I write this while scrolling through Cricket Twitter (or X) this morning and seeing endless mentions of how much money each player went for in today’s IPL auction. The thing that mystifies me is that both cricket fans and journalists seem genuinely excited about the exact sums being paid to each player. “Wow, Pat Cummins has gone for $2.4 million, that’s $7,000 per ball” “No, wait Mitchell Starc is going to get $13,000 per ball, this is all so thrilling!”, is the general gist of the tweets I have been seeing.
Now, I’m not naïve, I know that franchise cricket is all about money and that players play it purely for the salary they will get but I feel like I am missing something here.
This may well be very exciting for the players involved, many of whom are going to receive life changing sums, but why are serious cricket journalists and fans salivating over it so much? Cricket has become arguably the most financially driven sport on the planet, with entire leagues and teams set up all over the world, purely for monetary gain, with no history or context to the towns and stadiums they are playing in. What relevance does Mumbai Indians Cape Town or, for that matter, MI New York, have to the history of cricket or the culture in those cities? What do the people of Southampton have to identify with in a team called Southern Brave? Answer, absolutely nothing. Franchise leagues are not a sporting event but a product to be consumed, much like McDonalds latest range of Christmas burgers. Sit down, consume quickly, digest, forget about it and move on with no memory of it even existing.
I know all this to be true, but surely even cricket has not got to the point where the number of dollars on a balance sheet or a wage packet is to be celebrated and covered with the same enthusiasm and devotion as an actual match? Perhaps this is the logical denouement of franchise leagues, where the means and the end are so blurred that the figures involved become the climax of the event rather than the actual action on the pitch. If this is the case then one wonders what the actual point of following the sport of cricket is anymore. After all, one does not go out and buy a Starbucks replica shirt and cheer them to sell more cups of coffee than Costa or Café Nero.
If the recent World Cup felt like one long marketing exercise for the ICC and their Indian hosts, then this feels far worse, as does the news that the BCCI may be preparing to launch a second IPL in September and October, potentially played in a T10 format. One has to wonder whether those who do not even have the attention span for T20 game will ever actually like cricket and, if not, why the game is pursuing this audience. T10 is the equivalent of Twitter launching a one sentence platform for people who do not have the inclination to concentrate for 140 characters. No doubt there will be a draft for that too, with the numbers involved poured over and celebrated across the media.
So, what is it all for, what is the point of following a sport that exists increasingly just to feather the wallets of its players and administrators? Wondering this today, I came across an answer in the most unlikely of places, a little ground called Willowmoore Park in the town of Benoni, South Africa. Here Uganda and Kenya were playing out the final of a slightly less lucrative T20 tournament, the ACA Africa T20 Cup and it was being streamed live on YouTube.
Kenya, many readers will remember, were World Cup semi-finalists in 2003 before their cricket administration crumbled. Collins Oboya, the leg spinning star of that 2003 team was still playing here today at the grand age of 42. The demise of Kenyan cricket in the last 20 years has been a great stain on the game and a reflection of the ICC’s appalling failure to grow the sport in developing cricketing nations. However, their opponents today provided an altogether more hopeful picture. Uganda, the Cricket Cranes as they are known, have recently qualified for the World T20 in the Caribbean and USA next summer, their first ever ICC event. Watching the videos the Ugandan Cricket Association posted on social media of the celebrations from their players upon achieving this feat provided an answer as to why we still devote so much of our time and emotion to this often frustrating game. At the highest level means are increasingly replacing ends as the game devours itself in a rapacious hunt for cash. However, the pure joy of the Cricket Cranes reminds us that has a meaning beyond the purely financial. From Birmingham to Benoni, cricket is a wonderful sport when one focuses on the triumphs and failures of the players on the field rather than the numbers on a balance sheet.
Uganda won comfortably today, by 91 runs. However, Kenya’s mere presence in the final offers some encouragement for their future. Both sides can hope for brighter days ahead as, if it can free itself from the all-consuming love of money, can the game of cricket.