|Bilal Ahsan Dar
Since the advent of the T20 leagues, the cricket world has seen a change in trends in international cricket. It has been a gradual process over the years, but lately some changes are happening at a rapid pace and the shadows of the coming events as a result of these changes appear darker.
Sports have turned into a multi-billion dollar industry, making games heavily dependent on investors and cash flow. As far as Cricket is concerned, it is one of the last major sports to adopt the franchise model. The franchise league model is highly lucrative for the players and the governing bodies but it has so many negative impacts on the game.
There is no doubt that with the onset of T20 leagues, cricket evolved to another level. The most significant being players having a platform to showcase their talent. Traditionally, players used to adopt local club-state-zone route to play for the country and get noticed, which was a long journey and so many remained unnoticed, or missed out because of nepotism or lack of opportunity. But now with league cricket and its viewership, players from small counties, towns or even the remote corners of a country get the opportunity to play with the greats of the game in T20 leagues around the world and make a name for themselves.
Over the years, countless players burst onto the scene through T20 league cricket. Leagues around the globe have given us the likes of Rashid Khan, Haris Rauf, Jasprit Bumrah, Yuzvendra Chahal, Sandeep Lamichhane, Tom Banton, Hayden Walsh Jr and many more rising stars. As a result, they have all had a taste of international cricket and have solid careers ahead of them.
Most of the fans and people who’ve started watching cricket now are interested in the T20 format only. And to go with that, players are now getting paid more due to the increased sponsorship.
Another plus is that it changed the dynamics of the game. Players are fitter, stronger and do unbelievable work on the field. Due to its competitiveness and fast-paced nature, teams/franchises hire fitness trainers, coaches, scouts and statisticians to stay on top of the game.
However, the flipside is extremely worrisome. There’s a seismic shift in the balance of power. The cricket world is all set for a new order in which some private enterprises who own the franchises are becoming powerful beyond control because of their increasing financial clout, and their sole interest is the moolah. Franchise cricket, it seems, is slowly taking precedence over international cricket, As a result, the gentleman’s game is under threat.
A number of developments over the years depict this change, but a few of them have taken place back to back very recently which indicates changes are taking place quite drastically and we may soon see a decline in the value and status of international cricket.
South African cricket board (CSA) withdrew from a three-match bilateral ODI series against Australia to ensure all their key players were available for their domestic T20 League. The yet-to-be-launched league is set to take place in the month of January and by informing Cricket Australia that it will not play the ODIs, CSA has put its team’s direct qualification for the 2023 World Cup in jeopardy. The cancellation of the series means Australia will be considered 3-0 winners and they will take home the points as the matches are scheduled under the ODI Super League. The top eight teams in the Super League have a direct entry to the 2023 World Cup scheduled to be hosted by India in October-November.
As reported by ESPNCricinfo in June this year, the IPL is all set to have its dedicated two-and-a-half month exclusive window from the next Futures Tours and Programme (FTP) calendar of the ICC starting 2024, with no international cricket scheduled in that phase.
Similarly, home-season windows for the Hundred and the BBL respectively in England and Australia’s schedules have been proposed in the ICC’s latest near-final draft.
IPL franchise owners bought all six teams in South Africa’s new T20 cricket league. Three of them,( Delhi Capitals, MI and KKR) have bagged teams in an upcoming T20 league in the UAE. KKR, Rajasthan Royals and Punjab Kings have already in the Carribean Primare league (CPL).
The Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) and Pakistan Super League (PSL) franchises are at odds once again over two matters. The disagreements flared up over PSL-like Pakistan Junior League and delay in finalization of accounts. According to some news reports, the announcement of Pakistan Junior League by the PCB Chairman Ramiz Raja was not well received by the franchise owners.
With the current scheme of things, it appears that T20 leagues are becoming a threat to international cricket. The power of the leagues and their owners is growing by and by. At the beginning, there were just two leagues around the world and now they are multiplying fast and getting stronger.
At the player level, we saw stars like Chris Gayle, Dyane Bravo and Andre Russell opting to freelance, choosing domestic T20 leagues over their national side because of the money offered. An almost similar route was taken by an all-time great like AB de Villiers retiring from international cricket to be available for the cash-rich IPL. Recently, Ben stokes retirement from the ODI format may also have a similar reason. David Warner snubbing his cricket board by not choosing the UAE league over BBL for some extra bucks probably reflects a similar case scenario. This obviously is a huge loss for their national teams and for international cricket as well.
Back in 2021, former South African captain Faf du Plessis expressed his concerns over this. He said if the guardians of the sport didn’t take corrective steps, international cricket ran the risk of losing out to domestic leagues in the future just like football.
Many experts and former players feel cricket’s ODI format becomes the most fragile with these developments. This was underscored by sudden ODI retirement of Star all-rounder and man of the match of 2019 World Cup final, Ben Stokes.
Commenting on Ben Stokes’ retirement, Scott Styris remarked: “It might well be that the Indian T20 league is a beneficiary here.”
The legendary Wasim Akram said Stokes retiring from ODIs was sad but that he understood the reasons. “Even as a commentator… one-day cricket is just a drag now, especially after T20. I can imagine as a player. 50 overs, 50 overs, then you have to pre-game, post-game, the lunch game,” Akram said on a BBC podcast.
With this proliferation of T20 leagues, Future Tour Programs (FTPs) of the ICC for the bilateral series are bound to suffer. Test cricket might survive because of its prestige and gravitas, but with this mushrooming of leagues and growing power of sponsors, it will be difficult of find a window for a five match test series like Ashes, or a team like South Africa or India touring Down Under to play a long test series. Oflate, there have been two-match contests rather than a series with three or five Tests.
On another front, the growth in the financial power of the franchise owners is also bound to diminish the power of the ICC and the boards, if it hasn’t already. It is no secret that ICC is already having limited powers and is more tilted towards the Big three, especially the BCCI.
The tussle between the PCB and franchise owners of the PSL is one of the examples how the cricket boards will have to compromise before the demands of the franchise owners in future. The parties remain at loggerheads more often than not on financial arrangements and code of conduct of the current and former players.
With this sort of impact, the all-powerful BCCI may also see itself bowing before the franchise owners sooner rather than later.
The need of the hour for the governing bodies of the game is to take some extreme measures to strike a balance between T20 league cricket and the international cricket. Otherwise we may soon witness more high quality players choosing domestic leagues over international cricket or giving up the longer formats of the game too soon, which obviously is never going to help the sport from any point of view.
The longer formats need a protection and a way out has to be found to see how all the formats, and both domestic as well as international cricket, coexist.
Bilal Ahsan Dar is a blogger and cricket buff.