While a global TV audience awaits the matches of a mouthwatering second round of fixtures following the eye popping results of the first round of the pan- European UEFA champions league football competition, in a place far away, the fate of the similarly named supposed premier T20 tournament lies in balance. It is not hard to see where the cricket tournament draws its inspiration from with its similar name and a trophy which would pass off as a good knock- off at first glance; add to it an incestuous bunch of winners from the big leagues in the recent years, it makes for an interesting comparision. Alas, the similarities end there- for, the former drenched in stardust and fable from inception, the latter only serves as a hastily arranged competition analogous to an answer for a fill in the blank question shoehorned in the board exam question paper template like cricketing calendar. This is not to say that the aforementioned elusive holy grail of football had figured out its present format in the first try- the present jamboree came to be after many iterations in the format (some involving cup winners, league winners and multiple teams from a league). In spite of both the competitions sharing a common premise, the impostor at the door is a pale imitation of the centerpiece of club football. Here’s why:
- Limited playing field: The main stakeholders of the tournament contribute a vast majority of the participants which is not the ideal for the premier franchise T20 competition. More so, with as many as 50% of the IPL teams taking part in the tournament proper, it makes a mockery of being a multi-national tournament (contrast this with the 16 national representatives that took part in the inaugural 1955-56 European cup). Additionally, too few teams get to play the actual tournament, robbing it of its melting pot. Also, the musical chairs like choice of host countries leaves little to the imagination- the aura of the football tournament is built on the backdrop of magical nights in mythical stadium atmospheres.
- Lack of cutting edge: In the last decade, the UEFA Champions League is opined to be the place where the evolution of the game is witnessed, taking over the mantle from the world cup. With very few changes in playing conditions and tactics, the CLT20 tournament does not rouse curiosity except for a few talent scouts taking notes of their next auction purchase. In fact, a good show in this tournament is seen as a ticket to a high paying IPL contract, which is the biggest prize in T20 cricket today- when it should be the other way around. Here, teams would be well served if they mirror the home grown player rules and the no foreign player restrictions in the 11 rule of the footballing counterpart in order to cater to the participation needs of the local and the best players.
- Misplaced priorities: The chance to play CLT20 does not figure highly in the to-do lists of top players around the world. In comparision, the footballing teams see a shakeup with the top players being extremely motivated to showcase their wares in the elite tournament. This leads to much heartburn for supporters of clubs which fail to qualify for the tournament and the players jump ship to qualified teams the coming season. An additional cause of confusion is the lack of one player- one team concept due to the nature of franchise T20 cricket being a travelling circus.
- Format worries: What adds to the spectacle of the footballing equivalent is the sense of a finale at the end of the European season followed by the end of season break. The CLT20 tournament itself is too short and does not stay in public memory. A three week tournament with one off qualifiers, group phase and knockout between non- local teams lacks the appeal of home- away matches throughout the season. The home- away format is crucial to drum up local support in the stadiums and this necessitates the tournament to be played in a spread out manner. Since the tournament is young (UCL started at least 25 years after a majority of the first set of teams started playing club football) and the fans are yet to develop a sense of loyalty to the equally young franchises, rivalries are yet to be forged into the rich tapestry of sub plots & narratives of the competition.
What should be the way forward for a tournament presently bookended by cricketing seasons? One way to approach this is to create a common domestic calendar for the subcontinental and southern hemisphere nations since they have overlapping cricketing seasons (similar to UEFA). A downside to this would be that the IPL, due to its financial muscle, would grab all the “big” stars leaving the rest of the world to fight for crumbs. But if the need for playing time for an individual player has a say here, an equilibrium would lead to many players opting to play for their domestic teams, thus helping the development of the sport locally. Of course, this would eat into the international calendar as well but a culling of unnecessary bilateral ODI games would help the cause. Imagine if 2 months of the 6 month cricket season are reserved for domestic as well as international T20 league competition with a home and away format, the spotlight, build-up and interest would build to a crescendo culminating in an end of season finale in one of the iconic stadiums in late March. What would also make a great story is to increase the intake to 16 teams (could be expanded to 32 in the future) for the tournament group phase- Hasan Cheema makes several suggestions on including associate national teams strengthened by a smattering of foreign players – and this would certainly add to the intrigue and diversity. If cricket needs to get a move on from its present status of being a sport with a large fan following from a cozy club to newer destinations and audiences, it has to embrace a franchise based T20 as a vehicle to promote the game as the traditional vehicles of international tournaments and bilateral tours only hinder inclusivity. This is necessary, but not sufficient though; a true cricketing calendar should only use this as a launching pad and create an aspirational value and space for test cricket, which is the only format where the bowlers are more important than the batsmen.
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