Twenty questions: cricket at the crossroads

A new breakaway Twenty20 league began in India yesterday. Another Twenty20 league is being launched in the spring. And next autumn a Twenty20 Champions League is being planned. Is there a pattern developing here? Most definitely, reports Stephen Brenkley, and it is one that will threaten every other version of the game
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At a scruffy, uninviting little ground in the shadow of the Himalayas yesterday the battle lines were drawn for a sport's future. There, in the Tau Devi Lal Stadium, Panchkula, the Indian Cricket League rebel, unauthorised, anti-establishment, anything but official began its life.

The combatants in the inaugural match rejoiced under the names of the Chandigarh Lions and the Delhi Jets.

A little more than 1,000 miles to the east in Calcutta, India were playing Pakistan in the Second Test. There is hardly a more resonant contest in cricket. Down in Sri Lanka, final preparations were in hand for the start of the Test series against England, with the world bowling record at Muttiah Muralitharan's mercy. Across a continent, in Port Elizabeth, New Zealand were wondering what they could do to stop South Africa's charge in the one-day series, top place in the world rankings firmly in view.

Important games all, in their way, but none with the potentially cataclysmic effect of the ICL, an all-singing, all-dancing Twenty20 competition, made as purely for television as a soap opera. So dramatic already has been the fallout that it is possible to fear for all other forms of professional cricket as viable propositions.

The International Cricket Council and many of the travelling parade around the game dismiss such prognostications, but cannot so easily banish the feeling that they are fiddling while the empire is burning. People in their thousands watch Twenty20 and want more of it; fewer are watching Tests and may actually want less of it.

The recent series between South Africa and New Zealand every day of it was watched by a man and his dog and the dog went home early. There were hardly more two men, two dogs to watch Australia thump Sri Lanka in Brisbane and Hobart.

Of course, Test cricket is a beautiful game and Eden Gardens attracted a large audience yesterday for the first day of India's match against Pakistan. But that too was by no means full. It is a large stadium holding (at least) 90,000, but Calcutta is a city of 14 million people in the most cricket-crazy country in the world. And this was a key match win it, win the series against their most significant opponent.

Lalit Modi, the senior vice-president of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and its marketing powerhouse, said yesterday that he was unworried. "We actually sold all the tickets. But it is our duty to protect the integrity of Test cricket and we are doing so and will continue to do so. The various forms of the game must co-exist but I have no worries about the state of Test cricket in the short and medium term. We are deliberately restricting the number of international Twenty20 matches we play."

But Modi is also the shrewd cookie who has formed the Indian Premier League, a tournament lasting 44 days next spring, which has already signed 39 of the world's top players. Yes, that's right, it's Twenty20. That will be followed next October by the first T20 Champions League, featuring champion teams from four countries with a 1m first prize.

The stakes are high and the odds are shifting quickly towards Twenty20. If it was not so obviously popular and populist there would not be rebel leagues forking out oodles of cash. Strutting on to the Indian Cricket League's stage and playing for some of the biggest bucks in cricket in the next fortnight will be a rum mixture of players from some of the greats of the modern game Brian Lara, Inzamam-ul-Haq to the rump, minor Indian domestic players. Nobody outside of their own clubs has ever heard of Bipul Sharma or Abu Nechim.

In between are a clutch of disaffected former Test players like Dinesh Mongia, foreign veterans and journeymen like Ian Harvey and Dale Benkenstein. Four Englishmen are there: Chris Read, Vikram Solanki, Paul Nixon and Darren Maddy, all of whom have played for England this year. They may be participating not so much for the groundbreaking nature of the cricket but because they are earning around 60,000 for a fortnight's work, plus prize money of 2m.

"I think we needed a little bit more time but everybody decided we would have to start," said Kapil Dev, the former captain of India who is the chief executive and front man of the ICL. "Another month would have meant more preparation but we had to start one day. We are determined. This is like a new baby waiting to come out. I'm scared and worried but happy."

The ICL is up against it. It has had official opprobrium heaped on it and the fact it is being played in the uppermost reaches is appropriate: it has a mountain to climb. Sniffy has been the most common reaction. Giles Clarke, chairman of the ECB, said: "We regard this is as a serious issue. Selectors will be instructed to take into account the fact these players are appearing in an unauthorised competition."

You could hear lawyers expert in restraint of trade sharpening their briefs. It might also be borne in mind that the selectors have not exactly treated any member of the English ICL quartet with much dignity, unauthorised or not.

The competition was invented, no less, by the Essel Group, one of India's largest business groups and owner, among many other things, of Zee TV. It was simply expedient: Zee needed some cricket to put on its channels because to be a cable TV station in India and not to have cricket is of serious commercial concern.

Zee was also probably miffed that although its bid was the largest in the most recent round of TV rights for Indian cricket last year, it lost out. Since the winning bid was more than 300m for four years the size of the business is obvious. Each one-dayer is worth 4m in broadcasting revenue to the BCCI in India and next time it will want much more. TV moguls are falling over themselves to have cricket on air.

No sooner had Zee announced its glittering plans than blocks were put in its path. Indian domestic players were warned that they would be banned if they took part while it was impossible to hire grounds that anybody had ever heard of on which a decent standard of cricket was played.

