September 7, 2010

Parochialism wanted

For the Champions League to gain the sort of profile its football counterpart enjoys, the fans need to feel connected to their players. The current format disallows that

The inaugural Champions League final in Hyderabad last year was a game to savour. For once, the two best teams in the competition had come the distance, and the game swung this way and that for much of the 40 overs before Nathan Hauritz, smacked for a monstrous six the ball earlier, held his nerve and Kieron Pollard fell for the bait. There were more than 20,000 people watching and New South Wales - a team full of Australian internationals past, present and future - were worthy winners.

For those on the periphery, it should have been a showpiece occasion. Only, one thing was missing. You would have struggled to find too many folk from Trinidad & Tobago in the crowd. The Sydneysiders were equally conspicuous by their absence. Imagine West Side Story or Fiddler on the Roof without the soundtrack, and you begin to get some idea of how weird it was.

World Cups bring people together behind the national standard, but the whole idea of a club competition is to appeal to the parochial. What makes a Champions League football game at Old Trafford or the San Siro so special? It's not just the teams on the pitch, but the atmosphere on the terraces. The invisible yet tangible link between player and supporter. Local pride at stake. Resisting "foreign" invasion. Without any of that, cricket's Champions League was just a made-for-television product.

And while thousands made the tortuous journey to Uppal to watch the game, the stadium was half-empty. The lukewarm response could be seen in the TV ratings as well. Apart from the Caribbean, where Trinidad & Tobago's progress past the likes of the Deccan Chargers became a matter of regional pride, the competition left no great imprint on the cricketing psyche.

One of the most engrossing games I watched last year featured the Sussex Sharks and South Africa's Diamond Eagles, with a bowl-out required to separate the sides. There weren't even a couple of thousand watching at the Feroz Shah Kotla, and as the promising CJ de Villiers sealed the game, the yells of delight from his team-mates echoed around the vast empty theatre.

The Board of Control for Cricket in India, Cricket Australia and Cricket South Africa have invested considerable time and resources in the event, but any thoughts of one day being on par with football's Champions League or rugby union's Super 15 are just wishful thinking. That will never happen as long as the format doesn't change. The home-and-away flavour was a huge factor in the growth of the European Cup, and playing in front of "neutral" crowds just doesn't hack it.

A Redbacks fan will get animated if he or she sees the team take on the Bushrangers at the picturesque Adelaide Oval. But will they even care if the team is playing the Mumbai Indians at the Wanderers, a time zone far away? How many will sacrifice sleep and risk going to work red-eyed and fatigued? Even with all the Hotspot-Hawkeye gizmos in the world, can you build a fan base through television alone?

Imagine Peyton Manning having three teams to choose from when the NFL playoffs start, or Lionel Messi playing for Barcelona, Chelsea and Bayern Munich

For the tournament to have legitimacy, the qualifying procedure also needs to be standardised. At the moment, the emphasis is on the IPL teams, no matter how disastrously they performed last year. You cannot have arbitrary invites for a global event, and a Twenty20 competition with no representatives from Pakistan and England is as incomplete as a football one with no clubs from Spain or Italy.

Most of these teething troubles can be sorted out with astute management, but if the Champions League is to be taken seriously by sports fans, the frankly ludicrous player availability rules have to be ripped up and written anew. Had English clubs been invited to play this year, Pollard would have been in a position where he could have represented three teams - the Mumbai Indians, the Redbacks and Somerset. Imagine Peyton Manning having three teams to choose from when the NFL playoffs start, or Lionel Messi playing for Barcelona, Chelsea and Bayern Munich.

It's one thing to have freelance Twenty20 stars like Pollard but without a system that forces them to choose which colours to pin to the chest, the idea of a level playing field is compromised. Last year, with the exception of Dirk Nannes, who picked the Delhi Daredevils over the Bushrangers, players who faced such conflict of interest chose their home team. That hampers the IPL sides, who find it hard enough in any case to match the togetherness and spirit of other teams.

Without a fixed spot in the calendar, and no season to permeate into the fans' consciousness - football's Champions League starts in July and ends in May, breaking only for a couple of months in winter - the competition faces a struggle to find its identity. If it is to become one of the great sporting spectacles, a home-and-away format needs to be found. Without that, it will be little different from the dime-a-dozen Idol shows found on telly.

When Paris hosted the first European Cup final in June 1956, 38,239 people turned up at the Parc de Princes. Even those not interested in sport have heard of the team that won that night. But while Real Madrid went on to become the biggest of global sporting brands, the team they beat 4-3 that evening slipped into obscurity.

Unless you're a sports tragic, you won't even have heard of Stade de Reims. Their fate is what awaits the Champions League if the administrators don't get it right.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo

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