Long live the Champions League
Although sated locals seem to regard it as a flop, from further afield the Champions League Twenty20 has been thoroughly enjoyable. Indeed it has been the most compelling event of its sort staged in recent years. Long may it last.
Whereas many tournaments nowadays seem familiar and blunt, the Champions League has been alive and full of sharp edges. Apart from anything else it has evidently mattered significantly to the teams taking part, particularly those not used to competing against unknown sides in far-off places and all under television's exacting scrutiny. Somerset's chairman went so far as to describe his county's early victory as the "greatest night in the club's history", an exuberant remark to be sure, but showing the sort of excitement felt by several teams. As far as Marcus Trescothick was concerned, the Champions League was important enough to lure him back into his old life.
In short, it has been a competition played between ambitious, hungry teams that fought tooth and nail for the right to take part, surviving many challenges, overcoming provincial opponents, holding their nerve in the critical hour. To watch the faces of the support staff on the benches was to get the gist of it. Not a trace of weariness or cynicism could be sensed. To the contrary, all concerned were delighted to be taking part. Because the matches were sincere, they were also satisfying and entertaining. It is important to care. Sport is a passion play.
The Champions League appealed to observers on several fronts. Nothing gave more delight than the sight of Trinidad & Tobago, the Cape Cobras, and for that matter the Diamond Eagles, performing valiantly and surpassing expectations. All of them seemed to relish the occasion. Not the least of the Champions League's qualities is that it has reminded all and sundry that even in cricket, with all its stark isolations, with its exposing confrontations, harsh facts and cold figures, teams cannot be created out of thin air and deep pockets.
Several of the participants surprised on what economists are pleased to call "the upside", and all of them were genuine provincial teams. A fever could be detected in their gait. Inexperienced youngsters and seasoned campaigners alike responded to the clamour and met the challenge. Many of them have spent their entire careers playing in empty stadiums that seem to echo with irrelevance even as they apply themselves to their task with every ounce of skill at their disposal. Don't tell these chaps that the Champions League did not matter.
Meanwhile none of the feared IPL sides advanced to the semi-finals, not even the Deccan Chargers with their array of dashers or the talented collection representing Delhi Daredevils. Unavoidably it was merely another tournament for them. Plain and simple, the outfits with deep roots progressed and makeshift line-ups fell back. Whereas the IPL teams contained stars, veterans and a handful of locals, the visiting sides from Trinidad, South Africa and Australia had played together not for weeks but years turning into decades. By and large the players had emerged from youth teams, working their way through the ranks, making friends, gathering knowledge.
Moreover, the Champions League was a huge opportunity for the unsung to prove their worth, to mix with the mighty, to make a packet. Admittedly it was often a close-run thing, but it's precisely in tight finishes that the teams with strong cores endure. Somehow such collaborations find a way to score those extra few runs or take those last wickets, to get the job done. They depend not on their outstanding abilities but upon each other. Put it down to desperation, will power, shared suffering, the ties that bind, whatever, but the results speak for themselves.
Arguably New South Wales and Victoria had the perfect combination of identity, experience and hunger. Although it was considered, neither state signed any imports. Neither took any shortcuts. New South Wales relied on their youngsters, while Victoria depended on the tried and trusted. Both strategies worked because the teams were united, the policy was clear and consistent and the players full of calibre. Along the way the Australian outfits overpowered some opponents.
As far as Indian cricket is concerned, the lessons are obvious. Suppose Delhi had won, what would it signify? By all means continue to organise the IPL as it stands, with franchises bought and sold, stars signed and sacked, celebrities running around all over the place, and so on and so forth. But do not send those sides to the Champions League. Better to arrange a domestic tournament with all provinces, proper teams with histories and traditions and structures, taking part.
It is not a question of effort. All of the overseas players are proud professionals and all of them play with their hearts as well as their heads. Just that theirs is a commitment that cannot be attained overnight. Perhaps, too, the provincial sides were on the rise and the IPL sides, dependent on older players, are in decline. For that matter the results shed doubt upon the standard as opposed to the showmanship on display in IPL. It'll be interesting to see how long IPL teams retain expensive stars unable to produce the expected returns. If they are serious about winning, as opposed to thrilling, then some will be given their cards. But legends are not so easily replaced. Without them, the IPL might lose some of its lustre.
The feats of the minor sides herald the Champions League's second attraction. Not only were the newcomers able to beat their highly regarded opponents, they were also bursting at the teams with fresh and gifted cricketers. Numerous exciting players previously limited to domestic matches were able to stretch themselves and pit themselves against the best in the game. Helped by a format that permits no inhibition, a version that encourages risk, they let loose with thunderous blows or brilliant interceptions in the field, or gasps of wickets or laughter. Quite a few neglected sons will have caught the eye of national selectors interested in their power and response to pressure.
Even old hands like Dirk Nannes informed their selectors that they are alive, well, available and fast. Amongst the Trinidadians, several caught the eye - spinners, speedsters and powerful batsmen. Kieron Pollard's assault on Moises Henriques was memorable but by no means isolated. In the final match before the semis, Adrian Barath, given his first opportunity, let loose an array of some scintillating off-side strokes, while Navin Stewart struck the ball with coruscating power. Established West Indians skulking in their tents might regret their inactivity.
Provided they are not spoilt by the sudden bulging of their bank accounts, the younger players taking part will return to the domestic ranks bristling with determination and confidence. Obviously it takes more than a few beefy blows in a 20-over tournament to convince selectors that a player has the characteristics needed to thrive in all forms of the game. But it is no small thing to travel overseas and score runs and take wickets in such illustrious company. Players from South Africa, especially, will go home with a spring in their step. Some of the Bloemfontein boys know they can mix it with the mighty, play in front of boisterous crowds and flourish. They know their cricket is not second rate. Moreover, their appetites have been whetted.
T&T's superb efforts served another purpose, reminding all and sundry about the attractions of West Indian cricket and how much has been lost in these days of incompetence, egotism and idleness. T&T, and for that matter the second-string West Indian side that appeared in the Champions Trophy, played with sufficient passion to shame the overwrought incumbents and their headstrong administrators.
Certainly T&T's performance gave frustrated observers food for thought. Daren Ganga's side played as a team partly because they are a team and represent a nation, or at any rate a group of islands that have long been bound together. T&T has an identity, a meaning, a sense of patriotism. Contrastingly West Indies is a cause not a country. In essence it is a cricketing artifice and a broken dream. Those convinced that the only lasting solution to the West Indies' cricketing problems is to break it up and let the islands play as individual nations found in T&T's thrilling display plenty to support their case.
In the shorter term, Ganga's captaincy has surely also put the cat among the pigeons. It was widely and justifiably praised. After all it's been a long time since any West Indian captain coaxed a performance as spirited from his side. Although Ganga's batting might not be quite up to scratch (he's hardly alone in that), the West Indian selectors ought to consider appointing him captain of their team to tour Australia. Apart from anything else it's unlikely that he'll arrive three days before the first Test match, appear disinterested, and spend his time complaining about administrators and money and the rest of it. T&T may have pointed the way forwards. A cause cannot compete with a country, or not for eternity anyhow.
Peter Roebuck is a former captain of Somerset and the author, most recently, of In It to Win It