South African cricket’s governing body may have fallen short of its promise of delivering a world-class T20 league, but it can take credit for giving birth to one heck of a “domestic” league and unearthing a few rough diamonds in the process.
For a long time, Cricket South Africa (CSA) lamented the sterile nature of the Ram Slam T20 competition. It generated no revenue and contributed little in the way of transformation or player development. CSA chief executive Thabang Moroe said as much in his report to Parliament’s portfolio committee on sport and recreation in October.
In that report, he also revealed that Ram Slam cost between R20 million and R25 million per year to run, whereas the Mzansi Super League (MSL) had R180 million in deals before it even started. The MSL is just one stage in a rather large global T20 circus tent, replete with dancing millennials, highly paid and trained performers, and cricket administrators walking the financial tightrope.
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It’s not the greatest show on earth, but it’s what we have for now.
In forecasting a combined loss for CSA of R654 million over the next four years, Moroe announced the MSL as CSA’s star attraction, as the cricketing body needed to develop new revenue streams and create new content. The logic was that the world has moved to a place where the creation of content means audiences will come in their droves. But in the MSL’s case, not many came.
Small crowds but large TV audiences
The MSL averaged 3 000 to 4 000 spectators per match at stadiums – disappointing given the popularity of the game in South Africa, T20 being the fastest-growing sport here. The optics were wrong from a television point of view, with great swathes of vacant seats visible as far as Rassie van der Dussen could hit a ball. The echo of an empty stadium could be heard almost every time wood made contact with leather.
A live audience is one thing, but it’s the TV audience that really matters in the modern game. This is where CSA can draw some hope. If it nurtures and invests in its relationship with the public broadcaster, SABC, and syndicates its matches worldwide, it could, in time, garner a large enough viewing audience to make a dent in its current projected loss. This year, MSL matches were broadcast in Australia, United Kingdom, West Indies and India. It attracted a live television audience of more than 3.4 million South African viewers. The opening match attracted more than 1.5 million unique TV viewers in South Africa alone. According to Nielsen Sport, a unique TV audience of more than 3 million viewed the first four matches.
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Is it at the level of the Big Bash in Australia? No. But then again, that league took a good seven years to start making money. India’s IPL only turned a profit for the first time this year after no less than 11 tournaments.
With a global television audience comes the potential not only for revenue generation but results manipulation. This was brought home by the arrest of two Brits in Durban over alleged “betting activity” during the Durban Heat vs Jozi Stars match earlier this month. The suspects were charged and released on R500 bail. No further details were revealed.
It must be worrying for CSA, who promised a squeaky-clean tournament despite the warning signs from elsewhere on the T20 circuit. Global television audiences attract the biggest gambling houses, which, in turn, generates more revenue for all stakeholders, raising the stakes with every year that passes.
Not enough black batsmen
But what about what really matters: the cricket on the field and the players? What have we learnt about the depth of cricket in South Africa and its potential to inspire a generation of cricketing talent in the country who are capable of being world champions?
For starters, it is abundantly clear that South Africa’s struggle to produce black African batsmen continues. Of the top 10 batsmen in the MSL, only Durban Heat’s Khaya Zondo features, with an average of 30. Compare this to the top bowlers in the tournament – where Tshwane Spartans’ Lutho Sipamla, and Jozi Stars’ Kagiso Rabada and Nono Pongola all feature in the top six – and a worrying trend emerges. This wouldn’t have come as a surprise to CSA because the issue had already been flagged many seasons ago.
CSA even owned up to this problem in its report to the portfolio committee. “The development of black batsmen remained a priority. In cricket, it was easier to develop a bowler than a batsman. There were rural to urban differences. A batsman in rural areas plays on concrete pitches, but if taken to a grassed pitch the same batsman may be found wanting, but not a bowler,” Moroe said.
The MSL was never going to address the dearth of black African batsmen, but it has shone a glaring light on the matter to put pressure on CSA to devise solutions and develop a framework to cultivate black batting talent.
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But for now that problem is masked by the overall richness of the country’s batting talent. If there was a T20 World Cup tomorrow, South Africa would have a dozen new players to choose from to give the likes of Pakistan and West Indies a good fight. Judging by what Van der Dussen, Reeza Hendricks, Ryan Rickleton and Gihahn Cloete bring to the brawl, they could even win a trophy. Hendricks, in particular, was the standout batsman of the tournament with consecutive centuries sandwiched by two half-centuries midway through the competition.
Hendricks outshone team-mate and Windies great Chris Gayle to inspire a Jozi Stars turnaround after a sluggish start. Does it make Hendricks a certainty to go to the ODI World Cup next year? “I don't think so, to be honest,” Hendricks told ESPNCricinfo.com. “This is obviously a different format. I'd love to think it has some impact towards it, but it’s a different format … Leading up to the World Cup, it's still a while away. Hopefully, I can continue scoring, and closer to the time the rest will take care of itself.”
Not to be outdone, Quinton de Kock has shown why his will be the first name to be penned when drafting the 2019 World Cup squad. The Cape Town Blitz opener clocked an average of 68 runs to keep this team in pole position throughout the tournament.
Van der Dussen has made a major play in the MSL for higher honours on the world stage, although his services as a clinical shot maker at the top of the order may be surplus to what the national side requires. But Van der Dussen, 29, has time on his side and will continue his global T20 career regardless.
After a shaky start from the tournament’s batsmen, they soon learnt to deal with Paarl Rocks’ Bjorn Fortuin. The leg-spinner made a flashy start to the tournament but in the end produced just nine wickets in eight matches. His Rocks team-mate Tabraiz Shamsi passed this tally with 10 wickets from eight matches.
Apart from the Tshwane Spartans’ Jeewan Mendis, spin bowlers had very little say in the MSL. South Africa’s premier limited-overs spinner, Imran Tahir, managed just four wickets in seven matches, with a best of 1/18.
By far, the pacemen dominated proceedings with the ball.
Cape Town Blitz’s Anrich Nortje, another player who impressed before his tournament was cut short due to an ankle injury, was glowing in his assessment of the MSL and the opportunity it afforded him. “This tournament is great for getting some exposure. It is something we don't get at domestic level and I haven't heard this much of a buzz around myself or any other player,” he was quoted as saying during a recent interview.
Sipamla was probably the find of the MSL. His 16-wicket haul in the tournament, at an average of 20.5, gives him a foot in the door. He is capable and level-headed enough to handle the big time.
While the MSL unearthed a bunch of young upstarts, a telling feature of this inaugural edition is what it didn’t deliver. It didn’t deliver the AB de Villiers we all know and admire. Apart from sporadic bursts of ingenuity with the bat, audiences across the world didn’t get to see the ABD of a year ago – the man who scores when he wants to and how he wants to. In the MSL, he averaged a paltry 31 runs in 10 matches, a failure for a player of his calibre.
The performances of other marquee players such as Eoin Morgan (four matches), Dawid Malan (six matches), Chris Gayle (four matches) and Rashid Khan (four matches) were underwhelming because their cameo roles were not enough to ignite the occasion. Their fragmented participation is a matter to be addressed when the next edition rolls around, as the MSL attempts to establish itself as a major feature on the international cricket calendar.
The MSL is here to stay – for now at least – and though it may not have captured the imagination just yet, it at least has given us a fleeting glimpse into our cricketing future.
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