Saturday, October 06, 2007

A tale of two leagues

England, Pakistan, South Africa and Australia all have domestic Twenty20 tournaments. The West Indies were also in the process of organizing one last year before it got postponed. So for cricket crazy India to completely keep away from Twenty20 cricket was indeed quite surprising. But in a dramatic change in events, India now has two Twenty20 leagues all of a sudden, with star players from different countries joining in to increase their profile.

When the Indian Cricket League (ICL) was announced, first impressions were that it was another Kerry Packer in the making but as time went by it soon appeared from far from it. There were some visible similarities though. Both leagues were conceived as a result of losing television rights and both sought to promote a new form of cricket in their own respective times. But as one was able to revolutionize cricket for all times to come, the other seems to have fizzled out before it has even started.

I really liked the concept of the ICL when it initially appeared. With names like Warne, McGrath, Lara and Inzamam linked with the series, it was indeed a mouthwatering prospect. But as time went by the ICL increasingly gave the impression of a retirement home for international cricketers as it failed to lure in current players even after they were reportedly offered unprecedented amounts of money.

Mohammed Yousuf was probably ICL’s finest catch. After just being awarded the Test player of the year, Yousuf is in prime form and I thought that his joining the ICL would cause other members of the Pakistan team, who had similar grievances with the PCB, to follow suite. This would have meant that cricket boards would probably change their authoritarian ways of handling things especially when it concerned the players. However, the present cricket boards showed that they have a lot more money and power than their predecessors of the Packer days as they ensured the retention of their players by showering them with incentives and threatening them with bans.

Perhaps the main reason for the ICL’s limited effectiveness so far has been due to the BCCI’s prompt reaction to its creation. By forming a Twenty20 league of its own, in the form of the Indian Premier League (IPL), the BCCI has been able to counter the threat formed by this so-called ‘rebel’ league. With more countries involved and by having the support of the cricket boards, the IPL has been able to grab players that were on the verge of jumping on to the ICL roster and has successfully sabotaged the ICL’s plan for a successful and financially rewarding tournament.

Everybody likes a bit of competition, but I’m afraid in this case there would be only one winner. Those players who had hastily joined the ICL may be regretting it now, since there is a similar opportunity available that has the approval of the boards and therefore does not have them out of favor with their own cricket authorities. But there are a few pros in joining the ICL. Firstly, the ICL is not much of a league but more of a tournament, with the whole event hardly lasting 2 months. This means quick money for the players, and that too lots of it. This would also ensure that it has a more following amongst the audience, as generally people like to have quicker results. The IPL, however, is a league in the true sense with the whole competition lasting a good 8 months. This would mean that some of the matches would inevitably take place during cricket tours that are already scheduled and would result in fewer appearances by star players. So I’m guessing the appeal would get dampened to some degree.

However with most of the current players joining the IPL, it is the cricket boards who have won. In the end, they are the ones who will make most of the money and still will dictate what the players can or cannot do. So I think the ICL did make a good attempt but in the end, unfortunately, they were in the wrong era for it to be successful.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Building on the success

With the ICC having amassed so many critics over the years it can feel proud of having staged a highly successful and competitive tournament after a very long time. The organizers of the World Twenty 20 were smart enough to learn from the shortcomings of the previous two World cups by lessening the number of participating teams, shortening the duration of the tournament, slashing the prices of tickets to ensure bigger crowds and taking steps to increase the atmosphere inside the stadium instead of trying to curtail any festive activities.

But perhaps the most important factor in the success of this tournament was the competitiveness of the cricket. The nature of the Twenty 20 game made it possible for almost all of the matches to have very interesting and close finishes, thus removing another factor of one-sided matches that was witnessed so often in the previous two world cups.

However, this positive response to the ICC World Twenty 20 can not only be held limited to the successful staging of a tournament, it should be more broadly viewed as the arrival of a new era in cricket, one that can be expected to take the cricketing world by storm in years to come.

The ICC however still remains skeptic over the future of this new style of cricket. With 7 matches sanctioned every year, each team would practically have a maximum of 2 Twenty 20 games per tour. FICA has also appeared weary of this new format saying that Twenty 20 is not yet in a position to provide the same amount of money that 50 over cricket can rope in. All in all there is some hesitation within controlling associations to give Twenty 20 cricket their full stamp of approval and let it naturally find its feet among Test match and 50 over cricket.

Before the World Twenty 20, I was also among the many traditional cricket followers who considered the format a mockery of the sport. But after watching more and more of this new souped up version of the game have I become convinced that it is here to stay. For years the 50 over game has become more and more dull and predictable with alterations made every now and then to keep its appeal going within cricket followers. With more action filled in less time, the game can be seen as a more attractive alternative to a 50 over a side game, and like many people including Wasim Akram, I believe that Twenty 20 would absorb 50 over cricket completely in the near future.

Hence, cricketing authorities would be better off embracing Twenty 20 cricket instead of delaying the inevitable. I don’t see how Twenty 20 games cannot bring in the same amount of money as 50 over cricket does if it is given an equal opportunity to flourish by allowing teams to participate in complete series instead of one or two match contests. In fact, with the immense popularity witnessed just recently, Twenty 20 cricket has the potential to earn a lot more than what 50 over cricket does at this point in time.

At the same time, authorities should be more aware of not over scheduling the number of Twenty 20 matches which would further risk player burnout. In fact if used sensibly Twenty 20 cricket could, on the contrary, be effectively used to control player burnout as 20 over games should in theory be less physically demanding provided reasonable gaps between matches are kept and the number of matches per series does not exceed beyond agreeable limits.

With associate teams not being able to compete with Test nations at both Test and Limited overs level, the Twenty 20 format should also be able to provide a nice stepping stone for associate sides to get a feel of international cricket before diving in to the longer formats of the game and thus avoiding defeats with embarrassing margins. Even though skills required in Twenty 20 cricket can be at times drastically different from what is required in the other formats, it still can provide for experience to play against top quality players and give the opportunity to learn some of the tricks of the trade along the way.

Cricket does seem to have a bright future all of a sudden. With higher run rates at Test level and hence more enthusiastic crowds watching the 5 day game, the traditional form of cricket does seem to be secured. And with the arrival of Twenty 20 cricket, the demand for more from less also seems to have been met.