Why franchise cricket is not a zero-sum game

While posting this take on the changing face of cricket yesterday, the memory of an excellent article on the subject I’d read a while ago kept nagging at me. Here it is — Amit Varma on Cricinfo, March 2008. [A facet of all really good writing is how well it ages — and this piece by Amit, even more relevant today against the proliferation of badly argued diatribes about players turning into “money-grubbers”, is a classic example].

PS: Am likely to be off blog for the rest of the day. Back tomorrow.

Cricket clips

I love ‘democracy’ — you actually get a mid-week holiday to go vote! Fully intend to enjoy the unexpected mid-week break, as soon as I am done with this post. 🙂

Courtesy a Cricinfo conversation, I stumbled on a Ray Jennings motivational video prepared for the RCB. As under. In passing, with yesterday’s win, RCB joins Delhi Daredevils in the list of IPL teams that started off slow but will, IMHO, get better as the tournament progresses and the players bind once more into a ‘team’.

Elsewhere, Jacob Oram becomes the latest cricketer to opt out of Test cricket so as to conserve his energies for ODIs and T20.

“The last few years have shown that my body cannot handle the strains and stresses that come with being an allrounder, playing all three formats for up to ten months a year,” Oram said. “For the sake of longevity I have had to make a decision that will decrease my workload, so I can concentrate all my efforts on the shorter forms of the game.

“The decision to choose limited-overs cricket over Test cricket has a lot to do with playing opportunities. The Black Caps play a lot more limited-overs cricket than Tests, and there’s also the opportunity to continue playing in world events such as the World Cup, World T20 and Champions Trophy, as well as the IPL.”

Cue more alarmist talk about cricketers turning ‘mercenary’, I’d imagine. Greg Baum’s diatribe, in fact, anticipates this event and suggests that as ever more cricketers are seduced by that dirty word, ‘money’, and as national duty takes a back seat in consequence, the game will lose its fans.

Go, freelance away, but don’t be surprised if in a while, no one cares, and if in another while, because no one cares, there is no one to watch. The whole sporting fantasy depends on the conviction of fans that the stars are playing for something other than money; that they are playing for you, me and the idea of us. But the fantasy becomes less easy to believe if the stars were playing for someone else last week, and will be playing for someone else again next week, and in the meantime make it clear that they begrudge the interlude in national colours because it jeopardises their earning potential.

An interesting argument — but one, IMHO, that won’t wash. I wonder if those who follow soccer, to cite one instance, care overmuch for the size of Christiano Ronaldo’s pay packet. He has, in a brief career, moved from CD Nacional where he debuted to Sporting Clube de Portugal, from there at age 18 to ManU for a £12.24 million fee. So when he jumped ship and transferred to Real Madrid for a cool £80 million, did the fans desert him en masse, turning up their collective nose at this display of vulgar ‘money-grubbing’? Did it bother them that he was not “playing for something other than money”?

The hell it did — when Ronaldo plays I watch, because of the compelling skills he puts on display. And I frankly don’t give a damn whether he is doing it in the red of ManU or the white of Real.

Journalists routinely sneer at such ‘vulgarity’. Yet, offer that same journalist a three-fold hike in his salary to join a rival paper and see how fast he jumps [But of course, when we do it, it is with lofty motives, “like wanting to better deploy our skills and experience in a fresh arena that provides more scope for our talents”].

The fact is that a sportsman’s career is incredibly finite. To be really good at his chosen sport, the player has to make the choice — that is, gamble — very early in life. Long, hard hours of practice allied to whatever natural talent he has just might make him good enough to break into the big time. When he does — if he does — he has about eight, ten years tops to make the most of it. And every one of those days is beset by doubts and fears: Will someone with better skill sets come along to supplant him? Will his own skills mysteriously desert him for no reason he can pinpoint? Will an injury sustained on the field of play put premature period to his career?

I became a journalist at age 30, and have been doing this for 20 years now. I can conceivably go on doing this for the next 30, provided my typing fingers and my mind continue to function [and some would say ‘mind’ is an additional, but by no means essential, requirement]. It is difficult for me, therefore, to understand the fears that plague a young man who knows, going in, that he will be redundant in his chosen field by age 30, 35 tops.

But maybe it is time to try. Maybe it is time to see things through the eyes of an Oram, a Flintoff, a Symonds. Maybe it is time to understand that this situation would not have come about if those who govern the game had spared some thought for the players, instead of making them dance on every available lap while the ‘nation’ — or more accurately the board — pockets the lion’s share of the revenue.