Zee was treading where Kerry Packer's Channel 9 of Australia had forged a path 30 years ago. Denied the rights to international cricket in Australia despite bidding huge amounts, Packer set up his own competition, World Series Cricket, known disparagingly to the cognoscenti as Packer's Circus.

All the world's top players signed up and Packer won all round. He won in court when the cricket authorities tried to prevent players signing for him and, after two years of WSC, he won on the field when those authorities caved in. The effect of Packer is still being felt now. Cricket was changed for ever. Not only did it enter the late 20th century as a public entertainment as well as a sport but the players were no longer treated as chattels.

So Zee, finding itself in Packer's boat, decided to act. The company found willing accomplices in the Indian domestic players who have long been used as ill-rewarded cannon fodder. The big names of Indian cricket are treated as gods; those in the provincial teams, boys and men making up sides, are barely accorded the time of day. They could not wait to sign up.

The repercussions were swift and the only ground in the entire country which would host the matches was in the little Chandigarh suburb. This, too, is fitting for the enterprise. Devi Lal, after whom the ground was named, was an Indian freedom fighter alongside Gandhi who became a champion of farmers throughout the country and was twice deputy Prime Minister. He spent his life fighting for the small man.

The small stadium, part of a municipal multi-sports complex has been given a makeover to make Trinny and Susannah proud in the past month, but it too is cosmetic and the outfield is still scratchy. Zee will need big live crowds and substantially larger television audiences for it to work.

The BCCI responded immediately with the formation of the Indian Premier League to be played next April and May. Some $1.5m (730,000) in prize-money is available in the first year of the competition, plus large five-figure salaries for those taking part over 44 days.

Top players barring anybody from England, because it is their domestic season were willingly and swiftly enlisted. It is fair to say that they beat a path to the BCCI's door. Later next year the first Twenty20 Champions League will take place, also in India when the top two teams from four countries India, England, Australia and South Africa will compete for a huge 1m first prize. That will burgeon quickly.

It is straightforward to see where this might be heading, to a Twenty20 paradise. Or hell on earth, depending on your viewpoint. "The profile of the people who watch Twenty20 and Tests are much different," said Lalit Modi. "The older man watches Tests, Twenty20 is appealing to younger people, children and, for the first time, women. It is also the first time in India that we are getting spectators in for domestic cricket. But you'd be wrong to think that Tests are under threat, though I agree crowds in some places are disappointing. We have to market the games as well as stage them."

The officially backed IPL, which, will consist of eight teams, has already attracted huge commercial interest. More than 100 companies or mega-rich individuals have bid for a slice of the action. The minimum they can expect to pay the BCCI, according to Modi, is 25m, probably much more because there will be a bidding process.

And then there are the television rights, to be sold separately. "There are different reasons people want a franchise, commercial or ego, but they want them," Modi said.

He sounded utterly unconcerned about Kapil Dev's competition and said that the domestic players had jumped too soon. "They are looking to the past, when they were not rewarded very well, instead of the future. Some 26 per cent of all our revenues now goes to players. That has just kicked in and was bound filter down."

It might be tempting to feel sorry for Kapil Dev's ICL except that it has huge financial backing as well. Zee has virtually bottomless resources and if the cricket is exciting the audiences may be guaranteed. But Zee will need to keep on signing big names. "Let's be honest, I'm worried," Kapil said. "I have taken a step that no other sports person has done against all the politicians, the authorities who think they can run the game and some sports people so it's a challenge. If I have enough ability it will work."

For Vikram Solanki and his like it represents a substantial payday. They would have been fools to their families not to take it, whatever the ECB chairman has to say. Modi could afford to be dismissive, but he will have known that cricket changed yesterday and not because of anything that happened in Eden Gardens.

The Indian Cricket League

Weekend fixtures: Yesterday: Chandigarh Lions bt Delhi Jets by 9 runs. Today: Chennai Superstars v Kolkata Tigers; Mumbai Champs v Hyderabad Heroes.

All matches take place at Tau Devi Lal Sports Complex in Panchkula

Leading players: Chandigarh Chris Cairns (New Zealand, 37); Imran Farhat (Pakistan, 25); Hamish Marshall (New Zealand, 28). Delhi Marvin Atapattu (Sri Lanka 37), Paul Nixon (England, 37), Taufeeq Umar (Pakistan, 26). Chennai Stuart Law (Australia 39), Chris Read (England, 29) Ian Harvey (Australia,35) Shabbir Ahmed (Pakistan, 31). Kolkata Craig McMillan (New Zealand, 31) Darren Maddy (England, 33) Lance Klusener (South Africa, 36). Mumbai Brian Lara (West Indies, 38) Mervyn Dillon (West Indies, 33) Nathan Astle (New Zealand, 36) Vikram Solanki (England, 31). Hyderabad Inzamam-ul-Haq (Pakistan, 37) Abdul Razzaq (Pakistan, 27) Nicky Boje (South Africa, 34) Azhar Mahmood (Pakistan,32).

Stephen Brenkley's cricket column from Sri Lanka is at: www.independent.co.uk/thetest

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