Irrespective of where you come from or how much you hate (or love) the sport, it is impossible to escape the festivity of cricket that takes place every year in April and May, during the Indian Premier League (IPL). Lalit Modi’s brainchild has grown bigger and bigger every year, and today we are nearing the date for the start of season 10 of the IPL. People all over the country (and even around the globe) are gearing up for what promises to be another exciting season.
It’s history may be far from perfect – but today, when T20 cricket dominates the calendar there are several crucial questions we need to ask. How relevant are the T20 leagues? Have they fulfilled their promises? Most importantly – is T20 good for the sport, or is it meant solely for business?
Today, all major cricketing nations have their own version of the IPL. While some like the Big Bash League make sports headlines, others like the Caribbean Premier League just survive. That does not mean they are irrelevant. Irrespective of where the tournament is played, the T20 leagues have managed to attract large audiences and even larger sponsors. It has become extremely lucrative to make a living out of these leagues. For some like Tymal Mills, there is no other way; for others like Chris Gayle it is simply the better way.
Big bucks for shorter, faster and more exciting matches seems like a great choice. However, when one talks of putting a franchise ahead of national duty, a lot of eyebrows are raised – and rightly so! There is no greater honour than representing your country. So, why do T20 leagues attract more players, who are willing to forgo national pride in favour of money? The answer lies in the inherently flawed structure that is the International Cricket Council (ICC).
The flow of money is essential to the success of any venture, and sports ventures are no different. Until recently, the ‘Big 3′ bullies of cricket blocked the flow of money that is essential for the sport to spread globally. While the current set-up is somewhat better, it still does not address the key issue of bringing in more nations into top-tier cricket. The present structure of associates and affiliates may seem attractive in terms of administration, but it is also the biggest flaw that cricket suffers from today. Football has managed to spread not because it is easier to play, but because the Federation Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) doesn’t discriminate between the nations, and hence, each and every nation is given an equal platform. In cricket’s context this may seem problematic – no one would want to watch India play Oman, as the result would be absolutely predictable.
So, how does one go about ensuring that the balance is maintained? The solution is to provide more opportunities to the associates and affiliates – play more games, take more of the earnings and develop them by having them ‘tied’ directly to a top-tier team. For example, The Board Of Control For Cricket In India (BCCI) can take up three or four associate nations in Asia and provide them practice matches against the teams in the Ranji Trophy or the India A team, while ensuring that a certain amount of the profits goes towards the development of the country’s cricket infrastructure (grounds, staff and players). Also, absorbing the players into domestic competitions – either as a separate team or as a part of an existing team – will enable the players to earn much needed experience.
Also, rather than having a single qualifier for the World Cup, the ICC could take a leaf out of FIFA’s book and ensure separate qualifiers for separate continents. A ‘World Cup’ for the associate nations doesn’t seem like a bad idea either. Countries like India, Australia, England and South Africa majorly earn through their domestic competitions. Thus, by limiting their income from international events and using it for the associates and affiliates would help spread the wings of the sport. In the short run, this may be harmful. Clipping the earnings of the top-tier nations will no doubt harm the current quality. In the long run, however, this will ensure that more countries are part of the ‘top-tier’, thus ensuring more quality and more money. It is a hard move to make requiring the cooperation of a lot of people – but if done properly, it can change the face of cricket.
What makes cricket so unique is that unlike most sports, it has three different formats. The difference between these formats is so drastic that it is often hard to give the time and space that each one of the formats deserves. This issue presents itself in the packed cricketing calendar that we see today. T20 series often consist of one or two games only, and often teams compete in just that format.
Perhaps the biggest issue cricket calendars face today is the tight scheduling. Australia’s test squad is in India, while its T20 squad is playing Sri Lanka, down under. This is not an uncommon situation. Of late, this has becoming an increasingly common situation especially for teams like Australia who often field separate teams for separate formats. The recent one-off test match between India and Bangladesh is another example. It had no relevance whatsoever either to the rankings or to a series.
