SA’s T20 ‘mustn’t just benefit investors’

2017-08-10 14:40
Tony Irish (Gallo Images)

Cape Town - Cricket South Africa’s T20 Global League is a critically important development in principle ... but self-interest must also be avoided at all costs.

So says Tony Irish, CEO of the South African Cricketers’ Association, the body representing the interests of the domestic players who will take part, as the three-month countdown begins to the intended large, loud prime-time tournament.

It has not escaped controversy, with misgivings being expressed in the media over the past few days about the manner of negotiation of television rights and alleged shortcomings in transparency regarding the sale of the eight franchises.

There have even been reports - unconfirmed at this stage - of certain intended investors pulling out.

Irish, in an interview with Sport24, emphasised that the Global League was a “must have” event, but was at equal pains to stress that “the details must be right”.

He also warned that if it ended up clashing with international cricket, the increasing free-agency phenomenon among high-calibre players might only swell further. 

Here is the full interview:

Explain the necessity of having this competition …

It’s an absolute must that CSA launches a T20 League. There may be debate about how it is done but the principle of doing it is correct. That’s where cricket is going; so much of cricket is moving in the direction of T20 leagues. It is right and fitting for South Africa to develop its own properly world-class T20 competition. There are, however, a lot of challenges in doing that. You have to get the balance right between your traditional cricket and the league; make sure they integrate with one another. The league must not be set up just for the benefit of those people who are investing in the league. It must benefit cricket overall in the country, and internationally. This is a very important thing for players, an opportunity to earn significant additional money. It’s important from the point of view of retaining our players in this country. This must be dollar-based, making it comparable with all the other major leagues.

Are we seeing already a harmful erosion of talent depth, what with virtually an entire international-class team of South Africans, if you like, swayed more by county than domestic deals these days?

The struggles of the SA ‘A’ team (recently) perhaps indicate that our depth is not where it should be at the moment. That may be a result of having lost a few critical players to Kolpak contracts. I would like to think that some who may be contemplating going that route will instead now be inclined to stay and play in South Africa, given the opportunities this league should provide in earnings terms. But I think it’s vitally important also that the route CSA have taken, in ensuring this league happens when there is no international cricket, is the right one … if they clash and players have to choose you might find some players actually preferring to play the T20 league instead of international cricket. It is important the window is maintained. The league has also been strongly sold to investors on the principle that you will have best players taking part in it. Once it starts to clash with international cricket, you could drive free agency further, and faster. There are alternative markets for players now ... not just one to pick from, as would have been the case in the past. T20 is naturally attractive: you get paid a lot more, for a shorter period of time. You are perhaps under less scrutiny and pressure, too, due to the nature of it; after all, you are expected to take risks. It is not as hard on your body. It is obvious that many players will gravitate to this market.

Given the proliferation of T20 leagues and associated potential for corruption and malpractice, how comfortable are you about South Africa making this big step, joining the mass of leagues? Do you have any concerns about credibility, authenticity?

Look, we know it (T20) is definitely an opportunity for corruptors in cricket. International cricket is well policed by the ICC’s Anti-Corruption Unit. But there is no overall policing across the leagues. It is left to every country to police and standards vary significantly. But you have players moving all around the world nowadays, so there is no control over whether a player participating in your league has been properly controlled and educated on that front in another country where he’s playing. So there has to be some kind of co-ordinated global effort, global standard and co-ordination in the fight against corruption.

What role can you play as the players’ body to encourage and educate them - especially younger ones - to adhere to good practice, good principles?

The responsibility for education is always primarily on the board, and the teams. We’ve stepped into that here in South Africa, though, as have a lot of players’ associations around the globe - where you take a lead in educating players. It’s a major problem when players fall foul of this stuff. As young men and women, they need to be made aware (of pitfalls). Again it’s an international thing: the international players’ body becomes an important factor in lobbying for a global education programme.

Your thoughts on burnout? With this League, another six weeks are now being squeezed into the summer schedule at prime time …

It’s a huge issue. The more often you play, the greater the risk of burnout and injury of players. I think that’s why the balance has to be right: If this league is played in the height of the season I believe you’ll have to play a bit less international cricket. You just have to. There’s only so much time and space on the calendar and these leagues are mushrooming all over the place. They are good for cricket; fans are turning out, players want to take part in them. The broadcasters are investing heavily in them. They’re good for the game. But something’s got to give, and I feel it will have to be on the international front, where you’d potentially play less cricket but more “high-value” cricket, with greater context to it. You need more real contests. The international schedule needs to take the leagues into account, and provide windows for them, so they can all co-exist together. That’s the way toward the correct regulation of the amount of cricket players play.

Some might argue: is the SA league coming a bit late, a bit after the fact?

We really should have done this five years ago ... even more. There was an opportunity to do this at the time the IPL started, where a couple of the boards got together and said ‘we’d also like start a league that can match the scale of where the IPL is at, if we combine’. That for one reason or another didn’t see the light of day. But that’s when Cricket Australia started working on its Big Bash. We should have started working on ours then, too. Yes, it should have been done a while ago, but it’s also a fact that it’s definitely not too late. Even now it is the right decision to go for it.

On ownership: one of the Hong Kong-based investors in our competition, the City Group, spoke of possibly introducing some Hong Kong players into our league. Isn’t that potentially counter-productive to the SA game, which is altogether more heavyweight?

We need to have pretty robust regulations in this league. We’re involved with CSA in designing those. It’s already been decided there will be three overseas players per team, with a fourth one if you have a Kolpak player. The amount of interest that has been shown by overseas players in our league is such that we will hopefully have only high-calibre overseas players, I firmly expect. It’s unlikely but if there’s a great T20 player in Hong Kong who can make the grade ... great. But if there isn’t ... well, there’ll be many good players to choose from, and a draft system. Hundreds have expressed interest. You’ll have to be pretty good to be drafted. We already have the very best figures among the eight named as overseas marquee players, with your KPs, Gayles, Pollards and so on.

Are you confident this new city-based model will have mass appeal?

We will have to see but these leagues generally show that if you invest money, like the IPL and Big Bash have, there is appeal. Especially if you have the best players. I think that is critical. Our Proteas players will need to be consistently available for it as well. We have a good reputation for producing cutting-edge events in this country; my gut feel is that as long as all the basics are done well it’ll be a good event.

Other challenges?

A very subtle dynamic occurs when you have private ownerships ... it’s a good thing in many ways, because new money comes into the game but there are also many challenges in the way that it is done. Already you are seeing some cross-league brands appearing now, like the Knight Riders; common ownership across leagues. You will probably see global strategies, so the Knight Riders, effectively an Indian brand, will now be in our league. That’s a positive for our league, but you may see some of these types of teams trying to secure the same players for their brands. If they are successful with that, then those players may not be available for international cricket during that time and that is a problem. So you may have a situation where the Knight Riders say ‘I want this player in three leagues, and the contract I’m offering is for three leagues, not just the IPL’. So those kinds of challenges we need to be aware of; it may pull players out of national teams. There will need to be a way of dealing with that kind of thing. The fact that teams are now linked to cities gives you a new opportunity to build new affinities, outside just the old SA franchise affinity. Some centres, smaller ones in some cases, will now get T20 league teams where there hasn’t previously been a franchise base, and the upgrade of facilities is a big boost, with this new money coming in.

*Follow our chief writer on Twitter: @RobHouwing

Read more on:    t20 global league  |  tony irish  |  cricket


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