Shane Watson’s recall from the Champions League Twenty20 (CLT20) by Cricket Australia (CA) is a decision that could have far-reaching consequences in international cricket even if the club versus country debate has been muted in this case.
The management of Sydney 6ers was unhappy at his withdrawal midway through the tournament with the team looking impressive enough to win the title. But there are other voices within the Australian establishment, like skipper Michael Clarke, who believe it was the right thing in the circumstances—Watson was told by CA to come home early to take a break before the Test series against South Africa next month. Interestingly, CA (along with the Board of Control for Cricket in India, or BCCI, and Cricket South Africa) is a stakeholder in the Champions League.
All things considered though, Watson’s recall was unexpected; some might argue, even melodramatic. The impending tour by South Africa—the world’s No. 1 Test team—is far more importance for Australia, looking to regain their lost suzerainty in the sport. But why then did CA allow Watson to play in the CLT20 at all? What if he was not representing Sydney 6ers—which is a constituent of CA—but the Rajasthan Royals (whom he plays for in the Indian Premier League, or IPL) instead? Would this decision have gone uncontested by the franchise?
The country versus club issue has surfaced often enough in the past few years, and was highlighted by the manner in which it affected West Indies cricket, where several players opted for T20 leagues even at the cost of losing their place in the Test side.
Chris Gayle is not the best example here, as many would imagine. The all-rounder had run-ins with the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB) on many counts and had been dropped on disciplinary grounds even before he became a T20 nomad. The more pertinent example is Sunil Narine, who chose to be with his franchise Kolkata Knight Riders because he wouldn’t get a central contract from the WICB. He would be among the first few to get such a contract, so the T20 circuit hasn’t really hurt either Narine or the WICB substantially.
To add a new dimension to the issue, Kevin Pietersen lost his place in England’s T20 side because he wouldn’t make himself available for One Day Internationals, wanting to preserve his prowess in limited-overs cricket for the IPL.
The fear in cricket administration is that there are scores of players—those on the fringes seeking every opportunity as well as stellar ones who can command huge values—who may be willing to dump careers with their national side.
But while T20 has certainly been a game changer, to use a cliché, it would be misplaced to see it only in shades of white and black, as the strong votaries and critics tend to do. There is a churn happening in the sport, and there are some important aspects to be considered going ahead.
These are some of the benefits and challenges linked to the T20 game as I see it:
u It can make cricket grow wider and faster in the rest of the world. As of now, it seems the best vehicle to spread the gospel of cricket.
u It provides more players more opportunities to display their skills, prowess and earn a livelihood, which can’t be ignored.
u It’s highly consumer-driven, looking to tap and exploit developing and rich economies for audiences and money. Inevitably, leagues are sprouting everywhere, most of them organized by Boards independently or jointly and with the support of the International Cricket Council (ICC). Now there are even joint ventures (JV) between Boards and private players. For example, Cricket Holdings America Llc (Challc) has announced the US T20 league to be played in July. Challc is a JV between the United States of America Cricket Association, New Zealand Cricket, Top Bloom Corp. Ltd, Insite Organisation and Podar Holdings International Pte Ltd. Challc says it has the backing of the ICC and the support of the Federation of International Cricketers Association.
u The mushrooming of such leagues puts pressure on the itineraries of the ICC as well as the independent boards, leading to conflicts of interest, as seen in the Watson case. To ensure that these leagues don’t short-circuit the other formats is going to be a serious challenge, as will preventing player fatigue and burnouts.
u Perhaps most importantly, these leagues still have to work out sustainable financial models to guarantee their continuity. Even the high-powered IPL, with the clout of the BCCI behind it, has had a chequered existence so far.
The Kochi franchise backed off a few months after coughing up a whopping bid that they could not honour. This season is locked in grim battle to protect the franchise. It is also common knowledge that at least three of the remaining eight franchises are on shaky ground where financial sustenance is concerned.
Clearly, while T20 may seem to be the panacea for the game, it also has several pitfalls that nobody knows how to tackle.
Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.