As T20 tournaments go, the Champions League T20 is one of the least glamorous T20 competitions going around. Despite being run by 3 of the 4 biggest cricket boards in world cricket, the tournament has never really gained traction among the fans.
Every edition, the tournament throws up a fairy tale story of a side full of players most people haven’t heard of, thrilling everyone with their performances. Trinidad & Tobago nearly won the inaugural edition, thanks mainly to Kieron Pollard. Interestingly, Pollard had failed to draw a bid from a single IPL franchise earlier that year. The next year, he went for $750,000 plus whatever secret winning amount the Mumbai Indians bid for him during the auction. In 2010, it was the Warriors from South Africa who made the final despite missing Jacques Kallis who was with his IPL side. 2011 belonged to the Trinidadians again, with Sunil Narine announcing himself on the world stage. Less than a year later, he was voted Player of the Tournament as his side won the IPL. Last year, it was the Lions who came through a group comprising the Sydney Sixers, Chennai Super Kings & Mumbai Indians. They even made the finals before falling to the Sixers who won every single they played in the tournament. The 2013 edition is yet to reach the main group stage, but the Otago Volts look a really good side. Sterner tests await the Kiwi side, but it’s the manner in which they’ve won their matches that shows they’re strong contenders for a semi-final place.
One might think that the prospect of watching the best T20 teams in the world would appeal to those who happily lap up domestic T20 competitions, but attendances and TV Ratings suggest something entirely different. It never had to be this way. Look at the UEFA Champions League. Granted it’s a property that has built its name over a period of decades, but then so did the various football leagues like the EPL, La Liga, and Serie A. In contrast, the Indian Premier League opened to packed stands and never before seen ratings for domestic cricket in India. The Big Bash League routinely sees bigger crowds than you would see when Australia play teams other England & India. Rightly or wrongly, the tournament is important enough for Cricket Australia to spend a considerable time talking about while its test team is playing the Ashes. Even the Caribbean Premier League was played in front of packed stands and the kind of fanfare one seldom sees at international matches in the West Indies. Why is it that people are happy to watch their domestic teams play in their domestic T20 league, but aren’t that excited about watching them play against the best T20 sides in the world?
One of the reasons might be that the tournament has over the years become more & more about ensuring teams from the IPL play as many matches as possible. The reasoning behind this is simple: India is the biggest market and this market wants Indian teams. One doesn’t quite know if less people would tune in if the organisers didn’t tweak the rules every year to ensure that IPL teams have the best chance of going as far into the tournament as possible. But it is farcical to have 4 out of 9 IPL teams making this tournament. It is also a joke that different sides get to play different number of overseas players, with the IPL teams being allowed to have twice as many overseas players in their XI compared to any of the other sides. This is especially damaging given that virtually every player has ‘chosen’ to play for his IPL side in the tournament ahead of his ‘home’ team. Let’s go back to the Otago Volts for a second. The Man of the Match in each of the Otago Volts matches – Brendon McCullum, Ryan ten Doeschate, Nathan McCullum, is contracted to an IPL team that isn’t part of the Champions League T20.
The official line is that it is always the player’s choice. But if a leaked BBM conversation between Kieron Pollard & Sundar Raman is to be believed, and it must be taken with a considerably large helping of salt given that it was Lalit Modi who leaked it, even when a player wishes to play for his home side which is willing to bear the cost of it, he is forced to choose otherwise. And when all else fails, the organisers make up rules on the go. Don’t have enough decent local players? No worries, just say one of them is injured & we’ll let you play 5 overseas players. Oh no, that player you said was injured just scored a hundred in a domestic game while your international stars are struggling? We’ll let you bring him back & you can go back to playing 4 overseas players.
It is difficult to tell if the average cricket fan even knows about these things, let alone be bothered by them. But it is clear that the tournament hasn’t struck a chord with cricket fans around the world. Would it have done so had the organisers put competitive balance ahead of what seem to be ill-conceived short-term plans? Would it have helped grow the sport if they could even give Associate Nations like Ireland and Afghanistan to send their national side & gain invaluable experience, and if one may say so cynically, a vote for the BCCI at the ICC table? We’ll never know. For now, all we have are the Otago Volts. Cherish them, because there’s a good chance the likes of Hamish Rutherford & Jimmy Neesham will be playing this tournament for their IPL side next year. That is, if there is another edition of the Champions League T20.