Local cricket won’t survive star-studded ICL

2008-02-23 00:00

INTERNATIONAL cricket changed forever on Wednesday when eight Indian billionaires gathered in a boardroom at the Oberoi Hilton Hotel in Mumbai and divided the world’s top players among themselves. Did the game change for the better or for the worse? Nobody knows. Only all-knowing history and hindsight will eventually reveal the answer. However, nobody should doubt the potentially cataclysmic impact of the Indian Premier League (IPL) on the game.

The hounds are loose.

In the midst of momentous events, in any field, it is usually helpful to take a deep breath, take a step back, take a pill, sit down quietly and try to assess the developments in a broad perspective.

Cricket was conceived as the game of Empire, exported by the British to their colonies in Australia and New Zealand, South Africa and the Caribbean and to the Raj, which was to become India and Pakistan.

The game grew into the 20th century, producing legends and developing its own cherished folklore. Traditional tours between the Test-playing countries ebbed this way and that way, and everything happened under the firm jurisdiction of a private members club in London, the MCC, the Marylebone Cricket Club at Lord’s.

From Cape Town to Calcutta, from Adelaide to Antigua, everybody hung on the word from “HQ”. Some things started to evolve — limited overs cricket was launched in the 1960s and Kerry Packer’s revolution in the 1970s introduced heresies such as coloured clothing and night matches under floodlights — but it is a fact that, until 1991, the International Cricket Council (ICC) remained nothing more than a small department within the mighty MCC.

The balance of power began to change. As the vast Indian economy cranked into overdrive, it soon became clear that cricket’s economic and financial powerbase had moved to the sub-continent. By the turn of the millennium, the might of Indian sponsors ensured that Sachin Tendulkar became the highest paid cricketer in the world, earning no less than four times as much as second-placed Steve Waugh, and that the Indian team was earning roughly three times as much as any of their international rivals.

Today cricket remains solid and strong in England, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa and the West Indies, but playing numbers are essentially static. In contrast, the game is riding the crest of the economic tidal wave in Asia, attracting sponsors eager to reach more than a billion increasingly affluent cricket fanatics.

Against this background, it was perhaps inevitable that sooner or later the Indian magnates would seek to bankroll a competition in which the world’s leading players appeared not within their traditional national teams, but as hired guns playing for local Indian teams in an intensive, dollar-drenched, all-action 20-20 bonanza.

Next month, the IPL will provide us with the spectacles of Australia’s Brett Lee playing for a Mohali team funded by Bollywood star Preity Zinta, of AB de Villiers playing for the Delhi side backed by GMR Holdings, Shaun Pollock playing for a Mumbai team funded by Reliance, Herschelle Gibbs turning out for Hyderabad, Jacques Kallis batting for Bangalore, Albie Morkel playing for Chennai and Graeme Smith opening the slogathon for Jaipur.

Some will hail this development as progress; they will say the players are finally getting paid properly; they will claim that the 45-day tournament, starting in April, will not disrupt the international calendar and will point out the IPL has been sanctioned by the ICC, who would scarcely dare oppose any Indian masterplan.

All this may be true, yet the advent of the IPL may also make domestic cricket around the world appear so irrelevant and so uninteresting and impoverished to an extent that nobody will sponsor it, nobody will watch it, none of the top players will want to play in it and, eventually, inevitably, it will cease to exist. Then, the game will start to die.

If such a scenario seems somewhat melodramatic, consider this: the number of journalists mobbing Preity Zinta when she arrived at Wednesday’s IPL auction was 10 times the total number of spectators who turned up at the Wankhede Stadium just down the road, to watch the final of the Duleep Trophy, India’s leading first class competition.

Cricket, as we know it … RIP.

•Edward Griffiths is a journalist, author, former CEO of SA Rugby, general manager of SATV sport and involved in various SA bid campaigns.

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