‘Cricket in my country was dying’: South Africa legend Smith says new T20 league is saving his sport

‘Cricket in my country was dying’: South Africa legend Graeme Smith on how new Twenty20 league is saving his sport… after spending three months working as its commissioner to help finally launch the tournament

  • Smith says South African cricket would have ‘died’ without new SA20 league
  • He was crucial in persuading the likes of Jofra Archer and Jos Butler to sign up
  • Newlands stadium has been full to capacity for the first time in three years

Graeme Smith was so convinced of South Africa’s need for their own global T20 tournament that after being appointed as its commissioner last year he spent three months working without being paid.

The veteran of a world-record 108 Tests as captain is convinced that South African cricket would have ‘withered and died’ without the new SA20 league, which after two previous failed attempts finally launched last week.

Smith’s pessimism seems overly dramatic, but Cricket South Africa (CSA) posted losses of more than £10million in each of the last few years and their cash reserves have dwindled to a few million, leaving the threat of bankruptcy a real possibility.

Graeme Smith says South African cricket would have 'died' without the new SA20 league

Graeme Smith says South African cricket would have ‘died’ without the new SA20 league

‘We needed to save cricket in South Africa as without this it could have withered and died,’ Smith (right) tells Sportsmail at Cape Town’s Newlands stadium, which has been full to capacity for the first time since Ben Stokes sealed a famous Test win for England three years ago.

Cricket in this country was dying. The financial problems of CSA are well documented, players are leaving the game and the spectators have drifted away. South African cricket was aimed in politics, in-fighting, poor results, financial losses. Something had to change.’

Smith looks exhausted as he is leading a team of 10 charged with running a tournament that spans six cities, but a successful launch has put a spring in his step. Attendances have exceeded expectations with a 92 per cent occupancy rate over the first week. This is unheard of for domestic cricket, and after securing broadcast and commercial deals SA20 is projected to make a profit of a few million pounds.

Smith was crucial in persuading players of the caliber of Jofra Archer and Jos Butler to sign up

Smith was crucial in persuading players of the caliber of Jofra Archer and Jos Butler to sign up

Much of the money inevitably comes from India, with six IPL franchises paying around £75m for a 10-year contract to run the six teams at last year’s auction. Mumbai Indians’ £21m bid for the Cape Town franchise was the biggest bid, while Chennai Super Kings’ purchase of the Joburg team cost them around £15m.

The IPL takeover led to a lucrative broadcast deal with Viacom18 worth around £20m a year, which is far more than the ECB are receiving from their streaming deal for the Hundred with FanCode in India. But there has also been major interest from other markets. Sky Sports bought the UK rights, and Betway are the title sponsors with a deal worth £4m a year. In contrast, South Africa’s Test and one-day teams are without sponsors.

Just as important is Smith’s credibility and persistence, which was crucial in persuading players of the caliber of Jofra Archer, Jos Butler and Rashid Khan to sign up.

‘It wasn’t the plan to have six IPL teams,’ Smith says. ‘We had 29 expressions of interests and 16 concrete bids, but the IPL ones were by far the best as they are among the best sports franchises in the world. Cricket here has been in such a negative state for so many years, but in one week I’ve felt that shift.

Cape Town's Newlands stadium has been full to capacity for the first time in three years

Cape Town’s Newlands stadium has been full to capacity for the first time in three years

‘Newlands hasn’t been full for three years, and even then it was mainly England fans. In domestic cricket it has never happened before.’ Beyond commercial deals and attendance figures the ultimate task is whether the increased interest can help improve the fortunes of South Africa’s Test team. Dean Elgar’s side are due to play just 28 matches in the next four-year cycle with T20 the priority, six fewer than Bangladesh. England play 43, Australia 40 and India 38.

Smith believes SA20 can help revive international cricket, and is heartened by talks with MI Cape Town’s star batsman Dewald Brevis, who says he wants to play Test cricket despite having yet to play a first-class match.

A Proteas debut next week in the three-match ODI series against England is a possibility.

‘I hope the positivity created by SA20 will rub off on to all formats,’ says Smith.

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