NEW DELHI:Come April and May, when the smothering heat of the sub-continent becomes unbearable, the world's top cricketers will flock to India for a billion-dollar extravaganza billed as the future of the game.
The gentleman's sport has never seen anything like the Twenty20 Indian Premier League (IPL).
Corporate czars and cine stars have poured millions of dollars into the venture to entice the world's best to take to the field at the height of the Indian summer.
The IPL starts on April 18 with a brief to transform into pure spectacle a game often mocked for taking five days without necessarily producing a result.
The Twenty20 format, however, is fast, as each team has a single innings and bats for a maximum of 20 overs.
The IPL, brainchild of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and backed by the sport's world governing body, has already raised a whopping 1.7 billion dollars, including television rights.
India's growing financial clout has for the first time attracted the best to turn out not for their countries, but as individuals for franchised teams bought by private owners.
The 44-day floodlit event, featuring Test captains Ricky Ponting of Australia, Graeme Smith of South Africa and Daniel Vettori of New Zealand, will be contested by eight teams playing in 12 Indian cities.
Franchisees include billionaire industrialists Mukesh Ambani and Vijay Mallya, and Bollywood actors Shah Rukh Khan and Preity Zinta.
Legendary former all-rounder Kapil Dev, India's only World Cup-winning captain and also the force behind the rival Indian Cricket League (ICL), believes it is too early to say whether mass commercialisation of the game will improve domestic cricket.
"This is business and I don't know what the end result will be," Dev told AFP.
"I only hope the traditional cricket does not die. I hope the standards improve in domestic tournaments," he added.
India's legendary trio of batsmen -- Sachin Tendulkar, Sourav Ganguly and, Rahul Dravid -- as well new boy Yuvraj Singh have been given the status of "icon players", meaning they will not be auctioned to the highest bidder. They will represent and most likely captain their home teams.
The players' auction will be held in February.
"We can say that all the hard work fructified and the IPL is here to stay," trumpeted its chairman Lalit Modi.
India's unexpected success at the inaugural World Championships in South Africa last September has transformed attitudes about Twenty20 matches. Even the dancing girls and booming music have been accepted in what was long considered an arch-conservative audience.
"A Twenty20 match is pure entertainment. It's fast and exciting. I like watching it. If I've time I'll definitely go to the ground. If not, I'll watch it on TV," said cricket fan Rahul Dutta, 25.
The Indian officials were reluctant to touch the Twenty20 game just a year ago, but the national team's triumph in South Africa and the emergence of the ICL changed everything.
The IPL was set up to counter the ICL which recently took place in northern India starring many ageing international greats, including former captains Brian Lara of the West Indies and Inzamam-ul-Haq of Pakistan.
Reliance's Ambani made the highest bid of 111.9 million dollars to bag the Mumbai team, liquor baron Mallya secured Bangalore for 111.6 million dollars, while Khan took Kolkata for $75.09 million.
The top two sides in the tournament, which boasts prize money of five million dollars, will qualify for an international Champions Twenty20 League to be held at an undecided venue in October.
Khan said it was not just about making money in a country where advertisers are eager to exploit a market of 1.1 billion people.
"The idea is to nurture youngsters and give them more platforms for playing cricket. I have a huge passion for the game and I want to be part of every sport," he said.