Foreign flavour in Caribbean fest
Ricky Ponting, Muttiah Muralitharan, Mahela Jayawardene, Misbah-ul-Haq, Mohammad Hafeez, Kumar Sangakkara, Lasith Malinga, Vernon Philander, Kevin O'Brien, James Franklin.
For the last three weeks, these players, among them some of cricket's greatest and short-format specialists with thousands of runs and hundreds of wickets among them, have been plying their trade in the Caribbean Premier League, raising the fledgling tournament's profile several notches and drawing interest from across the world. The league, in its inaugural season, had already secured the presence of the best West Indian talent but the heavy-duty foreign participation has raised the quality of the cricket, increased the size of the crowds - and given the league's sponsors hope for future editions.
Everyone, it seems, is happy. Chris Gayle, captain of the Jamaica Tallawahs, singled out the biggest gain from the experience of playing alongside international stars. "These players from abroad have added so much to the team, both with their experience on the field and also, with their mannerisms off it," Jamaica captain Chris Gayle, said. "Muralitharan and Shehzad are always making us laugh and entertaining us, and the opposition, too. They bring a new life to the dressing room, but their professionalism on the field is remarkable and we all learn from them."
The tournament itself is the latest endeavor in a format that more and more countries are trying to exploit. The Stanford 20/20 tournament brought Twenty20 cricket to the West Indies in 2006 and, as the format evolved, the IPL, Big Bash League and several others around the world decided to capitalise on T20's rising popularity. While the Stanford 20/20 league folded after two seasons, the now-defunct Caribbean T20 tournament became the main T20 championship in the Caribbean after 2010, before the introduction of the CPL earlier this year.
The Caribbean T20 tournament pitted different countries in the region against each other, with the winner advancing to the Champions League T20 competition. The CPL, however, introduced a franchise style of ownership. A draft system for player selection allowed an even distribution of the region's talent and also ensured that crowds in the participating regions got a glimpse of some marquee international and West Indies players.
Among international players, the tournament features cricketers from South Africa, Australia, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, New Zealand and Ireland - a mixed crowd, and each with their pulling power and their own reasons for being there.
Ricky Ponting's decision to use the tournament as his last cricketing appearance also generated interest. Seen as a nemesis of West Indies cricket for many years, Ponting usually bantered a bit and was seen as a major adversary against the likes of Kemar Roach and Tino Best. In his new role, however, he can be seen leading and ushering young players on the field.
One of the many young players to have benefited from Ponting's experience is Jamaican fast bowler Sheldon Cotterrell, who represents Antigua in the CPL. "I was very young when he made his international debut," Cotterrell said. "Playing with him has been wonderful. He's been inspirational to everyone and very motivating. Phil DeFreitas (former England fast bowler and now Antigua's assistant coach) has given me some little pointers and it worked. And whenever I have made a mistake, he has been the person there to see it."
Behind the scenes, the coaches, both West Indian and foreign, have also played an important part. Brian Lara has been acting as an 'unofficial advisor' to T&T and many past West Indian greats like Curtly Ambrose, Gordon Greenidge, Desmond Haynes and Andy Roberts are coaching franchises. Together, they have created a rich reservoir of experience and knowledge at hand.
Some international players have lauded the CPL as a tournament that's on par with Australia's Big Bash League, but not one that's ready to rival the Indian Premier League yet. New Zealand batsman Ross Taylor said: "CPL's been great so far and I see it aspiring to IPL standards, and I'm glad for this. The experience has been great but I admit it took a bit of time to find the bat out there. This embrace, which seems to be the case with all teams, is what ticks. They don't make us feel like outsiders. It's a big family"
Former England wicketkeeper-batsman Paul Nixon, who now coaches Jamaica, indicated that the overseas players in the team have adapted easily to the region because the CPL's standard of treatment and professionalism was quite high. "When you take care of all your players and coaches, like this, and not just the international stars, that bodes well. Everyone will enjoy the cricket and it shows. The standard is raised," Nixon said.
What the tournament has urgently brought to Caribbean cricket is the influx of sponsors. Matches have been playing to near-packed stadiums and the tournament may set a template for other domestic competitions to find sponsors, even as cricket looks for a way to grow again in the region.
Kieron Pollard, the Barbados captain, praised Malik and Akmal, as "leaders in the dressing room who added an extra edge on the field because they've travelled a lot to play cricket." After Shakib Al Hasan's match-winning six-wicket haul against T&T, Pollard praised the Bangladesh allrounder, saying, he was "a player that the region is blessed to have seen because he will go on to bigger things". But the foreign players have not just been ready talent that the teams have drawn from. They have gained something, too.
Hafeez, for example, has used the competition as a form of match practice before the Zimbabwe series. "I love these pitches. To me, as a batsman and professional, we must adapt and grow to learn how to play in these conditions," Hafeez said. "I found my rhythm and this tournament has done me well. I've garnered match practice and I'm fit, and this is because of the competitive nature of the CPL."
Vernon Philander, looking to bolster a spot in the South African team, has not been in top form with the ball but his batting cameos have been impressive. These performances are likely to bolster his confidence as he seeks a recall to the South African limited-overs side.
The foreign players have also learnt from the experience of playing with West Indies cricketers. Pakistan batsman Shoaib Malik was one of the overseas players with the local talent. "They allow the overseas players the chance to gel with them nicely," Malik said. "[The pitch] supports batsmen and bowlers. Credit to the ground staff for the way they prepared the wickets."
Suggestions to improve the tournament have also been forthcoming from the players. "From a cricketing point of view, the pitches are so important," Ponting said. "In this tournament, we have had low-scoring games but otherwise they have been reasonably close as well, so the competition has gone really well so far. In addition to improved pitches, an ideal window in the international cricketing calendar also needs to be attained for the CPL to flourish. You need this to add international stars to the mix." That hasn't stopped the foreign batsmen from dominating the run-scoring in the tournament. (see sidebar on statistics)
The crowds have enjoyed the presence of international players most of all. Bowlers and batsmen get rousing receptions every time they hit a boundary or take a wicket, or even if they head to the boundary to field. Fans attend the nets sessions to take pictures with foreign players, like Ponting or Muralitharan, who they may never see in action again. The atmosphere on the field and off it is perhaps best summed up by Muralitharan: "The cricket is top-class and exciting. It's a party crowd but it's not party cricket. It's all business out there."
Renaldo Matadeen is a sportswriter and social media manager for ESPN Caribbean. He tweets here