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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