named Leading Cricketer in the World for 2007.
The league clearly intended to offer more than cricket. India is an old society filled with young people: Its population numbers about one and a quarter billion people, and their average age is just 29. More than 600 million Indians, or around twice as many folks as the entire population of the United States, are under 25 years old, and the new league didn't want to risk losing that demographic. Sideline entertainment was going to be part of the package.
"These are people who are aware of what's going on in the rest of the world," says Joishy, whose family is from Udupi, like Bangalore a city in the Indian state of Karnataka. "They are buying blue jeans and grew up listening to western music and watching western movies. I'd even say there's a sexual revolution going on in India, and more women are making money and making decisions."
Cheerleading isn't quite as old as cricket, but it's been around. According to The Official Cheerleaders Handbook, the pastime grew out of organized yelling by all-male cliques at Princeton University football games in the 1880s. (The first recognized cheer: "Tiger! Tiger!/Sis! Sis! Sis!/Boom! Boom! Boom!/Aaah!/Princeton! Princeton! Princeton!") It's come a long way since, as cheerleading has done away with most of the males and most of the clothing through the years. While the NCAA and the federal courts have spent years debating how to classify cheerleading, the American Medical Association declared last year that it's a sport "because of its rigors and risks."
Vijay Mallya, the self-proclaimed "King of Good Times," was as aggressive in pursuing off-field performers as he was cricketer free agents for the Bangalore IPL squad, and whatever his opinions on whether cheer is a sport, the shrewd businessman had to realize it offered him a way to differentiate his product. The league had taken steps to give a homegrown facade to what it was selling— imposing, for example, a cap on the number of foreign players who could be in the lineup at any time. (After the Mumbai terrorist attacks in the fall of 2008, a total ban on Pakistani players was put in place, despite the fact that many of the world's best cricketers come from India's neighboring country; that ban was lifted for the 2010 season, but IPL owners refused to sign a single Pakistani, and still haven't, with "security reasons" usually given as an explainer for the wacko exclusion.) But there were no such restrictions on the sideline personnel.
The Washington Redskins heard about the IPL in early 2008 during talks with an Indian production company that had ties to Larry Michael, the team's play-by-play announcer. At the time, the team released a statement saying officials were asked about "creating a new cheerleading world in India."
Michael's boss, Snyder, had by then shown himself to be an aggressive marketer of all things cheerleader. Shortly after buying the team in 1999, Snyder changed the cheerleading squad's name from Redskinettes to Redskins Cheer, and began marketing the NFL's longest running troupe far more than it had ever been promoted. He produced the first Redskins Cheerleaders swimsuit calendar for 2000, and made a documentary about the calendar shoot, which he paid to air on local TV.
The IPL launch occurred during Snyder's reign as chairman of Six Flags, right around the time that the amusement company founded the Thrilleaders, billed as the "first-ever professional, theme park cheerleading team." That squad never got traction and was quietly disbanded. In 2009, his D.C sports radio station, WTEM, advertised a pervy listener contest with commercials that had a heavy-breathing dude asking his buddy if he'd like to have Redskins cheerleaders "soaping up and scrubbing you." The online ads for that tawdry promotion indicated "five lucky winners" would get their cars washed by bikini-clad Redskins cheerleaders—in November, not exactly peak swimsuit weather in the nation's capital.
In that undaunted, try-anything spirit, his team did proverbial cartwheels when asked about sending cheerleaders to Bangalore. "Of course, the Redskins Cheerleaders welcomed the challenge," said the team in a 2008 statement announcing the cultural exchange.
Donald Wells, who served as director of the Redskins Cheerleaders at that time, now recalls spending the two months before shipping out designing uniforms and choreographing routines that had both Bollywood and hip-hop flourishes, all in hopes of melding east and west, just as any good cultural missionary would.
The original plan was to send 12 cheerleaders and two choreographers to India and immediately begin holding clinics there for local women. As eager newbies picked up the tricks of the trade, the Americans would chaperone them through the first four games, then hand them the pom-poms and return home.
But Bethany Hammer, who was among the first batch of cheerleaders to make the trip, says she and her colleagues found out fast that young Indian women weren't as eager to learn about cheerleading as the American crew was to teach them.
