Cape Town - So just how good is the Mzansi Super League ... really?
Cricket-specialist scribes seem to be gingerly skirting the issue, some perhaps having bought in - either overtly or subconsciously - to the wildly enthusiastic hype emanating like a tsunami from Cricket South Africa’s headquarters.
Many writers’ tweets are liberally laced with superlatives; exclamation marks and accompaniment of hashtags abound, almost as if they are willing agents for the cause as opposed to dispassionate observers.
You can hardly blame the umbrella body themselves for their quite unapologetic excitement. Under-publicising their precarious, controversial product would be worthy of a rightful rocket, and CSA have decidedly not lacked energy in doing all they can to wow it up.
It just being up and running at last, after all the tumult of the last couple of years, is probably worth trumpeting.
There is an awful lot at stake. It is meant to be the answer to cricket’s financial prayers in our country, and the device that recaptures significant numbers of the bums that have gradually - but very noticeably - slipped off stadium seats, as well as from more comfortable perches in now dust-gathering corporate suites.
If Twenty20 is your thing, the cricket has been good so far ... OK, very good at times as we near the halfway stage of round-robin play.
But I may well not be alone in belief that, for all the gushing adjectives from commentators, and television images of enthusiastic clusters - but usually not much more than that - of youthful spectators going demonstratively out of their way to indicate that they’re having a good time, it’s falling short of hitting the most desired spot.
CSA have been admirably transparent about releasing gate figures, and it is a stark fact that - apart from the much-trumpeted “full house” that still didn’t look quite that at small-venue Paarl for the Rocks v Blitz derby - reasonably ho-hum attendances of between 2 000 and 4 000 have been consistently recorded countrywide, doing awfully little at the stadiums in the bigger metropolises to create the pulsating atmosphere needed to make the MSL a constructive virus, if you like.
In that respect, it is already lagging a dangerous distance behind celebrated alternative tournaments like the market-leading Indian Premier League and Australia’s Big Bash League, both of which almost certainly hit the ground running a lot faster in terms of spectator interest.
With some luck and warmer, more settled weather (no guarantees there, at least in fairly vast summer-rainfall parts of the country), turnstiles will gradually become more active. Schools are beginning to break up now, too.
But this is meant to be South Africa’s entry, albeit detrimentally belated, to the booming circuit of genuinely international T20 competitions ... and that very “international” flavour has been damagingly wishy-washy, by my observance of the fledgling event.
Too few of the very top tier of travelling-circus T20 sluggers were signed up for the SA extravaganza in the first place, and of those who did, men like Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo and Dawid Malan a little humiliatingly disappeared off to other contractual engagements very soon after the start; some now return to play a sprinkling of matches at the tail end, even as certain teams already flirt dangerously with non-qualification for the knockout phase .
CSA personalities have hailed the opportunities presented for certain fresh, younger faces to come to the fore, and naturally that’s no bad thing.
But isn’t it, simultaneously, almost an inadvertent concession that when all is said and done this is suspiciously too much like a fractionally beefed-up version of the more traditional domestic T20 competition?
The scale, or rather the lack thereof, is not what I had in mind when the earlier model of the tournament, the T20 Global League, was announced with great glitz and flamboyance in 2017 before its much-publicised dismantling.
Especially given the superior spread of global fast-format superstar names nailed down at the auction for the Global League, it had a more discernible international flavour; the MSL marketers already seem to be veering toward a “platform for our future stars” theme, suggesting more of a developmental tournament than anything else.
Global League mastermind, the seldom less than big-thinking Haroon Lorgat, similarly contends - even if that may not come as a special surprise to many - that the MSL “falls short of the quality of product we are capable of”.
The former International Cricket Council and Cricket South Africa CEO whose intended flagship league for the country was canned shortly after he quit his CSA post last September, was speaking exclusively to Sport24.
The Global League, remember, was earmarked to have featured eight franchises with independent ownership, including by Bollywood heavyweight figures Shah Rukh Khan, who would have headed a Capetonian equivalent of the Indian Premier League side the Kolkata Knight Riders, and Preity Zinta, the owner of Kings XI Punjab.
But Lorgat had fallen into much-publicised dispute with CSA (in particular, chief financial officer Nassei Appiah) before his departure by mutual agreement - though he remained on full pay until April this year.