Earlier, the player had no choice. He played when and where he was asked to play, he took whatever the home board in its benevolence paid him and when he got hurt, he sat at home and sweated, not knowing if he would recover sufficiently to be able to play earn again, not knowing if his board would pick him even if he attained full fitness. Like the proverbial hamster, he hit the treadmill and he ran until he could run no more — and then, in what for everyone else would be the prime of life, he retired to his home to spend the rest of his life in an extended anecdotage, chewing the cud of memory and driving his family and few friends nuts [or, if he was very lucky, got a gig on television where he got to talk of how great he had been to a wider audience].

Today, that player has a choice. Multiple choices. And he is taking them — so, mate, just suck it up. And don’t worry about the fans — as a full house showed in Hyderabad the other day, they don’t give a hoot in hell that ‘Symmo anna’ [or for that matter Adam Gilchrist, their ‘Gilly Bhai’, showed great foresight in ending his national career while still at his peak, so he could earn far more money for just a few weeks of work each year] has become a “money-grubbing” mercenary; what turns them on is the electricity he produces on the field of play.

In passing — an interesting read.

PS: Back tomorrow, after the break.

Lure of the spotlight

Saturday, two teen friends of mine from the neighborhood came home to watch the cricket [‘Uncle, watching cricket with you is great fun’ was the opening gambit, when I opened the door to their ring — very flattering, except for the ‘uncle’ bit]. Both aspire to play cricket; one is already fairly decent skills-wise and of late, they have developed an interest in reading books on the game, and on sport in general [one of these days they will hopefully learn to return the books they borrow].

“This Puttick — how come he has never played for South Africa, if he is that good?”, asked one as the Cape Cobras captain weathered the early loss of Herschelle Gibbs and Henry Davids and, with JP Duminy for company, began turning it around.

That led to a fairly intense discussion of domestic cricket, how talent filters to the top from school and collegiate cricket on, and why not every talented player will necessarily find space on the international stage. “Must be way cool for these guys — you think they’ve ever played in a stadium this big, before a crowd this noisy?”

Possibly. Domestic cricket is hugely competitive in places like South Africa and Australia, and good matches attract a decent amount of spectators. But the youngster’s point was well taken — this is a step up from domestic cricket, a newly erected stage that could over time redefine ‘international cricket’ as meaning more than ICC-stamped encounters between nations. And clearly, the fact that they were now competing against peers from other nations was spurring teams and players on to perform out of their skin — even as we spoke, an admiring Mike Haysman in the commentary box was saying this was the best he had ever seen Putting bat.

What caught the attention of the kids was the standard of fielding, especially in the second half of the game, as the Cobras turned it on. “He must spend all his time throwing a ball at a single stump,” one remarked as Herschelle Gibbs pulled off a stunning straight hit from mid off. [While on that, the fielding by the club teams has been outstanding. Clearly, it is this high standard set at the club level that translates into the brilliance shown by the national teams; the antithesis is India, where the fielding at the domestic level is mediocre, and that in turn translates into the way our national team performs.]

That led to a discussion on by-rote practice as opposed to developing situational and positional awareness. How do you explain that concept to kids? Two examples worked. The first was a quick trip online to watch The Shot, by Roger Federer. Clearly, he had practiced hitting that shot between his legs, with his back to the opponent, time out of mind — but what made the shot was not the act of hitting a ball in that fashion; it was positional awareness at its best, with Federer ‘seeing’, even with his back turned, the possibilities on-court and the position of his opponent and thus finding the best angle to pull off the winner.

Another example was a story I’d once heard of how Pele used to practice his pinpoint accuracy. Apparently his coach would line up, at one end of the ground, a series of flags with sequential numbers on them, each flag separated from the next by the width of a ball and a half. Pele would start his run from one end of the ground; as he gained momentum, the coach would roll a ball, at varying speeds, in tangential lines to the player’s approach. As Pele got to the ball and pulled his foot back to kick, the coach would yell out a number — and the trick for the player was to then, without pause, adjust so his kick sent the ball between the designated flag and the next one.

Henry Davids helped the discussion along by putting on a show. He had already run out Brendan McCullum, and was discussing that live with Harsha Bhogle. I want the ball to come to me, Davids said — and on cue, the ball came to Davids who raced in from his position at long on, turned sideways to field, and fired in the return long, to the striker’s end to catch Neil Broom short.

“COOL!”

“Hey, do you think one day all players on the field will be wired like this, so commentators can ask them about the play live?”

Watching cricket with kids is a salutary lesson in what how the next generation sees the game, in what excites them — I wonder if the ICC, which currently is in the throes of ‘reform’, carries out such exercises to get a sense of the audience they seek to attract.

If my two friends are exemplars, it is not about national loyalties any more — what turns them on is great cricket, and it is immaterial to them what flag the team flies. [An amusing example of such shifting loyalties came later the same evening, when a spectator at the Chargers versus Somerset game held up a banner welcoming ‘Gilly bhai’ and ‘Symmo anna’].

