February 9, 2010

A nebulous royal family

The creation of the world's first global cricket franchise is significant for the teams involved, but can the fans be expected to care?

What connects Salzgitter in Germany, Ocotal in Nicaragua, Torun in Poland and Murcia in Spain? Answer: They are all twinned with the unglamorous Wiltshire railway town of Swindon, a destination that would have remained shrouded in obscurity had it not been linked to Disney World in Florida via a competition late last year.

Similarly, the question might one day be asked: What links Jaipur, Cape Town, Melbourne, Port-of-Spain and Southampton? The answer is that they are the home cities of five hitherto unconnected cricket clubs that were on Monday united via the medium of the Twenty20 phenomenon. However, only the truly dedicated cricket fan would intuitively recognise that fact, and fewer still would understand what on earth the newly formed franchise, "Royals 2020", actually stands for.

In urban terms, twinning schemes are generally an opportunity for closer cultural and commercial ties - annual craft fairs, for instance, or school exchange programmes. In cricketing parlance, that might translate into the chance for a couple of young Hampshire players to head to, say, Victoria, to take part in next season's Big Bash. In short, the benefits tend to be highly localised and specific to the communities involved.

And while no one can quibble with those priorities, it is disingenuous to claim - as most of the Royals representatives did to one degree or another during Monday's launch at Lord's - that the twinning of the Rajasthan Royals, Hampshire Hawks, Cape Cobras, Victoria Bushrangers and Trinidad & Tobago to form the "world's first global sporting brand" is the same as creating the world's first trans-cultural sporting club.

Even allowing for the current obsession with all things Twenty20, it would be quite a leap of faith to imply that your average punter at the Rose Bowl will transfer his allegiance to the Queen's Park Oval during the off season on the strength of a shared moniker and a clutch of familiar players. As Manoj Badale, the chairman and co-founder of the Rajasthan Royals, admitted at the launch, any attempt to take on too much too soon could wreck this fledgling alliance before it has bedded into its newly feathered nest.

And so the initial way ahead could prove, by the standards of Twenty20's short but explosive history, to be atypically cautious. Certainly that was reflected in the relatively low-key nature of Monday's announcement - no sleek black helicopters and Perspex boxes full of dollars for this latest wave of Lord's-bound pioneers. Just a Powerpoint presentation and the sense of a plan that leaves rather more to the imagination than Allen Stanford could ever bear to hold back.

That's not to say that Monday's launch was not significant. In their Hawks days, Hampshire commanded a figure of £200,000 per year from their main shirt sponsors, Powells, a worthy but unglamorous firm of interior designers. At a stroke, the newly minted Hampshire Royals will claim a share of a sponsorship pool that was worth £4 million when their Rajasthan-based parent company last checked their books, while at the same time virtually shutting down their operating costs during the long and often laborious off-season months.

Coming at a time when the ECB's finances are precariously balanced, amid fears of a government-imposed return to terrestrial television, this is an opportunity that Hampshire could scarcely have afforded to turn down, and given the close personal links between Shane Warne and Rod Bransgrove, not to mention Sean Morris' feet in both camps, it is one that they were never likely to turn down either.

Even allowing for the current obsession with all things Twenty20, it would be quite a leap of faith to imply that your average punter at the Rose Bowl will transfer his allegiance to the Queen's Park Oval during the off season on the strength of a shared moniker and a clutch of familiar players

Other counties will doubtless scramble to follow suit, but one thing is for sure: there will not be enough IPL largesse to go round - a near-decade of procrastination on the Twenty20 front has seen to that. While the ECB try to get their heads round what all this means for their own witless competitions, they must be kicking themselves for the cack-handed trashing of the Bradshaw-Stewart domestic franchises plan that was floated two summers ago, and which could have offered a homegrown solution to the age-old problem of the unmarketability of England's 18-team domestic structure.

On Friday - no doubt in response to the rumblings from the Rose Bowl - Somerset's chief executive, Richard Gould, warned that county cricket could cease to exist beyond 2013, with clubs instead run by "industrialists, corporate giants and media companies". Men, it might be added, such as Bransgrove, who has been doing things differently ever since he relocated Hampshire to its new home off the M27 back in 2001 and rebranded the entity as "Rose Bowl PLC". Despite decade-long teething problems, he's never failed to recognise the pre-eminence of the club's bricks and mortar, and now he's found himself a venture he is willing to put his house on.

Nevertheless, the venture feels pretty nebulous at present - and it is not helped by the loose reference to Royals "festivals" that have been earmarked for England in July, Australia in December and the Middle East at some stage in early 2011. It's an image that conjures up Bunbury stereotypes of Keith Richards bowling to Eric Clapton with a fag in one hand and a pint glass marking his run-up, and while it is true that Rajasthan attracted a crowd of 23,000 when they played Middlesex at Lord's in July 2009, the numbers would scarcely have touched five figures had Warne not agreed to fly in specially from the World Series of Poker in Las Vegas.

The uncomfortable truth about Rajasthan's overseas reach is that it is almost entirely down to one man and his Hollywood persona. Without Warne leading the Royals onto the field, they revert to being a list of obscure names in a scorebook. Will he be quite so willing to play his part in future events if all he is doing is going through the motions in glorified beer matches? For the sake of the monster they are intent on creating, the Royal Family will need to keep their intentions as plain as possible, to enable the world to catch up with their ambition.

Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo