June 6, 2008

How many leagues can cricket sustain?

Why the marketer's dream of a Premier League in every country is a pie in the sky

How many other countries can afford to splash out on a Twenty20 league as bright and shiny as the IPL? © Aneesh Bhatnagar

Of the many things the IPL has done to cricket, one has apparently been the expansion of life's list of inevitabilities. Joining death and taxes are these: that the IPL concept is on its way to global domination, and that ODI cricket is dead. Some things, though, remain less inevitable than others.

The IPL was something cricket had never seen before, and as well as the spectacle it did doubly well to provide some excellent cricket. It was too long, and the boundaries so small as to be insulting to batsmen and cruel to bowlers, but a window should be found for it in the calendar. It's good to see cricket properly glam it up, if only to know that it is capable of doing it. A sport that can be fusty, slow, rigidly traditional but also bling when it wants, is a rare sport and should be celebrated.

But the money of it all has gone to people's heads. Countries that can are trying to ape it and plans to hold a football-style Champions League are being talked about. Dollars are already being counted, enough questions are not being asked. For example, how many boards can afford to not only match the financial muscle of the BCCI but also provide an environment in which it thrives, with innumerable sponsors, big business, film industries and politicians all willing to jump in, and such a large, captive audience?

Let's not kid ourselves: the IPL worked in large part because it attracted the biggest, highest-paid names in cricket, who came together to produce mighty fine cricket. Bollywood and big business played a part, though not as much as the conductor of it all, Lalit Modi. As it happens, it is a pretty unique set of circumstances.

For any country's premier league to work, big names are needed. Otherwise it is just another domestic Twenty20 competition, which, though they are successful and make money, are just not as successful or making as much money as the IPL is and will. Forgetting that more windows will have to be found in the calendar than there are in Microsoft's offices, can boards other than India's realistically afford to bring together so many stars and pull off such a spectacle?

Details about the Champions League are sketchy, none more than how competitive it will actually be. Currently, all of cricket's biggest stars are signed up with Indian franchises because they pay the most. Who will play for the best Twenty20 teams from South Africa or Australia? No other clubs will have any star names, which will make it less a Champions League, more a Chumps League. Perhaps players will be allowed to play for two teams, one in the IPL and, say, one in the South African Premier League, which will be held at a different time of the year. But if Graeme Smith plays for Rajasthan in April and Johannesburg in December, what happens if both teams qualify for the Champions League?

Cricket does not have the talent pool football can draw from. Football sources players from Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas - all over the world. Cricket relies on ten countries, a few of whom aren't even that good. UEFA's Champions League thrives off this large talent pool to make it competitive. The best players generally go to the highest-paying clubs in football too, but there are just more quality players and a greater number of bigger clubs who can afford them. Cricket does not have that luxury and until it does, it is difficult to see just how a Champions League will work.

It is also difficult to see how - or indeed why - ODI cricket is destined to death by Twenty20. There are problems with ODIs for sure, but mainly that there are far too many of them and far too few that actually matter. The financial burden on ODIs to churn money has been too great for too long. Thus the needless seven-match ODI series the BCCI has shamelessly inked in with England, or tri-series such as the one we are about to witness in Bangladesh.

Structural problems in are also touted, the main being that an ODI goes to sleep between overs 20 and 40. Actually, it doesn't. It just doesn't have as many boundaries as we're used to, but when was cricket only ever about hitting fours and sixes? And it gives some leverage back to the bowler, which is happening less and less in limited-overs cricket. It also tests one of the underrated cricket skills - running between the wickets. And who knows, if pitches were actually less predictable than they are, in the subcontinent especially, it may actually make the cricket less predictable as well.

A more accommodating sport than cricket does not exist. Test cricket made its peace with ODIs and the noise, colour, audience and money they brought, taking from them some of the best traits and improving itself and living happily together. ODI cricket will also make similar peace with the newest, shortest, brashest form of the game

Yet somehow the IPL has purportedly consigned the ODI to something far less becoming than even the drunk uncle. Forgotten is that the one-dayer has brought much to cricket itself, in altering the face of fielding completely, in broadening the repertoire of bowlers, in encouraging batsmen to break from orthodoxy, in hurrying the pace of Test cricket. It might bring more yet.

