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Aug 23 (Reuters) - Cricket in the West Indies has been played against a sorry backdrop of half-empty stadiums for years but the inaugural Caribbean Premier League (CPL) Twenty20 competition has finally reignited the imagination of the fans.
With bumper crowds, investment from Hollywood celebrities, international television distribution and plenty of local sponsors, organisers say the tournament is already well ahead of their expectations.
"We are at the stage we had anticipated for year three. We could never have imagined it to be the success that it is," CPL chief executive Damien O'Donohoe told Reuters.
The tournament concludes on Saturday, under lights, at a sold-out Queen's Park Oval in Port of Spain, Trinidad after two nights of capacity crowds for the semi-finals.
The shortest form of the game has enjoyed success elsewhere, attracting new fans and stirring the passion of cricket lovers who had drifted away from stadiums, and the new tournament in the Caribbean is also proving a hit.
"To get such a huge turn-out in the CPL is fantastic. The only other place where you get these sorts of crowds is in the Indian Premier League (IPL)," said Jamaican batsman Chris Gayle, one of the world's top T20 players who has featured in the IPL and Australia's 'Big Bash'.
"The CPL ranks right up there with the other tournaments which is really great to see," added the big-hitting Gayle.
Unlike previous competitions in the region, the national-based teams have been organised as franchises with a draft and with players performing for islands other than those of their birth alongside foreign imports.
Former Australia captain Ricky Ponting, Sri Lanka batsman Kumar Sangakkara and former Pakistan captain Shoaib Malik are among those to have featured in this year's tournament.
For Malik, the CPL has already earned a place as one of the top T20 tournaments in the world.
"After the IPL and the Big Bash you can take this as third and it is just the first year," he said.
"The response from the West Indies people has been awesome. Whenever you are playing a league it is about people coming to the ground; that is the key to success and I have seen that here.
"People have been coming from everywhere. I was talking to the Jamaica players and they were saying 'We were not expecting much of a crowd in Jamaica', but we played there and even in a day game I saw the ground full and energetic," added Malik.
O'Donohoe says the big crowds are due to low prices, with tickets available for $10, the added attraction of musical entertainment and the popular quickfire nature of the game.
And just as the IPL has enjoyed investment from Bollywood celebrities, so the Caribbean version has been able to lure some names from the world of entertainment and business.
Mark Wahlberg has a stake in the Barbados Tridents franchise. Fellow Hollywood actor Gerard Butler has an investment in the Jamaica Tallawahs while Richard Branson's Virgin group are tournament sponsors.
West Indies, a powerful force in the 1970s and 1980s, continue to struggle in test cricket but are reigning world champions in the shortest format and the region's cricket board are hopeful the CPL can kickstart a revival for the game.
"The support has been overwhelming and that says to me that the interest and passion for the game is still there," said West Indies Cricket Board president Whycliffe Cameron. "It's our responsibility to continue to nurture that love".
Saturday's final will see Guyana Amazon Warriors face the winners of Friday's semi between Jamaica and Barbados. (Editing by Tony Jimenez)