A litmus test for the CLT20
Back in early April, when the fourth season of the IPL took off with TV channels still endlessly looping MS Dhoni's World Cup-sealing six, the league was supposed to be a test of viewers' appetite for the game. Over the next month and a half, with TV ratings for the blockbuster plunging, there were two common explanations: the reshuffling of the squads which left fans struggling to identify with the teams, and viewer fatigue from an overdose of cricket. For the Champions League T20, those two concerns are multiplied.
While with the IPL, it was a matter of getting used to Rahul Dravid turning out for Rajasthan Royals instead of Royal Challengers Bangalore, in the CLT20, entirely new teams unfamiliar to fans outside their home country show up each year. The organisers have tried to deal with the problem by steadily increasing the number of star-heavy IPL teams over the years and by introducing a qualifying phase to weed out some of the low-profile teams.
With Sri Lanka champions Ruhuna and New Zealand's entry Auckland eliminated, some of the tournament's global appeal is lost, with sides from only five countries making it to the main draw. Still, that initial cull of teams should lead to tighter matches - sides from New Zealand and Sri Lanka have been at the receiving end of five of the six biggest losses (in terms of runs) in the past two seasons. It has also provided a week of building up to the main event, in which most squads have at least a handful of recognisable faces.
The problem of viewer fatigue, especially with the primary target audience of Indian viewers, is going to be harder to deal with. At least before the IPL, Indian fans were on a high after a successful World Cup; before the CLT20, Indian fans had to endure their team's worst tour in living memory, a two-month ordeal where the headlines dealt almost exclusively with failures and fractures.
The ceaseless cycle of cricket has also robbed the tournament of some its biggest draws. Sachin Tendulkar, an unparalleled crowd-puller, is out with a toe injury, and of the handful of players who scooped up $2million or more at the IPL auction this year, Rohit Sharma is missing, having fractured a finger, and the availability of Gautam Gambhir remains uncertain as he recovers from a concussion.
One thing in the CLT20's favour is that the teams and players take the tournament extremely seriously. Unlike, say, FIFA's Club World Cup which is seen as a trinket by the European behemoths like Manchester United and Barcelona, with the tournament's US$5 million winners' purse considered small change. The $2.5m bounty on offer in the CLT20, though, dwarfs anything on offer in domestic cricket, and has the ability to completely transform a non-IPL team's financial fortunes. Even the $200,000 appearance money will be a massive boost for cash-strapped sides like Leicestershire, whose campaign lasted all of two days.
As for the players, especially those who don't play international cricket, few tournaments provide as good a platform for spring-boarding to the big time, a sentiment expressed last year by South African side Lions' captain Alviro Petersen. "When we got to the final [of the domestic T20 tournament], we relaxed a little because we knew we were in the Champions League and didn't go out wholeheartedly to win it,"
Not only are the players entitled to a healthy chunk of the prize money, the tournament also provides the possibility of a life-changing IPL contract. Kieron Pollard became Twenty20's poster boy after his exploits in the inaugural CLT20 two years ago, while South Africa's Davy Jacobs pocketed $190,000 a year after providing Warriors a series of rocket-fuelled starts in last year's tournament in South Africa.
The organisers are also aggressively promoting the tournament. Like last year, they have an A-list Bollywood star spearheading the TV campaign, with Shah Rukh Khan constantly reminding everyone that the match starts at eight o'clock, so "don't be late o'clock." Billboards across Indian cities have been hawking the tournament, which kicks off with an opening ceremony featuring hip hop stars Ludacris, Jay Sean and Flo rida.
The response hasn't been great so far, gauging from the thin crowds that showed up in Hyderabad for the qualifiers. Royal Challengers Bangalore and Chennai Super Kings, two of the most consistent IPL teams in the last three years, should be able to pull in much bigger crowds over the next few weeks though. The two teams have the shortest odds on most betting sites, and a successful run from either will provide the ratings boost the organisers crave.
Siddarth Ravindran is a sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo