x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Fast food for cricket fans

When the second World Twenty20 tournament begins at Lord's on Friday it will be hard to remember that the format that threatens to change the sport forever began in less auspicious surroundings.

Supporters of Deccan Chargers before the final of the Indian Premier League.
Supporters of Deccan Chargers before the final of the Indian Premier League.

When the second World Twenty20 tournament begins at Lord's on Friday in front of a sold-out crowd at Lord's, the home of cricket, it will be hard to remember that the format that threatens to change the sport forever began in less auspicious surroundings. In June 2003 Hampshire beat Sussex in the last over over of the inaugural Twenty20 Cup final at Southampton on England's south coast. Six years later some say the format is a monster that could swallow the game whole.

Others believe it is the saviour of a sport which was force feeding spectators cordon bleu when they demanded fast food. Whatever your view, there is no doubt that the global phenomenon is the future of the game. The World Twenty20 will consist of 27 keenly-fought matches. With million-dollar Indian Premier League (IPL) contracts waved in front of the faces of emerging stars and the established ones busting every sinew to protect their positions on franchises run by Bollywood's biggest, the stakes have never been higher.

They were never meant to be so lofty. The Twenty20 Cup was launched in England to provide a cash boost for the ailing county game and there is a certain irony that while crowds will flock to see the world's best in England, their county sides will be playing out to their traditional core support of one man and his dog. Stuart Robertson, the England and Wales Cricket Board's (ECB) marketing manager at the time and the man credited with devising the format, says it was only intended to be "the first rung on a cricket-watching ladder that has a County Championship game at its top". Robertson's market research had shown that cricket had a vast untapped market of women and children.

"There was support for a three-hour game in the early evening, after work and after school. There were people who were cash-rich yet time-poor," he says Twenty20 was nearly called Cricket Lite and was supposed to start in 2001 following a pilot scheme in 2000, but the launch was delayed because the ECB wanted to give it a proper home on the fixture list rather than being tagged on the end of a season.

Although Robertson's numbers suggested the public needed little convincing, there was scepticism among the players. They referred to it as hit and giggle cricket, some of the more established names decided to sit out the first year and there were doubts as to how seriously teams were taking it. The cynics were soon silenced. The ECB's aim was to double the 1,200 average crowd from the tournament Twenty20 replaced, the Benson & Hedges Cup. In year one the average was 5,000. In 2004 that figure rose to 6,000. County professionals, who had never seen support like it, were suddenly inspired. So were their clubs, with an extra £8million (Dh46.7m) being raised for the county coffers.

Their ears pricking up to the sound of the cash register ringing in England, copycat competitions wer launched in Australia, Pakistan, South Africa, Sri Lanka, New Zealand and the West Indies. Twenty20 had swept the world. Almost. There was one noticeable absentee: India. Despite the clamour on the domestic scenes, India's attitude mirrored that of the international cricket community. When conventional one-day internationals were such a reliable source of income, why the extra game?

The players, continuing the trend of their county brethren, were not fans either. England's Kevin Pietersen called Twenty20 a "silly game", the Australia and New Zealand players in the first Twenty20 international - two years after the format had first been used by professionals - signalled their disquiet by wearing retro shirts and displaying comedy haircuts and facial hair. It had not dispersed in time for the first World Twenty20, in South Africa in 2008. India refused to send star players while the New Zealand captain Daniel Vettori moaned throughout that his players did not like the format.

The catalyst for Twenty20 taking over the world was upon us. India, with a young side playing fearless cricket, won the tournament, captivating television audiences back home who were transfixed with a match lasting as long a Bollywood film. They returned to a hero's welcome and a US$3millon (Dh11m) bonus. The Board for Control of Cricket in India (BCCI) were beaten to the punch by former all-rounder Kapil Dev who set up the domestic tournament that India clearly craved. Stung by the Indian Cricket League, which was not sanctioned by the International Cricket Council, the BCCI launched their own version making it so big and bountiful that no one could hope to compete.

The IPL was born and suddenly Twenty20 had no limits. The eight franchises were sold for a combined US$723m, with the Mumbai team being the most expensive at $112m, bought by Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in Asia. A player auctioned followed. Sachin Tendulkar, Rahul Dravid, VVS Laxman and Sourav Ganguly were afforded icon status having sat out the World Twenty20 that ultimately transformed their careers and bank balances.

