July 11, 2012

T&T's legit Champions League gripe

Despite having done excellently in two of the last three editions of the tournament, they need to go through a qualifying round again

The frustration in the Trinidad and Tobago camp is understandable. Last week, when news broke that the West Indies T20 champions would yet again have to go through a qualifying round to get into the group stage of the Champions League, Dudnath Ramkessoon, the chief operations manager and chief selector of the Trinidad and Tobago Cricket Board described the decision as "unfortunate".

"Being the champions of the West Indies and given how well we have played," he said, "you would have thought we would have gone to the main draw because of the quality of our play and the fact that people like to see us play," he said.

In a perfect world, T&T would indeed have been exempt from qualifiers. But so much cricket nowadays is played in a BCCI world. The Champions League, being a competition arranged by the BCCI, Cricket Australia and Cricket South Africa, has rules unique to itself. For the 2012 edition, the two representatives from Australia and South Africa and all four IPL sides will play in the tournament proper. Last year the fourth IPL team had to play the qualifiers. Not this time.

It could have been different for the champions from the Caribbean. According to the now former chief of cricket operations for the West Indies Cricket Board, Zorol Barthley, the WICB had been offered part ownership of the Champions League - a 12% share - by Lalit Modi back in 2006. Ken Gordon was the WICB president at the time.

"When it was discussed with [Gordon] he was concerned about the maverick Modi and in that regard... I just had to go back to Modi and advise that we were not able to conclude the discussions," Barthley says. "It ended at management level. It was not ever positioned to take to the board officially."

West Indies therefore have few grounds for complaint. But still...

Yes, it is also a fact that Champions League viewership in the vast Indian market is highest when the IPL teams are at play. Coming months after India's Premier League has dazzled its public, the Champions League in its three editions thus far has not done quite the same. Pandering even more to Indian tastes therefore seems the logical business thing for the organisers to do. But still...

It must be irksome for the Trinidad and Tobago officials to be repeatedly paying the price for expediency. For the second edition in succession, the Caribbean champions, and others, are being asked to qualify twice for the Champions League. In 2011, Daren Ganga's team - who stole Indian hearts with their riveting run to the inaugural final in 2009 - returned to the subcontinent having again beaten off regional opposition. They did so without IPL recruits Kieron Pollard and Dwayne Bravo, the same Pollard whose hitting in the 2009 tournament kept the fans in the stands busy and had the Mumbai Indians chasing his signature. Once more without Pollard and Bravo, T&T's matches in the Champions League were spectacles. This time they brought their spinner of mysteries, Sunil Narine. Winning both their qualifiers comfortably, they suffered two painfully narrow losses in their first two games, which proved too great an obstacle to overcome to get out of the group. However, the West Indians left India with reputations hardly diminished. They had brought the flair of the islands to the cricket a second time. They had added value to the series. For that alone, they should have been Champions League must-haves. For that and their record.

With one title win in 2009 and a semi-final appearance last year, New South Wales Blues (eight wins, three losses in all) can claim to be the most successful team so far in the short history of the series. But for games won and lost, T&T are the team. Still, a record of nine wins and just three defeats in two appearances was not good enough to make them automatic qualifiers ahead of, say, Delhi Daredevils (2-2 in one appearance).

Should they become one of England's two qualifiers, Somerset might also ponder their qualifier status, considering they reached last year's semi-final from that very qualifying stage.

Like the boy with the bat and ball, the tournament's owners can make rules to suit their interests. And they have. But will those interests really be served long term? In India the IPL will always be king. However, unlike it and the other T20 money-spinners, the Champions League is the only one with an authentic global spread, accommodating as it does teams from around the cricket-playing world. It is the only club tournament not confined to a single country.

This year South Africa will host for a second time. With enough perseverance and broad thinking, this tournament can keep expanding. There is always the possibility of new talent and interesting teams emerging. Think Pollard, think Narine, think T&T again. By its insular nature, the IPL does not offer quite the same possibilities. It would be a shame therefore, if for the sake of working well-worn ground, the Champions League eventually starved itself.

Garth Wattley is a writer with the Trinidad Express