“If you had a choice between watching India play Australia and watching this game, which would you pick?”, I asked.

“I’ll check both out, uncle — and watch whichever is more exciting.” Simple, unambiguous, immediate.

“And,” chipped in the other one, “If India is playing ODIs and there is a good T20 game on I’ll watch the T20 — more fun.”

“Except if Sehwag is batting for India — then I’ll watch him!”

There’s been considerable talk of reform, of revolution even, in recent times with various notables advancing suggestions to ‘fine tune’ the game. Increasingly, it seems to me, this talk is akin to Louis XVI and his nobles discussing what flavor of cake from the Marie Antoinette Bakery to distract the peasantry with, completely unaware that  said peasantry is busy dismantling the Bastille brick by brick.

The ‘revolution’ is already on — one of these days, the ICC will wake up and notice that their carefully constructed edifice is in ruins.

A random point my young friends brought up are also worth mentioning. “How come,” one of them asked, “the big IPL teams are getting their butts kicked by clubs we have never heard of?” [While chatting randomly on Twitter yesterday, I realized this is a fairly prevalent question, and comes with its set of conspiracy theories on the lines of ‘The franchises are guaranteed payment, so there is no incentive for them to exert themselves].

I suspect the answer is considerably simpler. Drawing up a list of 11 ‘stars’ does not make a team. The club teams are composed of players who have been playing together, have a sense of each other’s game and a trust in their mates built through constant association. The franchises, on the other hand, are made up of players who got together just the other day, and have not as yet begun to gel as a unit. For the IPL, most of these teams got together at least a fortnight before the event to train together; not so for the Champions League — and the resultant lack of cohesion is showing in the on-field performance. I suspect the franchises — or at least, the ones that survive the preliminary round — will start to come into their own from the next stage on.

Aside: Did you notice the rain midway through the Somerset chase, Saturday? Here’s the question: How come the umpires didn’t immediately wave the players off the field, but permitted play to continue? Or, to flip that question on its head, how come the same umpires, standing in ICC-sanctioned tournaments, call off play at the first hint of rain on the grounds of ‘danger to the players’, and then waste our time with endless inspections? How come there is, within the game, such variance in the interpretation of what constitutes ‘suitable’ playing conditions?

Somerset continued its chase, got distracted by the D/L rules, stumbled, picked itself up and played on to a dramatic win — and those of us watching enjoyed every minute of it. To paraphrase a famous cricket quote for the benefit of the game’s mandarins, we come to watch cricketers play, not umpires ‘inspect the ground at 12’.

Open sesame

So it had everything: agriculture [Ross Taylor], industry [in the form of some frantic running between wickets; Duminy alone ran 25 of them], art [Duminy again, in a bravura display that yet again reminded us that good batsmen can more times than not be more effective than the pure sloggers; Uthappa, who after the ball stopped jagging around played some pure cricket shots and played them well] — the curtain raiser had them all. A houseful crowd got to see 364 runs made in 40 overs in a game that had enough twists and turns to trick out a Dan Brown novel, and there was none of the stasis you find in the mid overs of an ODI.

A friend called from Chennai late last night with his own eureka moment: “You know how you are always rabbiting on about the need for reform in ODIs? While you weren’t watching, the format went and reformed itself  — it’s now called T20”.

A touch extreme, but he just might have a point; if club-based cricket catches on in the CL the way franchise cricket clicked in the IPL, the reformers just might end up with nothing to do but strike out most bilateral ODIs from the calendar, and focus only on a biennial world-level tournament in the 50-over format, while T20 becomes the main moneyspinner.

A word in passing: I didn’t get home in time for the opening ceremony, but the other half told me it was fairly spectacular. Well, whatever — there is nary an image in the morning’s papers or slide show on Rediff, Cricinfo and similar websites, which tells me Lalit Modi’s ridiculous rules restricting the use of photographs remain in force.

Flush with his latest triumph, the “brainchild behind the IPL” won’t grasp just how short-sighted the policy of media restriction is. An initiative of this kind can gain immeasurably from buzz, and imposing all kinds of regulations on the media is not the way to get it — a truth that will likely dawn on him as this competition, and the IPL, moves out of the initial phase and seeks to consolidate.

On another note, a Tristan Holme piece has some input on the financial side of the tournament.

Twenty20 cynics may scoff at the suggestion, but the proof is in the numbers. $2.5m is up for grabs at this tournament – more than Durham received for winning the County Championship this year – and even teams who don’t make it beyond the group stage will pocket $600,000. Add to that extra sponsorships such as the Cobras’ sponsorship deal with a local mobile phone company and the effect this tournament could have is undeniable.

