Champions League T20: Take 3

It may feel as if the IPL ended just the other day but Twenty20 disciples will be delighted to know that the Champions League gets underway on 19 September in India. Including six qualifying games, 29 matches will be played in the space of only 16 days before a trophy is lifted on 9 October in Chennai. And although they will have to get through a qualifying round to have a shot at the title, two English teams will be a part of the action this year.

This is a tournament that in theory should be a riotous success but in reality has been plagued by numerous setbacks.

As it is a struggle to distinguish from the haze of relatively meaningless Twenty20 cricket that has gone before us, we thought we’d take the opportunity to fill you in a little to prepare you for the barrage of action that will give one franchise bragging rights (and a lot of money) to the “best club in the world”.

Three of the six sides to play in the qualifying pools in Hyderabad will advance to join the seven sides (three from India, two from South Africa and two from Australia) that have already qualified for the group stages of the tournament. Both of the participating English sides will need to qualify in Hyderabad if they are to make it into the tournament proper, which is to be played in Kolkata, Bangalore and Chennai.

This will be the third edition of the CLT20. The inaugural tournament was held in India in 2009 and was won by New South Wales from Australia. The reigning title holders are the Chennai Super Kings, who are also the current IPL champions after they won that tournament for the second time, in May this year. CSK will undoubtedly start as favourites, especially considering that the final will be played on their home ground.

Last year’s competition was hosted by South Africa and although it is back to India this year, the BCCI is open to the idea of the CLT20 being played in other countries. It is no secret that the ECB are keen to host it and that would make commercial sense as England is probably the only country that could fill up stadiums for every match and is in the right time zone for the Indian market. But the fact that it is earmarked for October next year and late September the year afterwards, means that is too late for the English summer.

Almost every seat was occupied during the incredible Test series between England and India which showed that Test cricket on English shores continues to enjoy rude health. Thousands said that the advent of Twenty20 would quickly bring an end to the longer game but they could not have been more wrong.

A friend at the BCCI told me six weeks ago that they were expecting the 2011 CLT20 to be every bit as popular as the IPL but it is impossible to believe him. Indian fans have by and large failed to buy into the concept: While crowd attendances and television viewings have been alright for games involving IPL sides, they have been as bad as appalling for fixtures that haven’t. The qualifying stage of this year’s event takes place in Hyderabad, where a half-filled stadium has been a good turnout for Deccan Chargers’ home games in the IPL. An empty stadium for six matches over three days will not be a clever way to kick off the tournament.

The 2011 tournament will feature three or four Indian sides depending on whether the Kolkata Knight Riders make it through the qualifying pools. The bias towards the Indian sides makes financial sense for organisers but takes away from the concept of the competition. This bias doesn’t stop at the proportion of teams participating but extends to the small print: For example, IPL sides are allowed to field four foreign players in any starting XI (and as many as they fancy in their squad) whereas all other sides need to stick to the same rules that exist in their domestic T20 competitions.

Players who represent more than one participating side can be bought by their cash-rich IPL franchises. For example,the NSW Blues will probably lose their star pace duo Brett Lee and Doug Bollinger to Kolkata and Chennai respectively. Davey Jacobs is the captain of the Warriors team but he told Spin that he has been asked by the Mumbai Indians if he can keep wicket for that star-studded outfit instead.

CLT20 has led a precarious existence. The event’s first scheduled season in 2008 was cancelled in the aftermath of the Mumbai terrorist attacks of November 2008 and each of the last three seasons has been plagued by rotten television and spectator figures. Television Ratings Point (TRP) numbers in India have shown that the Champions league has consistently been watched by around one quarter of the size of audience for IPL matches. A terrorist attack in Mumbai in July this year saw at least 20 people killed by three bomb blasts and that may be enough to make some players wary of participation.

The tournament is virtually upon us and, at the time of writing, it is without a major sponsor after cellular network provider Airtel pulled out of its 40 million dollar, five-year sponsorship deal on the back of the tournament’s mediocre public interest. A new sponsor will no doubt be found but the pull-out shows a lack of faith in the tournament’s popularity.

Other bad press regarding the CLT20 is that Cricket Australia, which part-owns the event with the Indian and South African governing bodies, has threatened to boycott the tournament if player payments are not made timeously.

”We’ve had two disappointing years in terms of the timing of the payments and have taken steps to ensure players are paid in an acceptable time period … if that doesn’t happen we’ve told them we’ll be considering our options,” said ACA chief Paul Marsh.

The Champions League is a wonderful concept and has the potential to capture the imagination of the cricket world. Look what it did for Trinidad and Tobago’s Kieron Pollard, who rose from unknown to omnipresent in the Twenty20 format. But it probably needs to be less Indo-centric in order to really succeed. I would love to see it staged in England.

This article was written for the September edition of Spin magazine.

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DRS: One step forward, one step back

The ever-confusing Decision Review System (DRS) was modified recently at the Hog Kong ICC Annual Conference at the request of the Indian cricket board, which increasingly calls the shots in the administration of world cricket. The modified version is to make use of Hot-Spot technology but do away with the Hawk Eye ball-tracker, which will mean that LBW decisions would not be a part of the DRS. The modified system will make its debut in this month’s England versus India series and is a ‘one step forward, one step back’ move from the ICC.

