Why is it easier and more rewarding to follow franchise cricket than the international game?

Leagues have the advantage because the narratives that nurture fandom can develop more easily around them

Ahmer Naqvi
Ahmer Naqvi
Wall-to-wall PSL: around February in Pakistan, the league takes over the popular imagination  •  Pakistan Super League

Wall-to-wall PSL: around February in Pakistan, the league takes over the popular imagination  •  Pakistan Super League

The older you get, the more you learn to value routine. You realise how it can give shape to days that otherwise easily veer off into nothingness, how it can form a structure for your life, how it can order things in your head. Routine gives context and narrative to our actions - this is what we do and how we've always done it.
Thoughts of routine rolled around recently just as the PSL did. Among the first things that stood out were social media posts celebrating "that time of the year again". That phrase, in particular, is striking - the PSL takes place around February and March every year, and in its six editions has come to offer a set of traditions. The anthem release and its subsequent reception, for example - in fact, the last two years have also seen a tradition of controversy around the release of the anthem, with vast social media campaigns undertaken in its wake.
Many social media accounts posting memes either emerge from dormancy or pivot towards cricket for a few weeks. Brands launch splashy cricket-themed campaigns, and restaurants use cricket-inspired names for every deal and dish. Everyone from celebrities to politicians starts littering their pronouncements and posts with PSL references.
Watching these traditions play out earlier this year, it was difficult to think of a similar "time of year" for international cricket. There was Sharjah cricket on Fridays in the '90s, and there is the tour of England that reliably happens in the northern-hemisphere summer; and events like the Boxing Day Test in the southern hemisphere. But beyond that, there is no real association of international cricket with predictable routine. And the more you think about it, the more bizarre it seems.
After all, routine is a big ingredient in all sorts of sports. In the USA, for example, each major sport has a specific part of the year it is associated with - the Super Bowl at the start of the year, the NBA playoffs in the early summer, the World Series in the fall. When the coronavirus pandemic caused rescheduling of these events, the disruption in routine was one of the main reasons television ratings fell for them.
With the exception of the Ashes, no bilateral series follows a predictable, repeatable schedule. Instead, cricket fixtures are determined by potential broadcast revenue, and the wealth and power of boards
In international cricket, by contrast, the lack of routine is endemic. With the exception of the Ashes, no bilateral series follows a predictable, repeatable schedule. Instead, cricket fixtures are determined by potential broadcast revenue, the wealth and power of boards, and the relationship between them. In the past ten years, for example, India have played their Big Three brethren (England and Australia) in 50% of their Tests. At the same time, they have boycotted their one-time arch-rivals Pakistan; what was once the marquee rivalry in world cricket is now a match-up that is rarely seen. India have played four Tests against Bangladesh since the start of 2011. England have not played Zimbabwe - a fellow Full Member remember - in an international of any kind since September 2007.
That makes it significantly harder to generate and sustain narratives. When a competition loses the ability to provide exciting, compelling narratives about its rivalries, its stars and its history, it leads to a decrease in interest. International cricket's set-up - with 12 Test-playing sides - should ideally operate as a league, but instead it is effectively a tiered system, with the richest teams most frequently playing those it is most lucrative for them to play. The World Test Championship (WTC) is a belated attempt to address this, but even before the its first cycle was played through, the ICC's chair thought it needed to go back to the drawing board.
Early in 2020, pre-pandemic, a visit to the Gaddafi Stadium and the National Stadium for two matches between the Karachi Kings and the Lahore Qalandars revealed crowds whose noise and excitement matched those of Pakistani crowds when India were the opponents.
At one level it shouldn't be a surprise that matches between Karachi and Lahore - the two largest, richest and most influential cities in Pakistan - are a big deal. But these two franchises who have only been around since 2016. Indeed, when franchise-based T20 leagues first arrived, many snickering commentators wondered why fans would care for corporate-run sides with ridiculous names and zero history. But because these were matches between cities/regions that already had the context of a historic rivalry beyond sport, and because games were held on a predictable, regular schedule in an easy-to-understand format where every team was equal, the interest and fandom grew exponentially.
From the very first PSL onwards, the rivalry between Lahore and Karachi was the biggest draw and the intensity of this rivalry has only grown since. And the PSL is hardly the only example of franchise sides rapidly creating a rivalry between them. The Wikipedia page for the Karachi-Lahore PSL rivalry suggests the Mumbai Indians-Chennai Super Kings rivalry page as similar content.
Since 2016, a young fan in Pakistan has had the opportunity to watch the Karachi Kings take on the Lahore Qalandars a dozen times, twice every year (three times in 2020, when they met in the final as well). By contrast, the same fan could only have watched seven matches between Pakistan and India. As noted above, it is hard to sustain context and narrative without routine. There is no doubt that India and Pakistan have a storied rivalry, but when you barely get to watch it, how invested can you get in it? Karachi's and Lahore's natural competitiveness finds an outlet every year in the PSL.
True, franchise sides regularly change squads and staff, their uniforms, their catchphrases, even their names; some disappear altogether, to be replaced by new teams. But this is where the importance of routine comes in - franchise sides still play one another more regularly and reliably than international teams, and that allows for narratives to form more readily.
