Atherton: The opening of the South African T20 league another worrying sign for international cricket

While South Africa’s Test team were barely competitive in Australia, their new T20 league at home is a sign of international cricket drifting apart writes MIKE ATHERTON.

Ever since Brendon McCullum launched the Indian Premier League into the financial stratosphere with a stunning innings that lit up the inaugural match in 2008, other countries have worked feverishly to emulate it. After two aborted attempts, South Africa’s third effort to establish a vibrant franchised T20 competition got under way on Tuesday in Cape Town, and it found its own McCullum in the preternaturally talented Dewald Brevis.

Imitation sprang readily to mind in this instance because all six of the South African franchises are owned by IPL teams: Mumbai Indians and Rajasthan Royals own the teams in Cape Town and Paarl respectively, who were pitched against each other for the opening match. The privately owned element of cricket is becoming ever more concentrated in the hands of IPL owners, who will be itching to get involved in England when the time comes.

Before the SA20 began, there were the usual ingredients to help sell the “product”: a pre-tournament advertising campaign that distanced the game from “traditional” cricket and “traditional” supporters; an attempted reinvention of the wheel with gimmicky new regulations – which in this instance included allowing captains to name their XI from a 13-man list after the toss; and some breathless commentary.

It’s an understandable impulse, but should be resisted. Viewers are not fools, and the cricket, and occasion, has to speak for itself. In this instance, under beautiful blue skies at one of the finest cricket grounds in the world, with high-class players populating both teams, it had a good chance in any case. Only a slow, holding pitch held back the quality of play, although that did not deter Jofra Archer, on a fine return to competitive cricket after 541 days, nor Brevis, his MI Cape Town teammate.

Brevis had to wait a little for his chance, given that his side were chasing and not setting, but he made up for lost time when he got to the crease, smashing five sixes in a 41-ball unbeaten 70. With AB de Villiers, the man to whom he is so frequently compared, looking on, Brevis set Newlands – packed for the first time since Covid – alight and, in doing so, raised again a few fundamental questions about the future direction of the sport.

Brevis has yet to play an international match and has never played a first-class match, but has already been welcomed into the highest-profile franchise outfit of them all – the Manchester United of franchise teams – Mumbai Indians, whose tentacles have spread far beyond Mumbai to South Africa and the United Arab Emirates and will spread further in time. Will his career continue down this path, lucrative as it is, or will he be incorporated into domestic first-class cricket, Test cricket and the national team?

These questions surrounding one young man are fundamental to the future of South African cricket as well. Only a few days before the opening match of the SA20, South Africa’s Test tour to Australia had come to a sodden and dispiriting end in Sydney, and while most touring teams have struggled in Australia in recent years – India the honorable exception – South Africa’s performances they were a long way short of the type that the commissioner of the new T20 tournament, Graeme Smith, habitually engineered from his team a generation ago.

South Africa’s immediate Test program consists of a diet of two-Test series, downgrading them, therefore, from teams such as India, England and Australia, who still see a future in longer series. My reading of the next Future Tours Program (2023 to 2027) is that South Africa will play only two series in that period of more than two matches, those at home to England and Australia in 2026-27. Otherwise it is thin pickings, leaving the road open for T20 to dominate and players to focus their talents elsewhere.

How does Smith, and others in positions of responsibility, see the new tournament? A money-making exercise only, designed to fill the pockets of leading players? Or something more integrated: a chance to grow and spread the game beyond the even narrower boundaries than here (South Africa cricket is dominated by its famous schools) but with the ultimate aim of retaining a strong first-class culture? If there is little Test cricket to play, a strong first-class domestic structure becomes less relevant.

The game more broadly has yet to find an answer to this question, with franchise cricket and representative cricket set on very different paths.

This month of January is perhaps the acme of the ascent of the T20 franchised leagues, with four happening concurrently: the Big Bash in Australia, the Bangladesh Premier League, the SA20 and the new T20 tournament in the UAE, with international cricket pushed to the margins of relevance and importance.

South Africa canned three ODIs in Australia to make room for their new tournament; they are squeezing in three ODIs against England this month in areas such as Kimberley and Bloemfontein that do not have T20 franchise teams, a series that Joe Root has been allowed to miss to play in the Emirates T20. When England travel for a short Test series to New Zealand next month, it is likely that Trent Boult, the left-armer, will not be picked by the home side because of his T20 franchise commitments.

As Gideon Haigh noted in The Australian recently: “In the push to engage and detain the casual consumer, there has become something for everyone, although almost too much for anyone. It’s an awkward feeling – to love cricket, but also to know it is on somewhere and not really care, because it has been routinized away from any sense of specialness.”

There are no easy solutions here, because if franchise cricket and representative cricket are pitched against each other, there is only one winner. Franchises have few financial responsibilities. They don’t produce players or maintain grounds or facilities; players will always take more money for playing less cricket, and competitiveness is easier to manufacture with free movement of players. All those factors are more challenging for representative teams at domestic and national level.

But a future comprising solely T20 franchised cricket would be a stale one, with many of the same players moving from tournament to tournament with the aim of earning a decent crust. As the fortunes of the Big Bash in Australia have suggested, you can have too much of a good thing. The increase in games diluted that competition, diminishing the crowds and interest, and the next television deal will have a significant reduction in games.

Brevis wasn’t the only player on show in Cape Town on Tuesday who highlighted some of the challenges around the future direction of the game. There was Archer, returning to cricket but still unsure how far he can withstand a multi-format schedule; there was Jos Buttler, lost to first-class cricket for now; there was Jason Roy, whose form has disintegrated during an absence of meaningful time at the crease; and there was Afghanistan’s Rashid Khan, playing for his 16th T20 franchise, from a full Test-playing nation that has to date played only five Tests. The game is not so much knitted together as drifting apart.

-The Times

Originally published as Atherton: The opening of the South African T20 league another worrying sign for international cricket

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