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The Cobras versus The 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 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.

Posted in Cricket.

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