"I remember all this buildup for the first tryout," says Hammer, who now teaches dance in the D.C. area. "And nobody showed up." A subsequent cheerleader audition, as Hammer recalls, attracted only four women.
"So they just bagged that plan," she says.
On to Plan B, which was to just let the Redskins cheerleaders perform, unaccompanied by locals, throughout the entire two-month IPL season, which began in mid-April.
"For the first opening ceremony for opening game of the Indian Premier League, the production was nine minutes long, and three minutes were just my cheerleaders," Wells says. "The response was amazing. It was like that was the first time any of the people there had seen what cheerleaders do. And this is like a true American creation, and thousands and thousands of people really wanted to see it.
"The next match in Mumbai, we were supposed to show up for a pre-game party," Wells continues. "But the traffic was so bad we couldn't get there by bus on time. So I tell the girls to just get off the bus, and we're jogging through these massive crowds hand-in-hand just trying to get to the stadium. By the time we show up, we're so late they'd already started the pre-game ceremony. So I say 'Just walk out on the field and wave!' And 60,000 people, the whole stadium, just erupted. It was like a movie. I could tell that cricket to India was bigger than anything in America."
A fan posting as Madridismo23 went on an Indian cricket message board after catching the Mumbai/Bangalore matchup early in the 2008 season referenced above to give kudos to the Royal Challengers sideshow. "If it weren't for those drop dead hot American cheerleaders," wrote Madridisismo23, "I'd have fallen asleep for sure."
Because no locals stepped forward to join the Redskins cheerleaders, fresh gaggles of stateside women were shipped in to Bangalore every two weeks to spell their squadmates. Wells stayed the entire season. He says the publicity never waned. At one point, as Wells remembers things, his cheerleaders made the front page of the Bangalore newspaper for "22 days in a row" while he was there.
Other IPL teams had also put together cheerleading squads, mostly made up of South Africans, Australians, and Eastern Europeans. But cultural divisions reared up almost immediately. In April 2008, it was reported that government officials in West Bengal, home of the IPL's Kolkata Knight Riders, were seeking a ban on cheerleaders in cricket.
"I am not against any new concept, but Kolkatans are not yet ready for cheer girls," West Bengal Sports Minister Subhas Chakrabort told IBN Live, an Indian CNN affiliate. "I personally do not support this kind of westernisation in the name of entertainment." (Commentator Jhoomur Bose chided the jingoist naysayers in an editorial, writing, "perhaps they forget cricket was imported, too.")
Around the same time, the Mumbai police warned the IPL that they would be attending a match between the Mumbai Indians and Deccan Chargers, and would arrest league and team officials if the cheerleaders performed "vulgar or indecent" dance routines, or if their dress was deemed indecent.
Days later, the Delhi Daredevils disbanded their female cheerleading crew because of the protests. They were replaced by a gang of 30 "bhangra boys" with their bodies painted red and black, the team's colors.
"The moral police in India woke up to the cheergirls being against the cultural ethos of the country," reported IBN Live. "With politicians and social activists joining the fray, the controversy over the concept of cheerleaders frothed over." When the Bangalore team showed up in Delhi to play, the Redskins cheerleaders made the trip, but, according to the news agency, "The skin show was cut down."
The Bangalore squad, according to Wells, would alter its routines to accommodate local authorities.
"There were a few stadiums where the girls would have to wear the warmups all game long," he says.
Hammer, who was working as a pharmaceutical sales representative in the D.C. area at the time, says she'd sought out advice from Indian doctors on her beat about what to expect during her trip. Every East Asian she talked to told her to get ready for a backlash unless the cheerleaders covered up more. So she was prepared when she saw protests about the cheerleaders from Indians outside the stadiums, and when Wells would give the ground rules about their right to bare arms, or, heavens to Betsy, bare legs.
("This is one of the great contradictions of Indian culture," explains Joishy. "Even a very conservative middle-aged person would think nothing of wearing a sari that showed off their midriff. But showing off the leg? No.")
After the season, IPL officials surveyed public for opinions on the cheerleaders. The results were not very positive. A report on the poll said that 34 percent of Bangalore citizens aged 15 to 45 "found the gyrating dancers in skimpy uniforms offended their sensibilities." That was the second-highest negative rating in the league, behind only Chennai (39 percent).
