Taste of T20
The degree of business interest invoked by the upcoming SA T20 league bears testimony to the fact that the shorter format league cricket, with its sound commercial foundation, has acquired the centre stage globally as traditional formats are being pushed to the margins
The strong link between cricket and commerce has been there for a long time. If you thought only the Indian Premier League was about players making big money and the commerce around it relating to teams was fascinating, the way T20 has caught the attention of one and all around the globe is fascinating.
Last week, when news of the South African T20 league fructifying broke out, it raised eyebrows. The responsibility of selecting the franchise owners through a bidding process was given to Deloitte Corporate Finance. In all, the new South African league attracted over 29 bids, according to an official press release. Ten cities were made available for the bidders and all were grabbed. Such has been the explosive expansion of instant cricket in its shortest avatar.
From a business angle, the best brains have struggled to understand how T20 cricket grabs eyeballs. During times of global slowdown, more so after the Covid-19 pandemic, cricket has not taken a beating at all. The way two new teams were added to the IPL in the 2022 season was breathtaking. It involved mega bucks and massive logistics of hosting matches.
If that trend seemed perverse, then the latest one hears is that the owners of the IPL teams have bought the teams in the SA league. Reliance Industries, RPSG Sports, Chennai Super Kings, Sun TV — which owns the Hyderabad franchise in the IPL — and JSW are among those who have bought teams in South Africa. Royal Sports Group, which owns the Rajasthan Royals, has also bought one team.
At a time when South Africa, as a cricketing nation, itself faces challenging times, the introduction of a new T20 league to be held in January and February 2023, is bound to attract attention. As it is, T20 is the dominant format now, as consumers of cricket are very happy with the slam-bang, whiz-thud cricket being produced in the IPL. South Africa, itself, seems least hassled by the fact they may not even qualify for the 2023 ICC World Cup (ODI format).
The way cricket is being consumed today is similar to how junk food has become the staple diet for many not only abroad, but also for the youth in India. People do not think about the harmful effects of junk food until it leads to a health crisis.
As of today, the general impression is that T20 is healthy in many ways. Yes, the players are raking in moolah and team owners are laughing their way to the bank. Whichever media platform is showing it live on television is also making a killing. To top it, nobody is complaining about excess cricket in any form.
These days, it has become almost impossible to keep a track of match scores as the quantum of cricket on offer is so large. If India are playing one day an unfinished Test match series at Edgbaston, in no time they are playing a T20 series in England and then an ODI series also despite the heat in the same country.
Nobody is complaining. Not the players, not the cricket boards involved and not those who are watching it. In England, for instance, where betting is legalised, anything related to sport attracts punters. The betting turnover volumes run into unimaginable sums, where even the Tamil Nadu Premier League features on the betting sites.
We, in India, may be wondering what is the importance of the TNPL but surely there is a different interest and market abroad, which, by all means, is lucrative. Of course, the TNPL had produced a white ball wonder in T Natarajan who is now nowhere to be seen after his ankle injury.
One would have thought that in 2022 and 2023, interest of the serious cricket playing nations would be in the ICC World T20 to be held in Australia and the ICC ODI World Cup to be staged by India in 2023. No, what one is seeing is an explosion of club cricket, an overdose of bilateral series, where T20 is the main course.
Maybe, in the good old days one would have thought of preserving players for the blue-riband ICC events. The trend now is similar to football, where clubs ensure the players are forced to put in their best efforts. After all, the money which football club owners invest/spend on players is crazy. Someone like Cristiano Ronaldo is ready to take a 30 per cent pay cut and get out of the football league in England. However, the contractual obligations are not permitting him to leave!
It was interesting to read how the United Arab Emirates will now host the Asia Cup tournament, which was originally to be held in Sri Lanka. The current political turmoil in the Island nation, coupled with the economy collapsing, resulted in the tournament being moved to desert venues where Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah have been gracious hosts. The catch is, the Asia Cup, which used to be in ODI format, has also been made a T20 tournament now. Can you beat it, this tournament will now serve as a warm-up for the ICC World T20?
Back to the T20 league in South Africa, it will be interesting to see which players are drafted in. As of now, there is no official news if Indian players will be part of it. Given the way team owners of the IPL have grabbed the opportunity to invest in T20 club cricket in South Africa, there is every possibility the BCCI will permit players.
The situation could become very interesting, or even conflicting. Imagine if a player of the Rajasthan Royals team plays for a franchise in South Africa owned by Chennai Super Kings, how would loyalties be. The same can happen to players from several other Indian franchise owners, given the fact that there are 10 teams in the IPL.
How would it be if say Jasprit Bumrah (Mumbai Indians) plays for a team owned by CSK owner in South Africa. Or, how would it be if Rishabh Pant, who leads Delhi Capitals, plays in the SA league by a team owner like Sun TV. This is not a fictitious scenario. If the T20 IPL league in South Africa has generated so much business interest, then surely the businessmen from India are being smart. It would appear, the money they are making from the IPL (profits) is being invested in SA.
One does not need a crystal ball to gaze at and say Indians won't play in the South African T20 league. National interest is a thing of the past in Indian cricket. Commerce comes before cricket as players with injuries ask for rest today while playing for the country and not the IPL. This has been pointed out by the two biggest legends, Kapil Dev and Sunny Gavaskar.
The leave forms which Rohit Sharma and Virat Kohli submit to the Indian cricket board are classic examples. Both of them played for teams which performed below par in the IPL in 2022, Mumbai Indians and Royal Challengers Bangalore. The joke is, they are fully fit for the IPL but not the country.
Nobody seems to have a problem with it, at least on paper. The crucial test will be when Team India is picked for the ICC World T20 in Australia. Rohit had done well in bilateral series but his form otherwise has been up and down. Virat Kohli is facing such a dry run, even the deserts in Sahara are not so badly off.
Maybe, all this sounds confusing. There may be clarity when T20 leagues are played. Where problems will crop up are when India fails to clinch the trophy at the ICC events. Virat Kohli and Ravi Shastri were eased out citing that as the reason.
Current white-ball cricket captain Rohit Sharma, who is himself battling challenges in terms of fitness, will be in a similar situation in 2022 and 2023. He may be the blue-eyed boy of Indian cricket at present. However, nobody is going to be nice to him should India flop in the big events. Hopefully, T20 leagues will not be a distraction at large for these superstars and Team India.
Views expressed are personal