The increasing flow of money into cricket should be welcomed so long as the dangers are recognised. If a healthy proportion of it is set aside for the promotion and development of the game then all the better. Organisers insist that the way revenue is split here should prevent a gap opening up between rich and poor in the same way that football’s Champions League has ruined competition in domestic leagues. Each national board receives $500,000 per franchise representing them in the Champions League Twenty20, so the hope is that that money will be filtered down to clubs who haven’t qualified.

Yet when Somerset and Sussex are guaranteed $600,000 each and the ECB have just $1m to share among the other 16 counties there is an obvious disparity. The biggest concern is that the gold rush in domestic twenty20 leagues will lead to franchises over-extending themselves financially and coming up short.

I don’t know so much — since when was sport the last bastion of communism? Teams and individuals that do well earn, those that don’t, don’t — period. You don’t see the cash-rich tennis, golf and soccer tournaments setting aside a “healthy proportion” of their profits for the “development of the game”, and I don’t think that is a consideration for the Champions’ League either.

It’s simple: “cricket” doesn’t develop, players do. And players will have an incentive to develop their skills only when there is money in the game. The more leagues like the IPL and CL develop, the more opportunities it provides for recognition, money.  In turn, that success will inspire initiatives like this — and over time, as youngsters find the incentive to consider cricket as a career, the trickle up effect will kick in.

In the meantime, the ECB for example gets to pocket a cool $1 million for doing nothing for 16 days. It will, we are told, share that money with the clubs that didn’t qualify for the CL — but why should it? Strikes me, the availability of sizeable prize money is a good incentive for those clubs to get their game on, and seek to qualify. That in turn will heighten the domestic competition, which is good for bringing spectators in. Meanwhile, that $1 million annually [likely more as the tournament expands] pumped into “development” will go some distance.

Modi makes that point with some force:

“From this year itself the tournaments in countries like Sri Lanka, New Zealand and West Indies will become more competitive. You’ll see players who were not participating in domestic tournaments who will now take part and do well. Before, once players graduated from their clubs, they became international players and if at all they went back to their clubs they hardly played a few games. But the rules of the Champions League are that you have to play for your club, and your club must win to participate here. You won’t get a chance to be here unless you’ve not played for your club.”

Dean Kino, head of business and legal affairs for the Champions League, said one positive fallout of this competition would be to give context to domestic cricket. “It increases the passion of grassroots cricketers to be involved for their states and provinces. If you look at the interest in the KFC Twenty20 Big Bash in Australia and the IPL over the last six months, you will see that the result of going to the Champions League has been hugely stimulating. At the domestic level it will drive young cricketers to the game and that will build on domestic cricket and make it stronger.”

Right. India Abroad duty, today — blogging will necessarily be desultory. Later, peoples.

A shot across the bow

In a development that slipped unnoticed past the radar of the mainstream cricket media in India, the international players’ association has trashed the latest edition of the ICC’s Future Tours Program [and given me another excuse to keep banging on about my latest hobby horse: the need for the ICC to urgently rationalize not merely its calendar, but its overall approach to how it manages the game]:

FICA CEO Tim May said the ICC’s proposed international schedule is merely an extension of the existing format that does not address changes in the game and diminishes its value. “The ICC’s draft is just a continuation of the ad-hoc bilateral series that we have seen going on for 100 years,” May told Cricinfo. “The ICC draft does not address an increasingly changing cricket landscape, which demands considerations of changing priorities of players and broadcasters and the increasing need for context, not volume.”

May is aware that FICA could well be whistling into the wind. When it comes to taking on board the opinions of the game’s stakeholders — the players’ associations, the captains, broadcasters, the media — the ICC has routinely paid lip service to the concept, and as routinely ignored the suggestions that have been put forward. But, as the FICA chief points out, the ostrich policy may have outlived its time: earlier, the ICC could go its own way regardless, because what alternative was there? With the IPL establishing itself, and the Champions League emerging onto the stage, that is no longer true.

While the ICC admits that FICA is a key stakeholder in the game and has given the federation a seat on its cricket committee, it is not bound by law to accept any of its proposals. In fact, May admits that he would not be surprised if the ICC board rejects these proposals, but he also warns that in such a scenario “the natural forces will take effect.”

“More and more players will follow Andrew Flintoff by retiring prematurely from one or all forms of international cricket,” May said. “The grind of the present international calendar just can’t exist with the attraction of shorter-duration, less physical, better-remunerated T20 leagues. International cricket will no longer be the best versus the best. Crowds will diminish, commercial rights will reduce, and international cricket will be very much an inferior product.”

If this happens, May said, the ICC will have to accept the blame. “They will have no one to blame but themselves. It won’t be the first business to be destroyed by failing to recognise a changing landscape.”

Meanwhile, a paper to produce under the added pressure of an absent colleague. Will be back, as and when [oh, and will find time to respond to some of the comments you guys left on earlier posts].

Cobras versus Eagles

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.