The explosion of cricket leagues today is more than just a blast from the past

Almost half a century after World Series Cricket changed the sport forever, the evolution continues

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Like most of the rest of the Seventies, 1977 was a time of great change. In politics, the US swore in a new president, Jimmy Carter, as the country struggled to come to terms with its post-Watergate and post-Vietnam self, while Menachem Begin of the right-wing Likud party became prime minister of Israel, ending nearly three decades of left-leaning governments holding power. In India, the incumbent prime minister, Indira Gandhi, lost her parliamentary seat and a general election.

In popular culture, Elvis Presley, the king of rock and roll, died, and the original Star Wars film was released. In a not so far away galaxy, Nasa’s twin Voyager probes were launched from Earth to begin their journeys into space, which continue today. The hitherto unchanging world of the sport of cricket was, meanwhile, undertaking its own form of star wars after the arrival of a so-called “cricket circus” led by the late Australian media mogul Kerry Packer, who tempted many of the world’s top players to take part in his breakaway league.

Cricket followers will know that Mr Packer’s World Series Cricket lasted only until 1979, but left behind a deep legacy in terms of sporting innovation, presentation and the delivery of prototypical player power. For the first time, players were remunerated fairly for their talents. More than that, the coloured clothing and white balls of modern cricket contests, as well as the day-night spectacle of floodlit matches and multi-camera television coverage all trace their roots to the brief WSC experiment. The “cricket circus” still exists today in the form of franchise leagues but it is a multi-ringed and global production now.

Franchise cricket has exploded in recent years with several big-money competitions currently under way, including the ILT20 league in the UAE, SA20 in South Africa and the Big Bash League in Australia, which concludes this weekend. The Bangladesh Premier League will stage its own final later this month, while the Pakistan Super League is set to begin about the same time. The latest edition of the biggest and most lucrative competition of them all – the Indian Premier League – will start later in the spring.

In essence, the franchise cricket world is one of moments not matches

Nine of the 12 teams competing in the UAE-based ILT20 and the SA20 are owned by IPL franchises, underlining Indian cricket’s dominance and reach, as well as hinting at a time where there is, say, an outpost of one of the 10 IPL teams in every part of the globe and nomadic cricketers could play from January to December under the umbrella of one organisation.

More than that, the existence of so many franchise leagues tells us something about the future of TV streaming, player welfare and even how the history of the game will be written in this relatively new world.

Returning to WSC, cricket writer and expert Gideon Haigh once commented that the Packer years are “more often invoked than understood” and that the statistical records of the matches are not often considered. Some of the more dramatic moments of play are remembered, such as Australian cricketer David Hookes's jaw and cheekbone being broken by a ball delivered by West Indian fast bowler Andy Roberts, but much of the minutiae is forgotten or ignored.

So, too, the relentless diet of franchise cricket in the modern era, which also exists in fragments and crumbs: a ramp shot clipped and circulated in chat groups, a set of wickets shattered or a catch secured with exquisite dexterity before being placed on social media to harvest likes, comments and follows. The match result is almost secondary to the brilliance of the individual operating in a small pocket of the game.

Similarly, the carousel nature of these new leagues played around the world, with the cast of characters constantly changing, almost makes redundant the traditional scorekeeping methods of who scored the most runs or took the greatest number of wickets in any given league.

In essence, the franchise cricket world is one of moments not matches, just as the WSC was. It exists in the here and now, rather than the history books.

There is nothing wrong with that, but the definitive story of the game will be harder to write for future generations and the discussions around the greatest of all time will be far less certain than they used to be. Franchise cricket may forever be left to be invoked rather than formally quantified or documented.

The existence of so many leagues also leads to a natural slice-and-dice approach to TV rights. We see this already, with one streaming service holding the rights for both the ILT20 and SA20 in the UAE, while another broadcaster has been showing the Big Bash. Another platform has the exclusive digital streaming rights for the IPL. The chopped up nature of top-level cricket calendar makes it tailormade for segmentation of rights.

Expect that situation to fracture even further as platforms continue to chase viewers through live sport presentations as well as via new movies or series. Cricket may end up testing the limits of the subscription economy in the process, especially if consumers only want the moments and snaps they can find for nothing on social media.

Spare a thought for the players in all of this. Today’s salaries are exceptional for those who dine at the captain’s table, but they arrive with a degree of sacrifice, compelling the very best to play their way around the world. Those elite athletes are required to move effortlessly from one organisation to another, but not everyone is cut out to work with a new set of co-workers every few weeks or spend months away from home. Player welfare will become an ever greater issue as the franchise cricket era progresses.

Forty-six years after WSC first came to life, cricket is still living in a version of Mr Packer’s world, travelling like those 1970s Voyager space probes towards a frontier far, far away from home.

Published: February 03, 2023, 5:00 AM