The Champions League T20 should focus on developing the global game instead of profits, writes Neil Manthorp.
When AB de Villiers arrived for his penultimate press conference in Colombo before South Africa's early departure from the International Cricket Council's World T20 competition in Sri Lanka, he arrived with a backpack and an even more weary look in his eye than might have been expected of a man whose team were desperately underperforming yet again in a global tournament.
While his team-mates lingered at the hotel and relaxed before their final practice session, he had already been on the move for several hours, fighting the traffic to get to a local hospital where he had undergone various tests and scans on a few chronic injuries.
Neither he nor the team's medical team needed proof or confirmation of how serious the injuries were. It was all they could do to keep him on the field for a last (and fruitless, as it turned out) attempt to reach the semifinals of the tournament. But proof was needed nonetheless: un-equivocal medical proof.
Those requiring the evidence of his incapacitation, it transpired, sat on the board of the Champions League T20. In an attempt to ensure the participation of the competition's biggest drawcards, the committee insists on proof of a player's injuries.
Brilliant and popular as De Villiers is, it is hard to imagine his absence making a material difference to the viewership at either the stadium or, more importantly, on television. But dig just a little below the surface and it becomes clear that those who administer the tournament are not faceless bean-counters, but cricket-savvy men from India, Australia and South Africa who are all too aware that the world's best players are overworked and need a rest. They just do not want them resting during their tournament.
India owns 50% of the Champions League, Australia 30% and South Africa 20%. All the other nations are merely invitees with no say in how the tournament is run or any share in its profits. But forcing them to take part in an unedifying "qualification" process is, frankly, embarrassing. Whereas no fewer than four Indian Premier League (IPL) teams and two each from Australia and South Africa sit and wait in the main draw, the domestic champions from Sri Lanka, New Zealand, West Indies and Pakistan and the finalists from England have had to scrap for two places in two groups.
It meant, in the case of Trinidad and Tobago, a 9 000km journey for just one match. One narrow loss to England's beaten finalists and they were gone, eliminated. Their second match against Sri Lanka's champions, Uva Next, was rendered meaningless.
The teams will continue to come, despite such shabby treatment, because of the prize money on offer. Cut a man's foot off and he will still enter the race if the reward is high enough. A handful of millionaire superstars notwithstanding, the majority of the players involved would have their lives significantly changed by their share of the winner's purse of $1.2million.
But the Champions League is not about champions – neither celebrating them nor making them. If it was, the Chennai Superkings – who finished fourth in the IPL with eight wins from 16 games – would not be here. Neither would the Mumbai Indians, who finished third. But that would mean no MS Dhoni and no Sachin Tendulkar and that could make a difference of many millions in terms of television audience figures – and subsequent revenue.
If the board of the Champions League had an interest in the "bigger picture" and the global health of the game, they could help to change a nation.
Take Zimbabwe, for example. "If we were offered a place in the Champions League, just in the qualifying tournament like all the others, it would change the lives of everyone involved in the game in the entire country," said former captain and current Zimbabwe Cricket official Alistair Campbell.
"Just the guarantee of two globally televised games a year would be enough to attract private investors to our six franchises. The investment of funds would translate directly [into] an improvement in playing standards, because for the first time there would be an incredibly powerful incentive for players to extend themselves and aim for a global stage. It would shatter the glass ceiling that there is above Zimbabwean cricket," Campbell said.
In Jacques Faul, South Africa has the man with the purest instincts and the greatest empathy for what the Champions League could achieve. "Hopefully, it is evolving all the time and we can find ways to involve more teams. Personally, I would love to see a Zimbabwean franchise involved. They are a much better group of players than they showed at the ICC World T20 in Sri Lanka recently," Faul said.
For India and its cricket board, however, it has nothing to do with helping anyone else. It has everything to do with providing another stage for the billionaire owners of IPL franchises to play with their very expensive toys.