Monday 29 October 2012 

Comment - What To Do With The Champions League?

Comment - What To Do With The Champions League?
Comment - What To Do With The Champions League?
© REUTERS / Action Images
 

The Champions League Twenty20 has always had its detractors. The absence of domestic champions from countries such as England and Pakistan in the past has raised concerns but this year the voices seem to have grown louder.

Being played so soon after the ICC World Twenty20, although there is no other available space to schedule it, many feel tired of T20 cricket and see this tournament as overkill. Others are dismayed that star players such as Dwayne Bravo and Francois du Plessis were appearing for their Indian Premier League franchises rather than the teams with which they made their names. Franchises that have existed for a little over four years and have no history - the small matter of 149 years separate the founding dates of Yorkshire and Mumbai Indians.

Cricket is unlike some other sports in that players can represent several domestic teams and if they are lucky qualify to play in the CLT20 for more than one team. In 2011, Kieron Pollard helped four teams qualify (Mumbai, Somerset, South Australia, T & T) and then helped Mumbai Indians win the competition.

Indeed, the Titans did pretty well to get to the semi-finals, and within two balls of knocking out Sydney Sixers, considering they lost du Plessis and the Morkel brothers to the IPL teams while Trinidad & Tobago as well as Perth Scorchers also lost three players.

On the field, there can be no doubt that the Sydney Sixers were the best team in the competition and on the evidence of the tournament they can lay a legitimate claim to being the best Twenty20 team in the world. It is also worth bearing in mind that they successfully navigated the knockout stages without Shane Watson.

Cricket Australia’s decision to recall the all-rounder in readiness for the opening Test against South Africa might have caused some consternation at the time but everybody benefited in the end. CA got their vice-captain some much-needed rest and Sydney were good enough to win the competition. Watson himself may have preferred to have been in Johannesburg than back home but when you have a central contract, you must bend to the will of your national board. Just ask Kevin Pietersen or Chris Gayle.

The semi-finals were made up of four of the eight teams who didn’t have to qualify – one representative from Australia and three from the IPL falling by the wayside. Of the qualifiers, Auckland Aces were close to getting through before their over-reliance on their top order undid them while Yorkshire struggled. Missing Tim Bresnan, Jonny Bairstow and Mitchell Starc, they had Gary Ballance to thank for qualifying at all.

It might seem odd to the casual observer that Yorkshire – who finished second – and Hampshire – who were the winners of the domestic competition – were representing England. Is it right that four teams from one country qualify automatically while all the teams from all bar two others have to qualify regardless of whether they are champions or not? Is it fair that Sialkot Stallions, who still hold the record for most consecutive undefeated matches in T20 cricket, have to qualify? Why no representation from Bangladesh or Zimbabwe? Both the Bangladesh Premier League and Zimbabwe’s T20 competition have attracted plenty of interest and high-profile players.

Looking at examples from other sports, football’s Champions League has long-ceased to be a competition purely for national champions and UEFA also forces some champions to qualify. They wouldn’t ask the champions of Germany or Portugal to qualify though.

The Champions League T20 clearly needs plenty of IPL representation for its model to work as an entity. The counter-argument is that to work as a valid cricket competition between the best sides in the world, it needs to be less biased towards the countries that run it. Highveld Lions reportedly considered legal action after the rules of the tournament were changed at the last minute to introduce reserve days for the semi-final – a rule that would have given Delhi Daredevils a second chance to qualify. Perhaps fortunately, and it has to be said unsurprisingly, they failed to get through. We must again raise our hat to the Australian and South African sides that beat IPL teams despite being able to field fewer overseas players.

One challenge faced by the governing bodies is to fit the tournament into as tight a timeframe as possible, ruling out the idea of allowing two or three teams per nation to enter and undergo long-winded tournaments spread across the year as is the case with football, rugby and other sports.

It can’t work due to player commitments and the primacy of international cricket. But what about inviting the champions of the domestic competitions in the Test-playing nations along with, say, the reigning champions, the IPL runners-up and four or five qualifiers depending on the status of the reigning champion?

Perhaps a 16-team tournament with four groups of four would seem to be going too far the other way and end up with a longer tournament.  Unless, and here’s a crazy idea, after the qualifying and warm-up matches, a straight knockout decides the winner.

Few cricket tournaments use the straight knockout format anymore – surely because it doesn’t guarantee enough matches and money-making opportunities but it would certainly solve the timeframe issue. The losers in each round could also play off alongside the main event to finish with a definitive placing to avoid teams travelling a long way for just one match.

This could make the Champions League Twenty20 a more focussed and relevant competition that fans would tune in, and turn up to.

John Pennington

© Cricket World 2012

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