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    Default IPL faces popularity test as India team struggles

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    Indian Premier League organizers spent big on the opening ceremony for the upcoming season, hoping fans will regard the return of the rich Twenty20 series as a welcome distraction from the struggles of the national team rather than a reminder of them.

    American pop star Katy Perry and South African percussion band First Project lent an international flavor to a gala opening ceremony Tuesday night in which Bollywood stars Amitabh Bachchan, Salman Khan, Priyanka Chopra and Kareena Kapoor performed a variety of song and dance programs.

    "It gives me a great pleasure to flag off the fifth edition of the DLF Indian Premier League, an arena where quality international and domestic cricketers take part in intense contest of strategy and skill," said IPL chairman Rajeev Shukla as he announced the tournament open. "IPL is a platform where talent meets opportunity."

    India was whitewashed 4-0 in consecutive away test series in England and Australia. It also failed to qualify for the finals of a tri-series in Australia and the Asia Cup in Dhaka last month, losing it No. 1 ranking in tests and sliding down the ODI standings within a year of winning the World Cup.

    Even as the media speculates of a possible overkill of the game in recent months, Rupert Murdoch-owned Star TV won the rights for all cricket in India till 2018 for a whopping $750 million bid on Monday.

    The contract , which includes broadcast, internet and mobile rights, covers 96 games and comes to about $7.85 million per game. The previous rights holder, Nimbus, used to pay $6.38 million per game before its contract was terminated over a payments issue.

    Two-time defending champion Chennai Super Kings play Mumbai Indians in the season-opener in Chennai on Wednesday. The fifth edition comprising nine city-based franchises will feature 76 matches and will run till May 27.

    The IPL has given cricket an even higher profile, with billionaires and Bollywood beauties falling over each other to buy stakes in the teams, which feature players from around the world. Franchises clamored for players during the 2012 player auction in February and during the preceding month-long trading window.

    Last year's runner-up Royal Challengers Bangalore managed to retain West Indian Chris Gayle, who joined them as an injury replacement and emerged player of the series last year, while Pune Warriors last week signed up Australia captain Michael Clarke, who will make his IPL debut during the second half of the season after Australia's tour of the Caribbean.

    But the Pune team, which agreed to compete after threatening to withdraw over differences with the Board of Control for Cricket in India, will be without South Africa test captain Graeme Smith who has decided to undergo surgery on his injured left ankle.

    India's Rahul Dravid, one of only six international batsmen to have scored over 10,000 runs in both test and one-dayers and who announced his retirement from international cricket last month, will lead Rajasthan Royals after Australia leg-spin great Shane Warne retired from IPL.

    Sachin Tendulkar, who became the first batsman to achieve the milestone of a 100 international centuries last month, has given up captaincy and Mumbai Indians will now be led by India offspinner Harbhajan Singh, who led the team to victory in the Champions Trophy last year.

    This year's Twenty20 league has gained in significance as it offers an opportunity to players to get acclimatized to the slow and low subcontinent conditions ahead of the fourth edition of the World Twenty20 to be staged in Sri Lanka in September-October.



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