A broadcast deal and headline sponsorship for the Global League had not been finalised at the time the seasoned administrator stepped down, although he continues to insist he would have secured both before it was to have started.
As far as Lorgat is concerned the difficult part of setting up the new League had already been done: securing world-class team owners and players. (He recalled how some CSA Board members were “blown away” when he succeeded in securing the eight team owners.)
It was a deliberate ploy on his part, he says, to go beyond proof of concept and build the product before inviting potential headline sponsors and broadcasters to come aboard. In that way he believed he would have sold the new league rights for better values.
At the time of his departure he and his team were, he asserts, deciding which one of three shortlisted major global brands would be awarded the league title sponsorship.
Instead the six-team - the same number as in local franchise competition - MSL finally came to fruition a few weeks ago, albeit still without a title sponsor and domestic television rights going to embattled national broadcaster the SABC for an undisclosed sum.
Lorgat brands what he has seen so far “unimpressive”, saying it is nothing like he had envisioned with the Global League.
“I’m sad to say it looks too much like a second-grade product that has been cobbled together: it could damage our game as a whole in South Africa,” he says.
“Truth be told, it is little more than another version of the previous CSA franchise competition. I hope the returning Proteas players (from the recent tour of Australia) will gradually lift it ... and they need to.
“Your benchmark has to be what you see elsewhere. The IPL is still the standard-bearer but this (MSL) is also some way short of all the other T20 Leagues.
“The opening game of a new competition usually enjoys a honeymoon feel ... plus we had AB (de Villiers) as the star attraction at Newlands. But the reports say (a gate of) just 7 000 attended on the opening night. That’s quite disappointing and tells the story about the product.
“You want a full house or near full house as this is meant to be the premier product. You needed to start with a proper bang to make the world take notice.
“Empty seats can become a self-fulfilling negative. A sprinkling of people in big stadiums like the Wanderers and Kingsmead sets a poor scene and makes for a poor product. After all, this is T20 cricket and it’s all about the atmosphere for players and the fans.
“We have to be very careful. This country needs a T20 League to work; this is the future form of the game, so I do hope it succeeds.
“It’s also strange in having CSA own the six teams - it looks haphazard in the way its unfolding. We certainly don’t have pots of money to waste.
“There is currently no title sponsor and no (heavyweight) broadcaster to raise significant revenues. We know well that the SABC is broke and will not pay value for the media rights.”
Lorgat says he was bemused when, in defence of expected losses, he heard CSA saying they were willing to invest for the next five years, regardless of the extent of any early pain.
“Why was this not the attitude for the Global League which had far greater potential? It doesn’t make any sense.
“The same reasons for having postponed the initial League, if not worse, exist today. And yet the CSA Board has gone ahead, so what’s changed, what’s different? Clearly we don’t know the full story.
“CSA are happy to go ahead and write off R40-million in year one for a poor product. The Global League would have been far better and with the revenue pledges we had in hand, the loss would not have been near the losses they now willing to absorb.”
Lorgat said that while he was still at the CSA helm, they had deliberately branded the initial version of the event the T20 Global League.
“We chose that name for a reason; we wanted to portray it as the global T20 league, which happened to be played in South Africa.
“A lot of the (international) players - certainly in their minds and from conversations with their agents - said ‘I am going to build my schedule around the T20GL; I want to be part of the Global League’.
“Now it seems the other way around. Gayle and others play just one match and off they go elsewhere; it doesn’t say much about the MSL.
“Players must be available (for the duration) to make the competition credible, present from start to finish. Imagine if Liverpool or Manchester United were in a competition and simply shipping players in and out? There’s no credibility to that.”
Lorgat added: “The League I envisaged, with private ownerships and globally-recognised headline sponsors, would have gone a long way to eliminating our dependency on ‘India must tour’ to make our books balance.”
The SABC deal, he says, was between two struggling parties and effectively “a Hobson’s choice ... one party says I’ll give it and the other says I’ll grab it.
“Even in that deal I suspect CSA is carrying the costs; footing the production bill and so on.
“You can get away with a pretty ordinary broadcast locally because it is going to a large national broadcaster audience who don’t have a benchmark.
“But the rest of the world notices the shortcomings in quality.”
*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing