Same format, different ball game

Observing the build-up to England's Twenty20 Cup after having watched first-hand the hoopla that surrounded the weeks going into the inaugural Indian Premier League is a bit like comparing modems to floppy disks: both transport data, but that's where the similarity ends.
English counties and sponsors haven't gone to town blowing their players up onto massive hoardings outside stadiums, bus stops, railway stations and malls. Celebrities aren't pimping for the tournament in advertisements or on reality shows, and the days to the start of the tournament aren't being counted down on digital, terrestrial, satellite, internet streaming or cable systems.

Sky Sports runs through the news about important Twenty20 fixtures, but then gets focused on debating whether Alan Shearer or Steve McLaren has a better shot at becoming Blackburn's next manager. Coverage of Euro 2008, a tournament in which the English football team is not even competing, is still likely to dwarf the Twenty20 Cup. Even Atomic Kitten are nowhere to be seen.

And all this as the Twenty20 Cup heads into its sixth, and clearly most exciting, year of existence.

Indeed the Twenty20 Cup and the IPL were never meant to be the same, but the latter has set a new benchmark and county cricket administrators are just waking up to the fact that they need to move with the times. The lack of England representation in the IPL was one reason the competition wasn't on the radar here, but the fact that it was only available on Setanta, a fringe subscription TV channel, was a bigger factor.

The Twenty20 Cup doesn't have the same hold on the English public as the IPL did on India's, but no doubt the US$5 million (£2.5m) Champions League tournament coming up later this year has sharpened everyone's focus. The two sides that reach the final at the Rose Bowl on July 26 will be offered the chance to compete with the best from Australia, India and South Africa, and thus this year's competition is anticipated with a certain buzz - among the players if not the public at large.

The IPL and the Twenty20 Cup may still be the same format but the differences are not those of scale alone. Granted the ECB and the counties don't have to justify spending insane amounts of money like the IPL franchises did on big names at multi-million dollar auctions, but theirs is a system in which most counties incur losses and rely on funding from the ECB. A spot in the finals, and a shot at the big time, could change everything.

Not so back in India, where the US$1.2 million prize money the Rajasthan Royals won for lifting the first IPL trophy probably hasn't even been officially banked yet. In India the economics are different: the owners are mega-rich and are predominantly extensions of businesses. That means they're not really aiming at making money which they will then pump money back into their teams. And since the IPL is only one tournament old, the franchises don't really have any infrastructure yet.

The IPL is currently only in phase one of a very long-term plan. Franchises will look at breaking even after three or four years perhaps. Less expensive franchises, such as Mohali, are believed to have covered their operational costs from external advertisements, in-stadia ads, shirt sponsors, and the like. Those costs include wages paid and transport charges but won't include the money paid to buy the franchise itself; that will be treated as capital expenses. Chennai are reported to have doubled the prize money for their players from US$600k to $1.2 million, an indication of how well-off they are.

Whereas in India the IPL has been a business venture using sport as a vehicle, in England the Twenty20 Cup is a sporting enterprise that needs money.

Nasser Hussain, the former England captain, thinks the Twenty20 Cup will add spice to the English season. And rightly so. The Champions League millions have confirmed the Twenty20 Cup as England's most important domestic tournament financially. Aside from the full houses in prospect in the coming weeks, attendances continue to be poor for the other domestic tournaments. There's no dearth of opportunities the counties could create with the kind of money on offer. The biggest would be the ability to purchase bigger names for the four-day matches, traditionally and prestigiously still the favoured competition. In short, £2.5m could literally transform a team.

Glamorgan chief executive Mike Fatkin recently said he told his players to target the Twenty20 competition. Glamorgan are lying near the bottom of the County Championship Division Two and finished bottom of their Friends Provident pool, and Fatkin has put a premium on making the Twenty20 final. Kent have had several big matches hit by inclement weather and are heavily in debt. This tournament alone will keep their heads above water.

Hampshire's captain Dimitri Mascarenhas is the sole England player to have had a taste of the financial rewards on offer in the IPL. After the success of the IPL there's undoubtedly the notion that domestic players here will be keen to impress in hopes of being snapped up for next year's edition. During the IPL many relatively unknown players, such as Shaun Marsh and Manpreet Gony, saw their valuations shoot through the roof overnight.

Twenty20 cricket is an English invention and initially it was viewed purely inside the parameters of English cricket. Now, however, it's like winning a lottery - literally. The success of the IPL has proved that this format is a profitable venture and then some. There's a big carrot dangling in front of England's Twenty20 players. How they grab it could be the highlight of the county season.