November 22, 2009

Why we need a truly global Champions League

Spreading the reach of cricket can best be achieved by expanding the Champions League, cutting Tests down to three days each, and using the franchise model effectively

A recent MCC survey has unearthed the not-so-startling-news that only 7% of Indian cricket fans favour the Test version of the game. This follows close on the heels of news that Ireland intends to apply for full-member status of the ICC.

At a time when Test cricket is in serious need of an upgrade, the addition of another second- rate team isn't the answer. The competition already has two teams, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, who shouldn't be qualified for Test cricket, and the former champion West Indies outfit is floundering.

There is a way forward for Ireland and other second-rung cricket nations, but it involves a radical shift in thinking and massive changes to cricket's scheduling. These aren't traits generally associated with cricket's staid administration.

The Champions League was such a hit that expanding the competition has merit. This would involve regional tournaments in burgeoning cricket regions like Europe, the USA, Japan, China and parts of Asia, from which teams would qualify for an expanded Champions League as it progresses towards becoming a genuine global tournament.

The major problems with the game, apart from not having an effective worldwide ruling body, include the imbalance in financial strength among the major cricket-playing countries and the heavy workload placed on star players because of the narrowness of competition.

Currently there are only four countries producing a surplus of potential international cricketers on a regular basis: India, Australia, South Africa and Pakistan. Those countries then have a problem finding meaningful employment for the surplus after enticing young players into a life of professional cricket by offering them a stint at an academy. Until the advent of the IPL, the only choice for such disillusioned players was a stint with an English county or league team in the off season to boost earnings received from playing at home. If these players also had the opportunity to compete in an expanded Champions League, where they could complement skilful locals from budding cricket regions, then a truly global competition is possible.

The easiest part is producing the players. The difficult part is getting cricket administrators to think globally and in the best interests of the game. Nevertheless, there is a precedent, as it took a broad vision to come up with the Champions League in the first place.

Ensuring a viable global competition would require the major cricket nations to adjust their international and domestic playing schedules. This would require an alteration to the international scheduling priority, where currently quantity far outranks quality. There would also have to be careful thought given to rules and regulations, especially as they apply to player transfers, because the countries that are adept at developing young cricketers must be compensated for their efforts.

A truly global Champions League would help broaden the game's revenue base, as well as advertising and television opportunities. It would also result in more meaningful employment avenues for a larger group of players and eventually lead to increased competition in international cricket

Then there would be the not-so-minor matter of current television contracts and commercial agreements. Renegotiating these contracts would require a certain amount of goodwill and trust on both sides. Nonetheless, it's amazing how adaptable commercial partners can be if the proposed product has the potential to be vibrant, create viewer interest and make money.

The franchise system, which has been so successful in the IPL, could be utilised in partnership with local associations in regions where the game is not so well established. Apart from having the potential to greatly increase the number of exciting cricket matches and breed new stars, a truly global Champions League would help broaden the game's revenue base, as well as advertising and television opportunities. It would also result in more meaningful employment avenues for a larger group of players and eventually lead to increased competition in international cricket.

To free up some time on the international cricket calendar, Tests could eventually be reduced to a duration of three seven-hour days played under lights. A Test World Championship would be a great place to trial this innovation. It would be a step back to the future, as Test matches in England were three-day contests right up until the late 1920s. With the modern game now moving forward at a frenetic pace, this is a feasible way of allowing players more rest between engagements. Also, by reducing the style-of-play disparity between the various forms of the game, it would be easier for players to flow from one version to another.

It's radical and it'll take a "let's bail out Wall street"-style hardsell. However, it might just be a way of broadening the fans' appreciation of the game and eventually provide a path to Test cricket for teams like Ireland.

Former Australia captain Ian Chappell is now a cricket commentator and columnist

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