As any cricketer knows all too well, losing your wicket pains so much that it is hard to imagine a worse feeling that doesn’t involve the death of a close relative. And while being dismissed through one’s own fault or a bit of bad luck is one thing, being given out unfairly can be cause enough to incite murder on the pitch. Similarly, bowlers don’t much fancy hearing a nick and then turning around to see the umpire shaking his head. But more than how incorrect decisions make individual players feel is the fact that one shocking decision can be enough to change the result of an entire Test series.

Of course a certain degree of human error is part of cricket and it always has been so, but the more we can do to eliminate it the better, and the DRS that has been used in various guises at many Test series over the past few years and in the 2011 World Cup did make significant strides towards making the game a fairer one.

But there has been one major obstacle to full DRS implementation and development and that, surprise surprise, is the BCCI, whose officials and players are so adamantly against the use of technology to make the game fairer that there is something very suspicious about their motives for not doing so. It is no secret that the BCCI’s influence on the game is so far- reaching and it is becoming hard not to query whether they have an ulterior motive in being the only nation to stand so strongly against the use of technology. It seems fishy that India would be so strongly against the system under which they won the World Cup.

The mandate of any review system is to eliminate the howlers – those decisions that are plainly, terribly, awfully wrong. Doing so surely makes everyone happier. The Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations (FICA) recently surveyed a host of international players and 82% of them said that they believed the DRS made for better decision making at the 2011 World Cup. A unanimous 97% of those surveyed would support DRS being made compulsory in all Test matches. Fairer equals better and, although it wasn’t perfect, DRS at the World Cup was a step in the right direction.

DRS has its fair shares of supporters and critics. Muttiah Muralitharan, Rudi Koertzen and Ricky Ponting are understood to be supporters of it, while Indian captain MS Dhoni has called it an “adulteration of human decision making and technology”. Sachin Tendulkar maintains the Indian party line and is on record as saying, “I am not convinced with the referral system. I have not felt convinced by or comfortable with many decisions.”

Tendulkar’s point that Hawk-Eye isn’t 100% accurate obviously can’t be ignored. Cameras aren’t always accurately positioned and a cricket ball is not a spherical object so its precise projected path cannot be predicted with absolute certainty. We are sometimes talking about millimetres here and swing, spin, ball rotations and other kinds of bowling witchcraft are not very predictable animals.

Of course we have all seen occasions where Hawk-Eye projections just don’t look correct but, having said that, they can tell you if a given ball was scheduled to miss the woodwork by miles. The technology is also very useful for telling us what the ball did before it struck the pad and, as journalist Dileep Premachandran points out, even LBW dismissals where the ball has blatantly pitched outside leg stump and are mistakenly given out will not be liable for appeal under the modified UDRS. This is surely a step backwards. We are quick to say that some umpires need new spectacles but hardly anyone questions their integrity – in my view, DRS acted as a deterrent for them to get involved in match-fixing.

On the positive side, Snicko and Hot-Spot will be able to do a lot of things that the old DRS couldn’t. WG Grace would be amazed if he knew that heat sensors and highly sensitive microphones were able to determine who is out and who is not. In the first Test in Jamaica recently, Ian Bishop acknowledged that Suresh Raina, M.S. Dhoni and Virat Kohli were wrongly given out and Hot-Spot could have corrected all of those bad decisions. There were several World Cup referrals where an edge should have been proven or otherwise but could not be done so with the naked eye alone..

The downside to Hot-Spot is that the requisite infra-red cameras cost in excess of $5000 per day to employ and there is not yet an agreement as to who should stump up the loot. Broadcasters have used the tool before but they do so to enhance viewers’ enjoyment – they are not neutral umpires and, as ball-tracker diagrams can be manipulated, a further risk is thus inherent in the system.

ICC boss Haroon Lorgat has suggested that, “there is the possibility that we could raise a sponsor to cover the cost of the DRS, where we may well cover all costs of the technology.” This seems a sensible idea.

As India boasts such a high proportion of worldwide cricket fans and generates such a large percentage of international cricket revenues, it is perhaps only fair that the BCCI’s voice should carry more weight than some of their counterparts at the ICC. But with power comes responsibility and it is vital that the organisation considered put cricket ahead of financial and political gain. Power corrupts and world cricket needs decision-makers who want the best for the game and not the best for themselves.

The same 2011 FICA player survey found that only 6% of players believe decisions made at ICC Board level are in the wider interests of the game and 69% of players believe decisions are unfairly influenced by the BCCI. Considering some of those players are Indian and others may have felt uncertain of anonymity, that is a worryingly high percentage.

We are all wary of the over-use of technology and it is natural that the old guard resists change for that is what they always do. But we are not talking about scientific advances to the degree of cloning here, nor does anyone want to turn umpires into robots, we are merely discussing how best to improve the standard of umpiring at international level. The DRS that was employed in the World Cup was great in the way it gave us stats on which umpires (Aleem Dar and Marais Erasmus) consistently got decisions right and which ones (Asoka de Silva and Daryl Harpur) got them wrong. Harper and de Silva were so poor that they were subsequently removed from the ICC’s elite panel. There is no doubt that the use of technology is vastly improving the standard of umpiring.

There is one redeeming feature of the ICC’s latest rulings. If before any bi-lateral series the respective sides decide that the ball-tracking Hawk-Eye be used in conjunction with Hot-Spot and Snicko, then all three will be used. Hopefully this means that every series other than those involving India will be fairer and better than those that do.
This article appeared in Spin magazine in August 2011