Also forgotten is that it has provided riveting cricket. So the World Cup was a dud, but that wasn't because of the format of the game; Australia's dominance, the organising body's incompetence, and a high-profile death saw to that. But as recently as the CB Series this year, ODI cricket was alive and pretty well. The death of that tournament, it was argued here, symbolises the death of ODIs. It does not. It symbolises the death of the tri-series stuffed with pointless, uncompetitive games. Along with it can go the excess fat of bloated tournaments. Maybe bilateral contests can be done away with altogether, replaced by a rolling annual league, to give contests more meaning.

A more accommodating sport than cricket does not exist. Test cricket made its peace with ODIs and the noise, colour, audience and money they brought, taking from them some of the best traits and improving itself and living happily together. ODI cricket will also make similar peace with the newest, shortest, brashest form of the game. Perhaps it will become a bridge of sorts between players wanting to move from being Twenty20 specialists to becoming Test cricketers. It needn't die. Only a balance needs to be found between the formats. ODI cricket has shaken its booty long enough for the moolah and been mostly abused in recent years. The burden can and should be shared with Twenty20. Else, 20 years from now, overdosing on Twenty20s will become another of life's inevitabilities.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • M.Y.Kasim on June 8, 2008, 19:09 GMT

    No other country has the money, infra-structures, fans and following to match India and will fail badly in trying to emulate it.

    Next time around, they will cover all loose ends and see to it that more and more International Players are inducted and the tournament is not dragged out too long.

    Lalit Modi and his team are shrewed and competent organizers and businessmen.

  • kingofspain on June 8, 2008, 12:03 GMT

    I admit I hate 20/20 but it seems to me we're well on the road to overdosing on 20/20. There's no reason the IPL teams will dominate the Champions League either. The format is so random that the talent level of the players doesn't matter, at least not in any particular game. Leciestershire with 10 Kolpaks could just as easily win it as either the IPL franchises. Finally, once the FTP expires it's time to get rid of ODI's. That format offers little different than 20/20 and it's time has come and gone. In future a tour could consist of say 3 tests and 7 20/20 matches.

  • sun2 on June 8, 2008, 9:24 GMT

    What i cant understand is why some people are predicting the death of ODI now. First they said it was test Cricket that will die, now ODI? Thats the most craziest thing i have ever heard. Did anyone watch the ads during the IPL? most of them were cut in half as there was ' shortage of time'. Ads bring revenues.. TV stations run ad revenues.. and BCCI/others runs because TV stations cough up in millions to get the rights. So lets sum it up ODI= revenue to TV = Revenue to BCCI/others.

  • 1stSlip on June 8, 2008, 7:50 GMT

    Cricket must continue to move from a principally internationally focused game to an inter club game. Like soccer, cricket must look to focus on developing strong club leagues in each country. These clubs will play each other in 20:20 and the longer form of the game and the best clubs in each league will go to Champions competitions where they will meet the best clubs from other countries. The amount of international cricket -particularly ODI's - will be reduced along with the rise in club cricket. Reducing the amount of international cricket played will improve the publics appreciation and enjoyment of it. Like soccer , the inter-club competitions will become the main focus complimented by occasional international fixtures and of course World Cups.

  • avianwing on June 7, 2008, 9:06 GMT

    I somewhat disagree. While most tri-series played today are obselete, there is some sense in retaining the bilateral series especially between test sides to establish supremacy. The Champions trophy should be entirely done away with. Instead, we should freeze the number of countries playing ODI's to 10. Every year we should divide them into two groups of 5 and play 5-nation tournaments. The top two teams should clash in a best of 3 to determine the winner and the two winners in turn, should again play to determine the annual champion. The group of 5 should be rotated every year and every country gets an opportunity to host/co-host the tournament at least once in 5 years. 20-20 should be used to expand cricket into other countries since most nations don't have the patience for an ODI. In 15 years time the 20-20 world cup could emulate the soccer world cup in substance and grandeur. Similarly test cricket should be limited to 8 countries. All three formats could thrive thus.

