Opinion: Davids slay Goliaths in CLT20

Blog Opinion

The Champions League Twenty20 allows plenty of opportunities for underdog teams to slay big gun outfits. While this is bad for business, it's great for the sport, writes Nick Sadleir.

Not content with baking the cricket world's meatiest pie, the Indian Premier League, Lalit Modi then cooked up another crusty little concoction in the Champions League.

The tournament was to be the richest in cricket and promised much – so much so that it was the only competition to be granted a full window from international fixtures – but it has not delivered in line with expectations.

The IPL's ugly little sister lags in commercial value, ironically because it is a "global' rather than Indian tournament in that it is contested between teams from up to seven countries. A week before the qualifying round was held in Raipur the tournament was still without a headline sponsor after the late pullout of Karbonn Mobiles, who took over from Nokia a few years ago when that cellphone giant gave up on supporting the contest.

An even more obscure (at least Karbonn has a big presence in India) rival Chinese handset manufacturer, Oppo, stepped up to the plate in a deal of unconfirmed monetary value but it has been reported in the papers here as worth eight crore (1,3 million USD) for the year. In a tournament where the prize money alone is six million USD, it doesn't take a business major to realise that the finances are far from hunky-dory.

Officially the tournament is co-hosted by the Indian, Australian and South African boards, but who pays the piper calls the tune and it is no secret that it marches along to a BCCI beat. The CLT20 had a bad beginning as what was scheduled to be the inaugural edition edition was cancelled at the 11th hour when the city of Mumbai was attacked by terrorists in 2008.

The 2009 tournament comprised of the top two teams from each of those three host nations, the top two English counties (because of disagreements between the BCCI and the ECB no English team has taken part since) and a few others, but it failed from the outset to attract more than one quarter of the viewers of the IPL.

Games involving IPL sides, however, were relatively popular but IPL giants were frequently toppled by minnow franchises full of players that the Indian television audience had never heard of. Another trend was that in the two of the first four CLT20s that were held in South Africa the Indian sides struggled to win matches in conditions that suited the southern hemisphere sides.

Since the Sydney-based franchise won the two South African-hosted tournament, the tournament has only been held only in India and has also featured the third-top IPL side in the tournament automatically and the fourth IPL side in the qualifying stage. Last year that meant four of the 10 sides in the tournament were Indian, but the Mumbai Indians' failure to make it through this year's qualifying round means there are only three Indian sides fighting for the 2.5 million USD winning paycheck.

Another glaring injustice in a system that is intent on creating a playing field that suits Indian teams is that if a player plays for more than one qualifying side he almost inevitably "chooses" to play for his IPL franchise and have them buy him from his actual home team. Ironically, Corey Anderson opted to play for reigning champions Mumbai rather than his home team Northern Districts – and the New Zealand outfit are still in the competition while the Indian unit has been eliminated. It is this simple injustice of money over matter that makes the Oppo Champions League my favourite on the T20 calendar.

The CLT20 is short, fun, varied, shows the relative strengths of teams from different countries and is a fantastic launch pad for the careers of unknown players who can pronounce their names loud on a large IPL-centric stage. The first edition alone catapulted into stardom Trinidadian names like Kieron Pollard and Sunil Narine, now two of the world's most valuable T20 players. But the reason why the Champions League is my favourite of all the T20 leagues is that so often the underdog trumps the favourites.

It is the reason that so many of us love sport: that moment when David, with the odds stacked against him on such an unlevel playing field, doesn't just beat Goliath but teaches him a lesson. A friend calls the IPL sides the "mercenaries" and the others the "teams" and he has a point. You could hear a pin drop here in the Raipur stadium as Northern Districts gave the Mumbai Indians all-stars a thorough schooling in Cricket101 and helped the Lahore Lions (remember no Pakistan side has played in India since the first IPL in 2008) into the main event, while knocking Pollard's Mumbai Indians out of the tournament.

Results like this are commonplace in the CLT20 and while they are bad for business they are good for sport. A team like the Northern Districts has been training their heart out in preparation for this competition, while the Mumbai side only assembled a few days before it started.

A final reason why the CLT20 is good for the game is that huge financial incentive of turning up, let alone the possibility of being fancied by an IPL scout, is a tasty one. Teams get 200,000 USD simply for making the grade and while rocking up is straightforward, qualifying is not.

Australian and South African franchises have to make the final of their domestic tournament and teams from New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and the West Indies have to win their T20 competition just to qualify for the qualifying round. Competition is tough among "professional" cricketers who don't earn much more than enough to get by and I'm certain that this desire to make it filters both up and down through the ranks. Can you imagine how much every piece of the 2.5 million USD winner's pie is coveted by a semi-professional in a low-salary paying franchise. It might not even be taking things too far to suggest that English county exclusion from the CLT20 set-up is leaving their limited-overs game behind their competitors.

Pakistan's Lahore Lions and New Zealand's Northern Districts qualified for the tournament proper ahead of the Mumbai Indians and Sri Lanka's Southern Districts after three days of double-headers in Raipur. The final will be played on 4 October in Bangalore and some highly skilled and entertaining cricket beckons. Sport, rather than the bottom line, should be the bottom line. And hopefully the organisers will manage to put Oppo's advertising signs the right way up at the next venues.

<b>Nick Sadleir in Raipur</b>

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