This is perhaps why many of the narratives that dominate international cricket routinely feel forced, or why the rivalries are not nearly as close or exciting as advertised. For instance, the media seems to hype any successful, wealthy team without acknowledging that said team hasn't taken on all available challengers. For example, by 2011 many in England were claiming that their Test side was among the greatest in history after a famous Ashes win. That side was then whitewashed by Pakistan in the UAE. Indeed, Pakistan over a period of seven years in the UAE had a record of eight Test wins, two draws and no losses against England and Australia. And this is just one example. We have seen even the most celebrated sides of all time have slip-ups, whether it was Clive Lloyd's West Indies in New Zealand or Steve Waugh's Australia in India.
While no ICC event can truly be a success without India, every league in the world outside of the IPL that has succeeded has done it without any Indians in them
South Africa, despite being possibly the most consistent Test side this century, with a glorious seven-year run from 2007 as possibly the best long-form side, during which span they lost just one series out of 25, haven't played a five-Test in 16 years. New Zealand, who have 25 wins to five defeats at home in Tests in the last ten years, have not played more than three Tests in any series in the 2010s. The so-called top sides fail fairly frequently against these teams, yet it doesn't result in any change to the meandering system that determines the international calendar.
And if you find this baffling, consider the ODI circuit, where tons of meaningless bilateral series are played each year, though they have little impact on the World Cup. The World Cup Super League is a belated attempt to address this, but like the WTC, it proposes modest changes, and inconsequential bilateral matches that don't affect the rankings are still allowed to be played alongside.
Where international cricket offers this haphazard, meandering schedule, with no real context for the majority of its encounters, and no real sense of which teams are better, franchise cricket offers the opposite.
It doesn't impact the fans alone. For sponsors and broadcasters, an India-Pakistan series would be the ultimate jackpot, but as long as that series does not come to pass, they can prepare and plan and invest more rationally and securely in franchise cricket. Each league is played around the same time every year, the teams all play one another. Advertising campaigns and fan-engagement initiatives can all be created and rolled out accordingly. The same is true for the media, which can dedicate resources to creating content for each league on a predictable cycle. You can plan a year in advance to run a weekly show about the PSL, but developing one dependent on a national team's schedule would be more difficult and fraught with uncertainty.
Solving this problem in international cricket would require the sort of political weight that the ICC just doesn't have. The WTC was a relatively modest proposal bereft of radical changes to the existing structure - or lack of one - yet it feels unsustainable already. Creating a future for the sport, where, for example, every major team plays all other teams regularly, feels impossible.
The success of franchise leagues - not just the commercial behemoth that is the IPL, but other leagues in the Caribbean and South Asia - shows that franchise cricket doesn't need the blessings of the richest sides to prosper. While no ICC event can truly be a success without India, every league in the world outside of the IPL that has succeeded has done so without any Indians, who are barred from playing in them. And in each of these leagues, particularly the CPL and PSL, the biggest new stars inevitably seem to be local players, which suggests that sustaining fan interest isn't completely dependent on foreign players.
Most importantly, perhaps, players from Associate sides can make a living and even become superstars via franchise cricket. The success of Nepal's Sandeep Lamichhane in franchise leagues has provided him with the stature and earnings he couldn't have acquired representing Nepal on the international circuit.
For boards, the idea of running their own franchise-based leagues makes more and more sense, rather than asking more powerful boards for a piece of the international pie
Far too many see this debate as one between formats - T20s and Test cricket. They think it is casual fans and greedy administrators who are advocating one format over another. That isn't incorrect, but the reason for the focus on T20 is that it the format of franchise cricket, and the predictability and regularity of the schedules in franchise cricket makes it more enticing. If international cricket had a regular calendar, or if the franchise model was adopted for other formats, we could well see sustainable commercial and cultural interest in those longer formats. The international cricket calendar, rather than Test cricket, is the anachronism.
Seven years ago, pre-PSL, when Pakistan was still enduring its home-cricket exile, a domestic T20 competition generated enough interest and excitement to encourage the board to use the commercial potential of domestic T20 to make up for revenue lost from not being able to host international cricket in Pakistan. Today that exile is thankfully over but it is still apparent that the rich boards are not interested in helping the others grow. That is why, for boards, the idea of running their own franchise-based leagues makes more and more sense, rather than asking more powerful boards for a piece of the international pie.
Taken together it means that unless aggressive and far-reaching action is taken, international cricket's days might well be numbered. For far too long, international cricket has gone along as it always has because there wasn't any great alternative, but the rise of franchise cricket offers a truly viable option for fans, sponsors, media and administrators. It is difficult to see that advantage being reversed any time soon.

Ahmer Naqvi writes on cricket, music, film and pop culture. He appears on Journoeyes and Pace is Pace Yaar. @karachikhatmal