New Delhi: The Twenty20 format was not invented by India’s cricket board, the well-heeled but shadowy Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI). But it was BCCI, usually run by an assorted group of politicians and businessmen, that showed the world how to mainstream and commercialize the format. And it is a natural corollary to how the board works that the man who did much of this, Lalit Modi, the first commissioner of the glitzy Indian Premier League (IPL), finds himself in exile in London.
Now in its ninth edition, the league is a huge commercial success, despite being every bit as controversial as the BCCI itself. Then, that shouldn’t surprise anyone. We live in a world where attention spans are shrinking, noise is becoming more important than music, and entire business models are built around clickbait.
India’s lead was followed by other cricketing nations. Today, there are several successful and not-so-successful Twenty20 leagues around the world. Unlike football leagues, which take longer, these usually last under two months; and because the cricket bodies of most countries do not want their leagues to clash with each other, there is a year-long calendar of Twenty20 leagues. This also allows players to play in several leagues—it is far more profitable for them to do this than to represent their countries in bilateral series.
Cricket has always been unique among major sports. Its highest form according to purists, the Test match, is played across five days. No other mainstream competitive sport has a format that is even half as long. The advocates of T20s (as Twenty20 matches are called) believe that this is one reason for the limited popularity of cricket. No one has the time. Broadcasters are among these advocates and their opinions are usually the only ones that matter for sports administrators. Broadcasters also do not like bilateral series. For instance, Star India, which has the rights to all cricket played in India, will probably make a lot of money off an India-Australia series but not as much off an India-Bangladesh one. Unfortunately, it can’t choose to cover one and not the other—most rights are sold for a fixed duration, not for a specific series.
In time, it is possible that the clubs end up having more following (and across countries) than the countries. That’s always been the case in basketball and football. In time, it is also possible that the best players pick clubs over countries. This is already happening, especially with players from the West Indies.
When that happens—it will, and never mind whether is a good thing or not—remember that it was India that showed the way.