Venkat Ananth

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CLT20: theatre of the absurd

I confess I haven't watched much of Champions League T20 tournament, except a few overs here and there. 


There is an air of triviality about it all, right from the format to the marketing and even the cricket. I flip through television channels at random, and invariably see a Bollywood A-list star make grotesque statements like 'Cricket ka Asli Muqabla' -- and the perversity of it all makes me laugh.


I've often wondered how we can take this format seriously, given that it's a game of hits and misses, with no clear pattern or overarching narrative during a particular match. It makes for great viewing, yes, but to over-analyze and give it pretentious connotations would be doing this epic game a great disservice. Sadly, we've chosen that path, you have commentators going ga-ga about the "successes" being scripted by nondescript teams. 


My problem with the Champions League begins with the concept. Memory being notoriously short, here's a quick history lesson: In 2000-'01, you had a tournament in Perth called the "Champions Cup" played towards the end of the Australian domestic season, which was loosely modeled on the FIFA World Club Championship, and was meant to discover the best domestic one-day side in the world. Mumbai, Kwazulu-Natal, Central Districts and hosts Western Australia featured in the tournament, but soon after its debut it was sadly disbanded. My guess is it didn't work as well as the organizers hoped it would, and the whole 'international domestic cricket' schtick wasn't as commercially viable or capable of generating as much spectator interest as the organizers believed. 


Then, some two years after the T20 format made its debut in England, in 2005 the Leicestershire County Cricket Club explored a CLT20-like event with teams from countries that had adopted the format early (Titans - SA, Chilaw Marians - Sri Lanka, Faisalabad Wolves - Pakistan, two English teams - Leicestershire and Somerset, and an invitational team called the PCA Masters XI). This tournament was called the "20:20 International Club Championship", and served as harbinger of what was to follow four years later; however, the tournament itself did not survive beyond its debut year. 


Enter the BCCI, the IPL and Lalit Modi, who wanted to cash in on the event's initial popularity and come up with a tournament that keeps the coffers filled to brimming. If Modi had his way, we would have had two editions of the IPL each year, but that tentatively voiced proposal got hooted down -- so, a rose by any other name, he came up with the whole Champions League concept.


Great idea, I thought at the time, but the rider was the amorphous nature of the tournament itself. While some teams in the CL represent a domestic system, others represent the commercial entities nestled within the IPL -- in other words, this was neither fish nor fowl. While the hype machine touts it as a tournament to decide the best domestic side in the world, the fact is that the three IPL teams taking part in the competition can by no stretch of the imagination be termed "domestic" sides. These are scratch teams put together by franchises, and represent no domestic geography in the way the teams from Sri Lanka, South Africa, Australia etc do.


Similarly, while the CL is touted as a tournament to raise the profile of "unheralded" domestic cricketers, it only ensured that certain vested interests who run franchises within the IPL got a second shot at making money – in other words, the franchises got two bites of the cherry, which is the unstated point of the whole exercise. 


To explore the thought a little bit more, let us consider the fact that India is the only cricketing country in the world that has two "official" domestic twenty20 champions. 


We appear to have forgotten an entity called the Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, which had its inaugural edition in 2007, skipped a year, and was revived in 2009; this tournament was supposed to be India's first formal engagement with the T20 format. 


The Mushtaq Ali Trophy is a BCCI initiative – but that body has given this tournament short shrift, enamored as it is with its other product, the IPL, which is paraded as a "global Indian product".


So cavalier has been the BCCI's treatment of its own national T20 tournament that this year, the closing stages of the Mushtaq Ali trophy was scheduled simultaneously with the IPL – and thus the finale of the country's domestic T20 tournament got drowned out in the cacophony of the IPL. 


Worse, the BCCI did nothing whatsoever to publicise its own tournament, and hence the Mushtaq Ali trophy did not get the eyeballs the bigger, more commercially important tournament garnered. And therein lies the irony – it is the Mushtaq Ali tournament that really provides a platform for the unknown foot soldiers of Indian cricket, but the board, which tom toms that as its objective, effectively ensured that no one watched the games. 


In an ideal world, I would have preferred to see the winner of the Mushtaq Ali trophy being included in the larger Champions League scheme of things, but that was never going to happen. For the record, Maharashtra won the Mushtaq Ali trophy this year. It is a young team, with lots of budding talent, and would have benefited from playing in the Champions League. The IPL had decided that three of its franchises would get berths in the CL – and this meant that there would be a play off between the losing semifinalists for the third slot, thus generating more money. 


The Mushtaq Ali trophy, thus, now stands as an example of all that is wrong with the BCCI's handling of Indian cricket. It was a reluctant convert to T20; it instituted this tournament almost pro forma; it then discovered the cash cow that is the IPL – and now, it has no time to spare for its own domestic tournament. The BCCI either needs to incentivize these tournaments that fall under its umbrella, or disband them altogether – but as it stands, the tournament is simply devalued, and that seems a crying shame.


What this competition also tells me is the heightened importance of the Indian market, which is clearly emphasised by the IPL teams. Academically speaking, they don't represent your run-of-the-mill cricketer who grinds his way through the system and makes it to the top, but is more representative of a system that is preoccupied with money and not cricket. In the long run, if this property has to sustain itself, it would somewhere mean that other teams, especially non-Indian, non-IPL teams, need to create properties out of their respective domestic teams that outlive the temporary nature of success and failure. By that, I mean that teams like Victoria or for that matter Highveld Lions, though successful and full of quality, must start appealing to an audience wider than the confines of their home territory of Australia and South Africa respectively; somehow, they have to find a way to get the average Indian fan to consider cheering for them, possibly through opening up opportunities for Indian cricketers to represent their teams, pending BCCI approval, that is. 


Unfortunately, it might also end up neutralizing Indian cricket, given that there is a genuine dearth of quality players coming through the system, particularly at the Test level. Also, from preliminary observations, this tournament isn't a guaranteed success, simply because there is a certain level of parochialism amongst us Indians, and our natural tendency is to idolize individual cricketers rather than appreciate good cricket. 


Yes, it is all good to emulate, or as some of us skeptics might say, copy the FIFA World Club Championship format, but it needs to evolve into a competition that doesn't just feature teams that are dear to the BCCI's heart, but must also include teams from England, Pakistan, Bangladesh and even, as a friend suggested, two ICC associates for whom the objective might be to gain the much-required exposure against some of the biggies of world cricket. 


The larger concern with these tournaments is sustainability. Yes, the concept of club cricket at a higher level, as it is touted, looks good on paper but the future of this tournament depends on how the non-IPL teams shape up -- not so much in cricketing terms, as some of these teams represent a system which has a tendency to produce quality cricketers and also provides a systemic environment of competitiveness. 


I think their biggest test would lie in opening out to a larger cricket-loving audience, entering markets that might embrace the quality of their product and keep going. If this IPL-heavy concentration of the Champions League T20 persists, it might well be a five-year old boy who ceases to mature. 


In conclusion, this tournament doesn't make you want to watch it, unlike maybe the IPL. And if history is considered a precedent, this business of internationalizing domestic cricket might well descend into obscurity, unless someone wakes up and smells the rich coffee. Quite bluntly put, this tournament looks like an organized, selfish, purposeless farce to me – and that alone is an argument against its longevity.

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