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Will more T20s draw SA fans?

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MS Dhoni and Albie Morkel (right) will turn out for the Chennai Super Kings during the Champions League.

Johannesburg – We’ll find out just how big the South African sporting appetite is over the next few weeks as the Champions League T20 tournament journeys around the country.

In a country accustomed to hosting big events in the past 10 years, and which is preparing to host the Africa Cup of Nations early next year, having the Champions League stop in for the second time in two years could be deemed overkill.

In 2010 there was still something of the “novelty” factor attached to the tournament, but two years on, and with the dust barely settled on the World T20 event in Sri Lanka, it may be difficult to muster much enthusiasm for yet another 20-over cricket tournament.

The Champions League tournament is actually a brilliant idea and were it not for the International Cricket Council dilly-dallying, it could (and should) have been the most prestigious T20 event in the world. There is a strong school of thought which believes the 20-over format should have remained exclusive to provinces or franchises and that the ICC should have taken the Champions League idea under its control.

Perhaps had it done so, the organisation would have ensured greater fairness for the tournament instead of the current situation which sees four Indian Premier League teams slotted straight into the tournament’s main draw, while no teams from Zimbabwe or Bangladesh – which both hold their own domestic tournaments – are even in the qualifying draw.

The Champions League is run by the boards of India, Australia and South Africa with the BCCI holding a 50 percent stake – hence the numbers being weighted so heavily in India’s favour. The policy that encourages players to forfeit playing for their domestic teams and rather for their IPL franchises (Faf du Plessis and Albie Morkel will be in the Chennai Super Kings squad and not the Titans) is another issue that rankles and subtracts from the tournament’s credibility.

Sundar Raman, who sits on the tournament’s technical committee, said in silky marketing speak last week that the event was “evolving” and as it did so, avenues would be opened up to allow more teams from different countries into the tournament.

That would appear unlikely, however, with television network ESPN Star paying a reported $900-million to broadcast the event for the next 10 years, and they’d certainly want to see Dhoni, Sehwag and Tendulkar rather than Utseya, Matsikenyeri and Mahmadulla.

Sadly, it’s the star names that sell, and if the event is to be more widely inclusive, it may be teams from New Zealand, the West Indies or Sri Lanka who face being cut. As it stands, the teams which qualified from those countries don’t even go straight into the main draw. Uva Next (SL), Auckland (NZ), Trinidad & Tobago (WI), the Sialkot Stallions (Pak) and Yorkshire and Hampshire (both Eng) must play a qualifying “tournament” to earn two spots in the event proper.

For a tournament with so much at stake – the winners take home $2,3-million – addressing that imbalance in it’s participants should be a priority, but while India continue to hold such a tight financial grip on the sport don’t expect any decisions to be rushed in the next few years.

If you’re looking for a favourite for the tournament, you can’t go much farther than the four IPL sides and in particular the Chennai Super Kings led by Indian captain Mahendra Singh Dhoni. They won the event when it was held here in 2010.

The two Australia franchises will feel comfortable in South African conditions, with the Perth Scorchers, who will have Herschelle Gibbs at the top of the order, are a side to keep an eye on. In fact it will be interesting to see what kind of impact the two qualifiers – the other side is the Sydney Sixers – from Australia’s Big Bash League will have on the tournament.

Cricket Australia restructured their domestic T20 competition last year when it launched the Big Bash League, giving added razzmatazz to the sport’s most abbreviated format. It’s something some commentators believe could work in South Africa especially if it provides the chance to expand to eight franchises and base two teams in new markets outside the big Metropolitan regions.

For the next two weeks, it will be the Titans and the Highveld Lions who will carry the hopes of South African cricket in the Champions League and they may take some solace from the performance of the Warriors, who made a thrilling run two years ago before losing in the final.

The first match of the pre-qualifying phase takes place at the Wanderers on Tuesday, with Yorkshire facing Uva Next followed by the New Zealand champions Auckland playing against the Sialkot Stallions.

The Titans play the first match of the main draw against the Perth Scorchers at SuperSport Park on Saturday.


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