Cheerleaders challenge India's strictly cricket tradition

Cheerleaders challenge India's strictly cricket tradition

Traditionally, when a batsman hits a six into the crowd, he lifts his bat to acknowledge the applause. 


They smile and jump in short skirts and tight tops in front of frenzied crowds -- but this is cricket, not a Bollywood set or a Mumbai nightclub.

They may not know the rules of Twenty20 cricket, but the cheerleaders who follow the eight Indian Premier League (IPL) teams have become a key part of the success of the world's wealthiest cricket tournament that will stage a new final on Sunday.

Traditionally, when a batsman hits a six into the crowd, he lifts his bat to acknowledge the applause. 

But when Delhi Capitals star batsman Rishabh Pant bashes a ball into the stand, he unleashes an explosion of music, smoke and flying pom-poms.

The dancers -- who come from Britain, Brazil, Canada, Russia, South Africa and other countries -- keep grinning and kicking even when temperatures hit 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit).

When the IPL dancers started in 2008, some politicians wanted them banned because their skimpy outfits were considered un-Indian -- and Royal Challengers Bangalore now have more soberly dressed, mixed male-female cheerleaders.

But there are few complaints now.

The troupes follow the teams on a gruelling criss-cross schedule across India for eight weeks each year. The players get luxury flights and hotels, while the women take the budget version.

"There are a lot of rules -- don't look at them, don't smile at them," English cheerleader Kelly Smith said of the dancers' relations with the players.

"We help them win the games in a way, we should be able to meet and interact with them," added the 24-year-old, one of a dozen women in the Delhi Capitals cheerleaders team.

- Five days of this! -

While a metal fence separates the women from fans in stadiums, they still get trolled online. And the sexist jibes from the crowd can be daunting.

Charlie Chaeppela said someone created a fake social media account to taunt her.

"They used a picture of me while I was cheerleading, they threatened me and asked me why I was in India," she said.

India was thrust into the global spotlight when a 23-year-old woman student was brutally gang-raped and killed in 2012, prompting nation-wide protests within India. 

Politicians brought in tougher penalties against sexual offenders and accelerated trials, but campaigners claimed the legislation failed to stem the tide of violence against women. 

More than 100 rapes a day are reported in India, according to the most recent official government statistics in 2016.

But Chaeppela said she still took the job because it was an "incredible opportunity".

"My mom got me a book on India and on the Delhi page, it said it was the worst for women," Chaeppela said.

"But on second thoughts if you look at it, it could happen anywhere in the world."

"I have only done cheerleading in India. The culture, the people, the craziness, it's so cool," said Canadian Linda Lopatynski. 

"As far as Indian men go, personally it doesn't bother me. That's just my mentality, some people I am sure have a different way of thinking. We are here to do a job professionally."

The IPL put up a firewall around players after an illegal gambling scandal in 2013 that saw three players arrested and two teams banned from the league.

Even a hint of scandal worries the cricket establishment now.

From a distance, the women have to make do with giving nicknames like "Muscle Russell" for West Indies star batsman Andre Russell. And they adore "our number four" -- Delhi captain Shreyas Iyer.

Knowing when to fire up the crowd has been a tough lesson for some, however.

"Someone in my podium who was here for the IPL last year knew what to do. Literally we had no idea about the game until our very first match here," said Bobi Dorrington from England.

"We'd sit there waiting for for her to say if it's a four or a six. We learnt as we watched, now we understand the game." 

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