Monday, June 6, 2011

Anti-Franchise: In defense of provincial cricket

To hear recent suggestions that in the future cricket sides will be drawn down franchise, rather than national, lines is both predictable and upsetting. Cricket, a sport unique in both in the basis of its rules and its appeal, continues to evolve at a rate unthought of only a decade ago. In many ways, the game has benefited from this enforced change. In others, it has not.

The Franchise model forms the basis of nearly every team sport in the world. In every type of football, all the American-born sports, motorsport and even cycling, competition is played out by teams of players coming from diverse nations, backgrounds and experiences. In cricket - and perhaps Rugby Union - players generally represent the province in which they were raised. The IPL (the forerunner of any future franchise system) aside, players don't enter a draft and subsequently are not doled out to whoever is prepared to pay the most.

It's this state-based system which, like only Rugby, cover-drives home the simple fact that the pinnacle of cricket is the International game. Where football has the World Cup, basketball has the NBA and tennis has Wimbledon, the highest single honour a cricketer can receive is just to represent their country. The romance of the Baggy Green - as with all countries colours - still holds firm. What an insignificant piece of cotton becomes when transformed by green dye and an emblem! It seduces the best of the best and lures them in what seems a more wholesome way than that of money or fame.

International cricket is what drives the sport, of that there can be no question. It's not Domestic Twenty20 that fills the ICC's coffers. Neither has First Class cricket made superstars of polar opposites like Sachin Tendulkar and Merv Hughes. To witness two domestic teams compete is now often an exercise in loneliness. It has been thus for years. Full endorsement of one's cricketing abilities has for so long been a letter from a national selector, not an excited gathering around a television screen or Green Room, waiting for one's name to be read out. That is now changing as cricket, so long the gentleman's game, inexorably plunges the way of all the others.

For, should an ICC Franchise model go ahead, it wouldn't be long before the biggest event in World Cricket isn't an Ashes series or a Border/Gavaskar trophy clash, but a match between "perpetual arch-rivals" Mumbai and Essex. Witness how the UEFA Champions' League now carries so much weight. Football has a franchise model because it has the budget to administer such a network worldwide. Look at every English Premier League rostser and count the home-grown players. The best players always play for the big clubs, which creates a two-tier system of "haves" and "have-nots".

If the World Cup is the pinnacle of football (and this in itself is sadly questionable), with such ludicrously ostentatious money available at the "second level", the best football is now played in the UEFA Champions' League and not the World Cup. (Note: we're talking "best" here, not necessarily "most exciting"). Last week's finalists, Manchester United and Barcelona, would most probably defeat the national teams of the countries in which they play. It would be so with cricket and suddenly, the International game is not the top level of the sport and could be seen by many only as an irritant.

The franchise system wouldn't be the end of world cricket. It would perhaps allow for more competitive matches between teams able to buy, sell or trade their way out of a slump rather than depend on youth development like downtrodden national sides are now forced to resort. But surely the highest possible level of competition isn't the most important thing? Cricket is perhaps the most popular sport in the world where it's impossible to follow without supporting a team. And choosing a side to support is easy - it's your national side, made up mostly of players who play on your shores. While no-one's suggesting that International cricket is in danger, its unique nature as the best level of competition will be.

As will the individual nature of each team. For so long it's been common knowledge to pack spinners for India, fast men for Australia and experts at swing for England. The qualities of individual cricketers that go hand-in-hand with their passport will lessen as they ply their trade in countries and climes anew. Imagine how much sooner India could have claimed the World's number one ranking should Rahul Dravid or Yuvraj Singh played for a franchise from Perth? By implementing a global franchise system (and it would have to be global and binding), cricket once again loses part of each nation's identity with willow or leather.

A franchise system is an easy fix. Pacemen not performing? Then buy/trade for another one, rather than either a) creating new techniques and tactics to minimise those weaknesses or b) developing a new fast man, c.f. the Australian Cricket Academy.

Which suggests another reason for maintaining the status quo: franchises have far less impetus to develop youth both in their locality and in general. Why invest time and expense in a kid from the bush when you can, via global scouting networks, secure an uncontracted slightly-proven quanitity from Zimbabwe, Ireland or Pakistan? With franchises, their primary responsibility is not to the game, but to themselves and their owners, prompting far fewer locals rising through the ranks.

No, the best way to continue First Class cricket is with provincial sides. First-class cricket is what it is - a sport for the fanatic with minimal broadcast revenues, serving primarily to develop youngsters. While crowds may increase at the notion of two all-star sides meeting, they could also drop considering the lack of global televisual interest in First Class cricket. Such a drop would be almost catastrophic for the sport - a franchise-based landscape would mean paying "import" players more to represent you than local talent would demand, presenting an almost insoluble problem for owners. It's far-fetched but possible that deserving fans are robbed of any first-class cricket by poor administration and the Adelaide Redbacks end up as the Kochi Elephants or Dublin Terriers.

Change is good. But change for its own sake brings with it entirely new responsibilities. Before endorsing any franchise-based feeder system to International cricket, the ICC must understand the ramifications of such a decision. For it a choice from which there is no turning back.

Image of IPL "faces of the franchise" courtesy

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