While some teams like England and Australia are increasingly approaching the sport in a modular format (different squads for different formats), teams like India and South Africa prefer fielding a unified squad with a few specialists. While both the approaches are not wrong, they aren’t exactly right either.
The modular approach does allow for more specialists to be created, such as India’s Murali Vijay and Cheteshwar Pujara – but it risks fragmenting the team too much. In some cases, having different captains may also not help create a sense of unity, and can instead cause the squad to break down faster.
A unified squad for all formats sounds like a great idea, until one realises that the amount of cricket that is played nowadays is often too taxing on the players. This leads to more injuries, and more players pulling out of the international scene faster. Whatever the approach, there are always going to be pitfalls but at the end of the day it is up to the country’s cricket board to decide what approach suits its playing style.
This kind of fragmentation is exactly the reason why T20 leagues have risen to an almost cult-status. Players prefer the shorter format – having to play more games in a very short span followed by a long period of rest, while enabling them to financially secure their futures. One cannot blame the players because the career of a sportsman, irrespective of the sport, is drastically less than that of any other profession.
When money comes into the picture, it almost seems like international cricket is the villain. In order to combat this issue, the ICC could look at pushing T20 international matches to only associate nations. This along with the One Day Internationals (ODIs) would help generate interest, not only amongst the players but also among the fans.
An upward mobility to the top-tier would see a shift towards only the ODI and Test formats. Scrapping the T20 World Cup completely might be another good option to consider. The ICC could also create a competition similar to the Champions League T20 (CLT20), which would be regulated directly by the ICC and would provide an equal platform for all T20 teams. Rather than having four teams from India, two for Australia and one from Sri Lanka, only one team from each country should be allowed to participate in such a tournament.
At the regional level, the boards need to look at revamping the structure of domestic cricket to allow all the formats to survive. While England and Australia are doing this pretty well, others like India are not performing well in this regard. In India, the Syed Ali Trophy already exists for T20. Hence, the BCCI should scrap any one of these domestic competitions (it’s quite obvious what the choice should be).
Hosting the IPL once every two or four years would also allow for more space on the cricket calendar. Once this is established, the ICC can look at promoting the Test format through a year-long championship. Every match a team plays generates points much like a World Cup. At the end of the year (or after four years) the top four teams will square off for the trophy.
If the point system becomes more active, even the ODI format can be revamped to give it a feel of a ‘constantly running’ event. Tours would continue as usual, and as long as the ICC ensures that all teams play an equal number of games, this system would negate the need of a World Cup qualifier. The ICC World Cup can then be seen as the culmination of the constant competition that would make even one-off matches worth watching.
A Test Championship and an ODI World Cup at the top tier, followed by a T20 Cup and an ODI trophy for the lower ranked nations (say, from rank 10 onwards) would radically make cricket far more competitive than it currently is. By removing the tag of ‘associate nations’, cricket would become more like football, but at the same time, also register growth in more areas. Upping the financial rewards for lower-ranked sides would not only generate more interest, but also motivate players to play better.
The concept of a tour should still remain to ensure that legendary series like the Ashes and the Border-Gavaskar Trophy are still played. However now, they would be played with more context. With each game deciding the fate of a team in the ‘ultimate chase’ for a trophy much bigger than that of winning an individual series – even Test cricket would get more competitive. Adding this to the Day-Night Test phenomenon will ensure that cricket’s oldest format won’t just survive – it will also thrive!
It may take a long while – but slowly, the ICC will have to revamp itself and the way cricket is run, if the sport is to grow and become much more than just a money-making machine. Throwing in a Test Championship and subtracting the annual public relations (PR) program called the IPL would restructure both the ways in which cricket is played and perceived, as well.
The inclusion of players from Afghanistan in the 2017 IPL auction is a testimony to their talent. Hopefully, with a little more support, countries like The Netherlands, Afghanistan, Hong Kong and USA can be more than mere ‘fillers’ for a World Cup, and be real competitors for the title too!