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

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