Tuesday, July 15, 2008

T20 JUGGERNAUT GATHERS SPEED, CRUSHES F50

It was going to happen one day. But so soon, after just one IPL tournament? The T20 juggernaut is gathering speed faster than anyone had ever imagined and is fundamentally changing the way in which cricket is administered and played.

Close on the heels of billionaire businessman Allen Stanford announcing a five year $100 million T20 tournament between his team, Caribbean Super Stars, and England, comes the news that an English T20 Premier League has been proposed by two members of the ECB management board. This tournament is likely to start in June 2010 and will be a 25-day, 57-match affair between nine teams. Players will be auctioned like they were in the IPL, with a salary cap. The EPL will be financed by private backers and owned by a company called New T20 Ltd.

The money that this format of the game has given and promises to give to players in future is breaking down national and ‘patriotic’ boundaries already. The dates of Sri Lanka’s Test tour to England next year clash with the those of the IPL. As many as 13 Sri Lankan players feature in the IPL. This clash of interests led to a virtual revolt by players who did not want to miss out on all the fun, excitement and, above all, the money that was theirs for playing in the IPL. They, in fact, went to the extent of meeting Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapakse and asking for his intervention to get the dates of the tour of England changed so that they could play in the IPL.

As a result, something that was unimaginable less than a year ago has happened. Sri Lanka have allowed their players to choose self over country and play in the IPL next year at the expense of the Sri Lanka England Test series. The justification given for this unprecedented step, surely the first of many, is that the “players were already committed to play in the IPL for three years(2008-2010), but they have assured us that they will give the 2011 tour of England top priority ahead of the IPL”!

By 2011, the way things are moving, traditional Test cricket between nations may well become a four yearly affair, a sort of World Cup, for which the existing and future power centres of cricket will find it extremely difficult to find time for more than a few matches only. This lollypop given by the Sri Lankans about 2011 has not been naively accepted by the ICC which is alarmed at the possibility of its own early demise/irrelevance, something that I had foreseen and written about during the IPL after Vijay Mallya and Shahrukh Khan had started flexing their muscles as the new, emerging centres of power in cricket.

ICC CEO Haroon Lorgat is afraid that the Sri Lankan decision to give priority to IPL will set a dangerous precedent. “ If we don’t manage this situation we could be threatening the lifeblood of all member countries. International cricket generates revenue that is essential to our survival”, he says. Make no mistake. At stake is the very survival of the ICC and its member boards.

Earler, when it had became clear that the IPL was a roaring success, everybody thought that the BCCI had become more powerful than ever before and that it would dominate world cricket completely in future. I was perhaps the lone voice then who saw that the IPL had altered the basic dynamics of the power structure of cricket and would actually weaken the BCCI.

The rich and the powerful already own teams and players in India, thanks to IPL. Something similar will soon happen in England and will be replicated on a smaller scale elsewhere too. Thanks to the powerful T20 motor, these owners will not only power their way into decision making but will also take cricket to other parts of the globe so far untouched by this beautiful game. If the players are with them, as they will be due to the lure of big bucks, the ICC and other boards will be left helpless and, as Lorgat fears, penniless too.

Therefore, rather than bemoan the fundamental changes that have begun taking place sooner than anyone expected, and expose itself to the real risk of being marginalised completely, the ICC family needs to get its act together and look and plan ahead for the sweeping changes that T20 will bring about within the next couple of years. Nobody should have any illusion that this time they will be able to do what they once did to Kerry Packer.

Another immediate casualty of T20 is F50, the One Day Match. The signs were visible in the Tri-nation tournament in Bangladesh, even though India and Pakistan, traditional rivals, were involved. Then came the Asia Cup in Pakistan which conclusively proved that One Day cricket is all but dead. The recently released TV ratings of these two tournaments provide official confirmation of the fact that the T20 juggernaut has simply crushed One Day cricket under its giant wheels. The highest ratings for the One Day tournaments in Bangladesh and Pakistan were 2.3 and 2.62 respectively. Compare these with the rating of 15.9 for the T20 World Cup Final, 6 for each of the IPL semi finals and 9.8 for the IPL final, and you will get a clear idea of the fatal hit that One Day cricket has taken.

The fast paced, three hour T20 game has caught the imagination and convenience of spectators and viewers alike. The One Day game lies in tatters as too long and too slow for this fast paced world of today. Rather than gracefully accept this fact and bid this format goodbye, administrators are desperately trying to resuscitate a clinically dead body. Some are talking of reducing the game to 40 overs while others want it to be a 25 over, two innings a side affair!

Some people simply can never read even very bold writing on the wall. May be it is their desperation to keep at least some control over the game and the players that is blinding them. Surely there are better and more imaginative ways to remain relevant in the fast changing scenario that T20 has unleashed. Unless the ICC and member boards discover them quickly, they may also find themselves under those huge juggernaut wheels, to re-appear as part of the history of this glorious game.