  • mlmakin on June 7, 2008, 0:30 GMT

    An excellent article, as other posters have remarked. But, again like others, I disagree about the shallow talent pool. Cricket isn't football, and problems certainly remain -- the most obvious being that, if there is to be a champions league, what is to be done about top players under contract to several different teams, playing in different domestic competitions at different times of the year? However, let's remember that IPL rules (very sensible rules that will help the emergence and reinforcement of domestic talent) meant that there were always major international players on the bench during the tournament, while, as posters have pointed out, many very good international cricketers were not involved in the IPL. Therefore, it ought to be fairly easy to create a top-class champions league, so long as rules favour the participation of domestic players. If England can sort out the Kolpak issue, it should be all systems go.

  • ToTellUTheTruth on June 6, 2008, 20:04 GMT

    Here is what is going to happen. Every board will have their own PLs of 20/20. Every franchise will participate in it's own auction. Then due to the schedule conflicts, they will divvy up the calendar, so each country can have their own PL for 6 weeks. This means that test cricket will be given a much lower preference. The FTP (future tours program) of ICC will be thrown out. One day game will cease to exist. There will be more leagal problems. i.e. if two countries are involved in a test series, and many of the players from both teams are contractullay bound to one or other franchise, then, it is in the players' best interest to either retire or get deeply involved in a legal battle with their board and the franchise. Since money speaks, players will obviously prefer to retire from international cricket and pledge their lifetime support to which ever franchise that showers them with money. Basically this IPL (and the global PL) is going to breed mercenaries. No loyalty. End of Story.

  • ashwin_547 on June 6, 2008, 18:45 GMT

    Cricket can pick good players from outside the top ten Wales Ireland Scotland Namibia Kenya Uganda Papua New Guinea Samoa Tonga Canada (John Davison) More Carribbean countries More Zimbabweans Zambia Middle East Other European Countries Many many more!

    Also if thats the problem, shows how good ICC's development program has gone, also good job ICC on making 2011 a 14 team show, instead of expanding you are Kissing India and Pakistan instead of looking to the future of what could be a dead game, half the world barely knows cricket youre just lucky India has a billion population that watches everything. otherwise cricket would be dead, you're development program needs so much more and you are BLIND, wake up before football destroys everything, even american sports are moving into european markets, american football had a 85000 crowd at wembley, even in england if they had that stadium would cricket pack? start being useful and do something!

  • Ralph_McTell on June 6, 2008, 18:14 GMT

    Osman is a superb columnist and has been for years - excellent points throughout the article. Undoubtedly the amount of ODI cricket has to be cut back, but possibly we will now have 3 formats of the game played in roughly equal amounts. I suspect as ODI cricket is played less frequently, we will see it correspondingly grow in fondness.

    As for the 20-20 Champions League, it's difficult to argue with Osman's points. The only solution to the problem of lack of players that I can see: that you stop players playing for more than one franchise, though this does not have to be their usual domestic region. For instance you could have Graeme Smith playing for Rajasthan, and Dhoni playing for Tasmania.

    This would lead to a slightly lower proliferation of stars than in the IPL, but not that much (a lot of internationak players weren't available for large parts of the IPL). Also, this would create a global market for players, creating more money to please the likes of Lalit Modi.

  • DeepCower on June 6, 2008, 17:23 GMT

    One of the best pieces you have written, Osman! It is nice to see people not fall in line with the general crowd and present balanced view points. First one group went "Tests are dead" and now another goes "ODI's are dead". A few authors on cricinfo are just too quick to pass the ultimatum. (Dileep Premachandran's recent pieces and Sambit Bal's rather old but famous 'good bye ganguly' come to mind). I am happy to see articles like these. Keep up the good work. (And yeah, if you get a chance, ask that fellow Ashok Malik to stop writing on cricinfo blogs. Seriously.)

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