Cricket at the crunch

Bull markets can be long, bull markets can be short, but they all, at some point, end - and, as of last week, cricket's Twenty20-fuelled boom suddenly looks decidedly shaky.

In short order came news that the third season of Subhash Chandra's Indian Cricket League has been at least delayed, preparatory to a review of its swollen player stocks, and that Allen Stanford's Twenty20 Challenge has been consigned to oblivion. The ICL might yet endure in modified form, and has already done somewhat better than expected, turning from what began as the expression of a rich man's pique into a spectacle with a certain vernacular charm - like the Indian Premier League without the pretension and grandiosity. Stanford's troubles look less tractable: his opaque financial group faces scrutiny by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Internal Revenue Service and Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The ICL's problems derive in part from the hypocrisies of the BCCI. The Indian Premier League exists on one hand to exalt and celebrate the maximum freedom of trade: no national loyalties, no regional loyalties, the highest bidder prevails, turbo-capitalist market forces rule. Yet the BCCI runs it as the most anti-competitive of monopolies, leading inter alia to the persecution of players as demonstrably loyal to their countries as Jason Gillespie and Mohammed Yousuf for doing no more than exercising their prerogative as professionals. As reprehensible as the acquiescence in this of the boards of Australia, Pakistan and England has been the supine response of the normally ever-so-outspoken Federation of International Cricket Associations, which has silently allowed its members' free agency to be not just restricted but punished.

Stanford's travails owe more to a business model containing more hope than Barack Obama's election campaign. With colour, movement and general razzmatazz, Stanford helped revive domestic cricket in the Caribbean - something well beyond the endless incapabilities of the West Indies Cricket Board. But the payoffs were paltry, and the fear must now be that the withdrawal of his resources will leave the region, and the game therein, worse off than when he found it.

In the main, though, the message is that cricket is not impervious to the business cycle, that spectacles of a marginal nature conceived in times of plenty cannot be guaranteed in a more austere future - call it, if you like, cricket's own sub-prime crisis. Crises, moreover, are contagious: investors hear and observe that others aren't investing, and the multiplier effect of the healthy economy becomes the divider phenomenon of the weak one. The BCCI already has some experience of this: having failed to sell sponsorship rights for the Champions League it was spared more public embarrassment by the event's deferral. The enterprises whose futures are still more clouded are the likes of England's 20-team P20, from which the England cricket board is already backing off, and the franchise-based Twenty20 tournament scheduled in Australia, South Africa and New Zealand for two years hence.

The BCCI will have surveyed with satisfaction the eclipse of its nemesis, Chandra, and setbacks in the ECB's efforts to establish an alternative sphere of cricket influence using Stanford's moolah - happenings that further consolidate the official Indian game as cricket's exchequer. But even the second IPL, scheduled to begin on 10 April, starts under somewhat less auspicious circumstances than the first. As football's premier league demonstrates, the spoils of a league do not distribute evenly: there are winners and losers off the field as surely as on. Last year's competition was partly sustained by its novelty, following the famous investment principle that a rising tide lifts all boats. In the next few years, expect more evidence of Warren Buffett's famous corollary: "When the tide goes out, you learn who's been swimming naked."

Some set-up expenses incurred in the first year will presumably not recur, and there will be accounting benefits from depreciation and amortisation, but how well the franchises have retained their value will not really be understood until one changes hands, or the franchises mooted for Kanpur and Ahmedabad find buyers - always assuming that these can find sufficient playing strength when most of the world's choicest cricket talent is already contracted. It might turn out that the time to move on was immediately after the first season, when the euphoria would have guaranteed a sizeable mark-up even for the loss-making franchises. At the time, of course, everyone was chuffed to bits about Lalit Modi's multimedia Mardi Gras. But another investment maxim teaches that nobody should ever feel bad about taking a profit.

An irony of the moment is that we in Australia have just enjoyed perhaps the most intriguing and involving summer of international cricket in memory. The Tests and one-day matches against South Africa, the one-day matches involving New Zealand, and even the Twenty20 internationals have been almost uniformly worth watching; the balance between the various forms of cricket has felt exactly right; the volumes likewise. Andrew Symonds' periodic fatuities apart, there have been no depressing controversies; the cricket, on the contrary, has been played in excellent spirit and with red-blooded conviction. Much of the credit for that should go to the players, especially the fresher faces like JP Duminy and Peter Siddle, but Cricket Australia can feel justly satisfied by a summer not a day long. Were cricket not so confirmed in its capacity to mismanage success and squander goodwill, one might almost paraphrase Lincoln Steffens: "I have seen the future and it works."

It is hard to imagine, in fact, how the summer would have been improved by a southern hemisphere Twenty20 franchise tournament; just as it is difficult to make out how the Ashes summer of 2009 would have been enriched by the full-scale P20 originally envisaged. The argument for more commercial "innovation" in cricket has routinely been the necessity to meet an imagined "market"; to quote ECB chairman Giles Clarke last July, it is "about giving the spectator what they want". Yet this is flim-flam: the real market involves selling properties to sponsors, broadcasters, licensees and now wannabee franchisees, which might or might not then catch on with spectators, viewers and consumers. And the question is now: what happens when that market materially changes?