September 14, 2007

A viable new layer

Cricket's greatest flaw has been the weakness of the levels of the game below the international. With the Champions Twenty20 League, that may be set to change

For years Sachin Tendulkar has been the world's richest cricketer. Will he now also be the most expensive? © Getty Images

Only three days ago cricket's new age was heralded with the beginning of the World Twenty20. Perhaps it is a sign of the times that a newer age beckons already. The Champions Twenty20 League, announced with pomp and grandeur yesterday, promises to transform cricket worldwide. Judgment must be suspended on whether it will be for the better or worse, but it can be said that it will be cricket like we have never known it.

For a start, it will be more like football. Already the length of the game has shrunk to roughly twice that of a football match, and now with a league like those in football, the fabric of the game is about to change. For a sport that has been founded on bilateralism or regionalism, this is a paradigm shift. And unlike the Indian Cricket League, which is based on a similar principle, but is bereft of players, infrastructure, and official sanction to be able to make it count, this is serious business. Serious enough for the ICC president to fly across to India for the launch, abandoning his own party back in South Africa.

The league is the combination of two radical ideas. Clearly, those who run cricket see in Twenty20 a golden future. Cold to the concept, to begin with, the Indian board has now gone to the other extreme and chosen the format as the agent to revolutionise the game. Last season Twenty20 was a footnote in the Indian domestic calendar; next year it promises to be the main event.

Far more significant is the concept of franchises, which could potentially alter the dynamics of the game.

In no other team sport in the world has there existed such a disparity between the highest levels and all forms below. It has been cricket's greatest weakness that no layer below international cricket has been financially viable. Domestic cricket has merely served the purpose of being the supply line to the national level, and has subsisted on the charity of national boards. The Australian domestic competition, despite being the strongest domestic competition in the world, gets negligible crowd support; in India the first-class game has suffered from criminal neglect on the part of the administrators. That the proposed league could help create a vibrant and viable second tier is a welcome prospect.

In no other team sport in the world has there existed such a disparity between the highest levels and all forms below. It has been cricket's greatest weakness that no layer below international cricket has been financially viable. That the proposed league could help create a vibrant and viable second tier is a welcome prospect

Of course a lot will depend on how the cricket boards and the ICC adjust their calendar to accommodate the league. It is obvious that its success will depend heavily on the participation of international players, and the international calendar is already creaking. England's players haven't had a decent break in two years, and the Indians managed one only because they were dumped out of the World Cup. Money is a fair motivation for professional players, but these matches must necessarily be staged at the expense of some of the many desultory ODIs that are routinely squeezed into the Future Tours Programme, finalised by the ICC. Player burnout is a factor, but even spectators need a break.

This will be the first instance of administrators giving up control of the selection process; those who buy the franchises for the league will have the freedom to bid for players from an open pool. This will be a novelty. The players who were paraded at the event yesterday were a curious bunch. Of them, Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid and Sourav Ganguly have opted out of Twenty20, Glenn McGrath has retired from all forms of the game, Anil Kumble has retired from one-day cricket, and Stephen Fleming wasn't deemed good enough to play the World Twenty20 for his team. Yet it was implied by the organisers that were all available to the new league. Obviously star value will count as much as playing merit.

Cricketers will now come with individual price tags. How much will Tendulkar be worth? He has been the world's richest cricketer for years; will he also be the most expensive? Will money be a big enough catalyst to bind players who have, for most of their careers, been united by national or state affiliations? The failure of the ICC's ambitious Super Series proved that you can't make a great team by merely assembling a few great players. Or will professional obligations be compelling enough in this instance?

Will it see the advent of football-style managers who will decide on the buying and selling of players and the picking of teams? Will the role of the captain diminish?

Of the four cricket boards that have agreed to participate in the league, only the BCCI has announced its next move. England, Australia and South Africa already have their own domestic Twenty20 competitions. Australia and South Africa have sponsors for each of their teams, but these sponsors don't own the teams. The first Champions League, to be played next October, is expected to be a hybrid, but will these boards be disbanding their existing competitions and handing the teams over to franchises? The idea is financially appealing, but it will entail giving up control.

Since gate collections will form a major part of the revenue of the franchisees, it can be assumed that the paying public will be accorded dignity previously denied © Getty Images

The concept of Twenty20 is built around the idea of packaged entertainment, and in India the fallout could be radical for the spectators, for whom the experience of watching cricket at grounds is currently somewhere between an ordeal and a nightmare. Since gate collections will form a major source of revenue for the franchisees, they will get a percentage of the central revenue - which will mainly comprise earnings from the sale of media rights - and will fully pocket the local revenues which include proceeds from gate collections, hospitality, and in-stadia promotions. It is reasonable to assume then that the paying public will have to be accorded the dignity normally given to a customer. This, in itself, would be a quantum leap for the game in India.

But what will happen to the game that we have known and cherished? Already Twenty20 feels like a different game, lacking in character, subtlety, variety and the skills that endear cricket to us. So far it has been at the fringes; what will happen when it becomes the centre piece?

Change is inevitable, and often welcome. In case of proposed league, the gains are tangible enough, but it will perhaps take us a couple of years to find out the cost. Meanwhile, get ready for the ride.

Sambit Bal is the editor of Cricinfo and Cricinfo Magazine