The hubbub over cheerleading spread beyond India's borders that summer when Sri Lanka's government ordered its national team to drop a crew of Eastern European cheerleaders who were brought in to egg on the cricketers in a match with an Indian squad.
"It is not in keeping with our tradition," explained Sri Lankan cultural minister Yapa Abeywardena when the ban was announced.
Some franchises responded to the burgeoning cultural controversy in ways that would surely make Snyder smile, by doubling down on the alleged offense and using the scads of negative publicity as a marketing tool. Two IPL squads showed support for Mallya's initiative by producing reality shows in which the second season's cheerleading squads would be picked. "Last year, although there was controversy surrounding cheerleaders, they created sufficient buzz around the games," Indian management consultant Anand Halve told the Hindustan Times. Two other IPL teams dropped cheerleading altogether after that season because of the fracas.
Mallya's team finished in 7th place in the eight-team league that first year. He totally overhauled the front office and fired the general manager, then made a big splash by again outbidding the rest of the league to sign hotshot South African free agent Kevin Pietersen. (Sound familiar?)
The Bangalore cheerleaders got reviews as the league's best for 2008. But Mallya didn't ask the Redskins to send them back in 2009. He did, however, continue outsourcing T&A from the USA, hiring a crew from Varsity, a Tennessee-based all-purpose cheerleading goliath, for the IPL's second season. He nicknamed the team the White Mischief Girls, after a brand of vodka popular with young Indians (and hawked by his family firm), and promised his new cheerleaders had learned "flirty acrobatic skills" and would pump up the sleaze.
"A little bit naughty, a little more hottie and a lot more mischievous," said Mallya's press release announcing the renaming of his squad for 2009. "Necklines plunging, hemlines rising, they are all set to let the mercury soar, higher than any of the sixes that come from the blades of Kevin Pietersen."
The social climate in India has grown more prudish in recent years, as have the politics. The Bharatiya Janata Party, a conservative group with ties to the Hindu right comparable to the GOP's links to America's Christian right, is now in power. The state of Kerala has in recent years imposed a prohibition on alcohol sales, except in 5-star hotels. In 2012, BJP pol Shatrughan Sinha told the BBC that the foreign cheerleaders made a "mockery" of cricket. Sinha and other conservative nationalists were no doubt giddy in 2011 when the Pune Warriors, a new IPL franchise, rebelled against the Western influx and introduced the first all-Indian cheerleader troupe. The girls, labeled the Cheer Queens, wore costumes from Bollywood designers and performed traditional dances to traditional forms of music (including Punjabi Bhangra, a style coopted by Jay Z for "Beware of the Boys.") Shah Rukh Khan banned foreign cheerleaders on his team, Kolkata Knight Riders, in 2012, and forced the homegrown troupe to dance strictly to traditional Indian music.
Alas, the ride atop the high horse has not been a smooth one for the cricketers. The Pune Warriors went out of business in 2013. And Khan is now serving a five-year-ban from Mumbai's Wankede Stadium after what was described as a "drunken brawl" with stadium security.
Yet, when IPL kicks off its 2015 season after the World Cup, the American version of cheerleading will again return, though not American cheerleaders. The current batch of White Mischief Girls on the Bangalore team's website is made up of imports from South Africa and Eastern Europe. The uniforms are not as racy these days as those the Redskins squad wore in their season abroad. Hot pants have given way to gym shorts; a cheerleading crew for a conservative Christian high school in the U.S. could likely get away with these outfits. But, says Joishy, "For India, that's still a lot of leg."
"You can't start or stop cultural change politically," he says. "I'm not saying cheerleading is a good thing or a bad thing. I think cheerleading was inevitable."
Wells left the Redskins a year after the IPL foray. He says that he never had time to take stock of the pioneering aspects of his Indian excursion while it was taking place. "It was all a whirlwind," he says.
But all that hit him hard a few years after he came home. He had treated himself to a trip to Dupont Threading, an Indian-owned salon in downtown D.C. As he was having his eyebrows gussied up, the TV in the salon was showing a Bollywood movie. A scene shot at a cricket match came onscreen.
"And in the movie they're showing [Indian] cheerleaders, wearing uniforms very similar to the ones I designed and what we wore over there," he says. "I saw that and said to myself, 'We started that!' That's pretty cool."
Disclosure: Dan Snyder once sued the author for writing mean things about him. Photo via Getty