So starting today, bar-room cricket conversation will revolve around a clutch of unfamiliar names: Cobras, Eagles, Otago, Wayamba…
Cricket, say the pundits, is struggling to reinvent itself in the age of T20 — and yet, ironically, all the innovation is coming in the shortest format while the Tests and ODIs, which arguably need all the reinventing they can get in the face of dwindling spectator interest, watch passively.
This latest competition is a strange, unfamiliar brew — a mix of state teams, county teams and IPL franchises that seek to shuffle the existing order of domestic competition and conjure from it an international attention-grabber.
It is uncharted territory for a game largely built on the flag-and-country premise. A sense of history, of back-story, has powered our interest in the international calender: the tradition of the Ashes, the needle of Indo-Pak encounters, the trans-Tasman rivalry that spices what would be otherwise one-sided contests between New Zealand and Australia, the sense of schadenfreude as we watch the precipitous decline of the once all-conquering West Indies…
Absent this sense of history, the latest tournament in the calendar provides little for us to hang our emotional hats on. The question the next few days will answer is whether the League can rapidly build fresh points of interest, and create newer loyalties and fan following.
If it succeeds, the League will join the IPL as the cutting edge of an insurgency that puts club/franchise cricket in the driving seat, and in doing so overturns the global cricketing structure as we know it, topples the ICC from the driving seat, and reinvents the game’s architecture for the commercial age.
It is tempting to see this first season as the ‘acid test’, as the cliche-meisters have it — but my own sense is that this is merely a tentative dipping of the toes in untested waters.While there is blanket coverage in India, the television footprint is limited elsewhere [NB: This is the sense I got from talking to friends in the business. I understand Eurosport will beam the tournament in England — appreciate input from readers on which broadcaster is showing what, where]. If, however, this season proves a success, the television footprint will widen in the coming years, and that in turn will propel the tournament — and the concept of a club-driven format — towards critical mass.
Absent wall-to-wall global coverage, it will be difficult to judge the full potential of the CL at the end of the 16 days, and 23 games, to follow. But already, it has many of the ingredients necessary for success: a tight format, a clutch of international stars in the most attention-getting version of the game, a second opportunity within the year for the growing fan base of leading IPL teams to claim mind-share, and most importantly, money — not merely in terms of the sponsor interest which, friends tell me, is growing rapidly, but in terms of how the prize money on offer [and the possibility of foreign club sides getting Indian sponsorships] could end up changing priorities across the cricket-playing world.
Andy Bull, in a piece in The Guardian, looks at this aspect as it plays out on the England county scene:
For the first time, club cricket is going to emerge as a serious rival to international cricket. A rival for the attention of the fans, the time of the players, and the money of the sponsors. The jackpot for winning the 2007 world cup was $2.24m. The winner of the Champions League will walk away with $2.5m. By football’s standards that is small change. But in club cricket it’s a fortune. It is over three times what Durham received for taking the county championship title this year (and over 15 times what they won the year before that). More tellingly still, it is three times more than Surrey’s entire pre-tax profit in 2008, and six times that of Yorkshire.
If Sussex can play well over the next three weeks, this may turn out to be the most profitable year in their history, despite the fact that they have just been relegated from the first division of the county championship for the first time. All they need to do is win five games of Twenty20 – fewer than 200 overs of cricket. With that kind of financial incentive qualifying for the Champions League is going to become the top priority for every eligible team.
The injection of such a significant lump of cash into a single club would have interesting ramifications for the entire county championship – as it would for domestic leagues in each of the seven competing nations, with the exception of India. The disparity in operating budgets between the top Twenty20 teams and the others will become vast.
Another fascinating aspect, for me, is that besides putting club/franchise cricket on prime time and thus directly attacking the hegemony of the ICC’s international calendar, the League undermines traditional player loyalty and threatens a shake up that could accelerate the process of creating a breed of cricketing mercenaries. Andy Bull anticipated the point I intended to make, and so a clip from his piece suffices:
Wrapped up inside all this is another conundrum, neatly exemplified by Dirk Nannes. He took 12 wickets at an average of just 13 apiece in the KFC Big Bash for Victoria this year. This Friday however, he will be opening the bowling against Victoria, his own State side, for the Delhi Daredevils. Both teams have contracts with Nannes, but Delhi made sure to stipulate that, in the event of a clash, he would have to play for them. Understandably, Nannes team-mates are just a little unhappy about the prospect of lining up against their own star bowler as they compete for a $2.5m jackpot.
This situation is being replicated across the cricketing world. Farveez Maharoof had to choose between Wayamaba and Delhi, Brendon McCullum could have played for either Otago or New South Wales, Herschelle Gibbs for the Deccan Chargers or the Cape Cobras.
Starting 8 pm this evening, we will be treated to the latest cricket ‘spectacle’. For me, it is not the cricket on offer that is most fascinating, but the sense that we could be getting ringside seats as traditional structures are overturned and a new order takes over the cricket world.