For the first time since Kerry Packer's World Series, players' value soared like a six into the stands. Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff were sold for $1.5m for this year's tournament, figures dwarfed by the $1billion broadcast deal for 10 years with Sony. When there is such huge sums of money swilling around such an immature game, there are opportunists who look to profit. The ECB's partnership with the Texan billionaire Sir Allen Stanford to create an English Premier League is in tatters after he was charged with fraud in the US, not to mention the farce of the $20m winner-takes-all match between his Stanford Superstars and the England team in Antigua.

The ICC wants a league similar to the IPL set up in America to capitalise on the boom and the ECB, playing catch up, are reported to be negotiating a seven-year broadcasting deal with television company ESPN-Star Sports to bankroll its new 18-team Twenty20 tournament, the P20. If such a boom comes at a price, there are fears that it could cost cricket its soul. With such huge interest in Twenty20, by players and specators alike, the future for Test matches looks bleak.

Such playing luminaries as Ricky Ponting, Michael Vaughan and Brian Lara have questioned why a player would want to play Test cricket when he can make a living from a handful of Twenty20 outings a year. England's players earned about £6,000 per Test in their two-match series against the West Indies this month. Pietersen, in his two-week stint in the IPL, was effectively paid $16,130 for each of his 93 runs.

In a study by Cricket Australia, a third of the 25 contracted players said Test cricket, in its current form, would become obsolete in 20 years. The erosion has already begun. Sri Lanka's players refused to tour England because the schedule clashed with their IPL contracts, a snub which would have been unthinkable given the country's minnow status in the 1980s. Chris Gayle, captain of the West Indies side who replaced Sri Lanka for the trip, turned up only two days before the start of the first Test because of his commitment to the Kolkata Knight Riders.

The ICC, under pressure to find room in the packed international schedule for the IPL to avoid such problems, have discussed taking away the Test status of Bangladesh (the lowest ranked of Test-playing nations) to appease the countries who do not want to waste their time playing poor quality opposition when their players could be kept happy in the IPL. What underpins the argument that Test cricket is on the decline, is attendances. They have been down for a decade but more than ever fans are shunning the five-day format for the thrill-a-minute version.

The Indian cricket-watching public made their feelings known when for the first day of the first Test against England in Chennai in December, the 45,000-capacity MA Chidambaram Stadium was barely a quarter full. Attendances for Australia's Tests against New Zealand, a nation that Aussies love to beat, last year were poor. During the first Test in Brisbane the three full days of play averaged only 11,910 people, fewer than 30 per cent of the ground's capacity. It is a stark contrast to the full houses in the IPL.

If there is hope for Tests it comes in the form of evidence that Twenty20 could still only be a novelty. Conservative estimates put the television audience for the last football World Cup final at around 260m. The 2007 World Twenty20 final attracted only 40m and if India had not been involved it may have been a lot lower. Nine events in 2007, including the Superbowl, the Brazilian Grand Prix, the Champions League final, the Rugby World Cup final and even the World Handball Championship attracted bigger global audiences.

The ICC say their aim is to ensure the future of Tests. Next summer will see the first floodlit Test between England and Bangladesh at Lord's. And the players could wear coloured kits, commonly known commonly pyjamas, like they do in the shorter forms of the game. What seems certain is that the IPL is here not only to stay but grow - four franchises could be added for 2010 and plans for a Champions League remain in the pipeline.

The London-based sports economist, Professor Stefan Szymanski was one of the brains behind the IPL, having co-written a paper on the need to develop a world club cricket competition. He met with IPL chief Lalit Modi in September 2007 to "get his ideas through". Szymanski is in doubt that the IPL will continue to thrive. "It could expand in India, there are three of four cities big enough to host teams. Maybe there could be franchises in Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh," he says.

"The key is that the model is very successful. The business side of things is important, of course, but as a sporting model it works." So, what does the future hold for Test and 50-over cricket? "In an ideal world it's the 50-over cricket which would become redundant," says Szymanski. "A senior umpire said to me 'the middle part of a 50-over innings is dull'. And he was right. Neither side is doing anything."