Mzansi Super League still on a sticky wicket

With a name, venues and a logo revealed, it’s still a mystery as to which players are likely to grace the stage.

We now know that Cricket South Africa (CSA) didn’t waste precious minutes thinking of a quality name for its T20 showstopper. (Presumably, ‘Rush Job T20’ was taken, as was ‘Hit and Hope T20 League’. Although, admittedly, the bar had already been set pretty low with Big Bash League.)

After weeks of speculation and bated anticipation, the cricket fraternity was put out of their collective misery with the reveal of CSA’s Mzansi Super League. That’s it. MSL for short. That’s the “uniquely South African” name we’ve all been waiting for.

A year ago, the word ‘global’ was bandied about in name and personnel. But now, with lower expectations and even lower budgets, CSA has christened the Mzansi Super League.

Wednesday’s player draft will reveal just how much pulling power CSA and the new league is able to leverage. But CSA is on a tight schedule. They’ve already lost time and with the tournament set to start on 16 November, there’s little room for niceties like creative logo design, and the use of colour. The harsh black and white logo speaks to the mission of being “united through the strength of cricket” says CSA – though we’ve seen little of that in the fumbling foreplay leading up to the MSL.

Attracting talent

Fixtures and ticket information for the MSL will be revealed this week, and depending on the talent on offer, we may or may not see a stampede for tickets. CSA is convinced that the players involved are top class, and with all fit Proteas players available for the tournament, the quality of the cricket is suitably guaranteed; although heaven forbid any of them collect an injury playing for a team they’ve only briefly pledged their loyalty to.

A jam-packed international calendar plays out at this time of the year as northern and southern hemispheres swap summers. Apart from full-blown test and ODI tours, there are competing T20 and T10 leagues that have already seduced the biggest protagonists of hit-and-collect cricket.

Bangladesh host Zimbabwe at the beginning of November in a two-match test series. No train smash here. But Sri Lanka faces England at home in Galle in the first of three tests and Pakistan “host” New Zealand in Abu Dhabi from 16 November.

If you discount anyone who plays test cricket from playing in CSA’s Mzansi Super League, then consider that Pakistan, New Zealand, Australia, India, West Indies and South Africa are all involved in ODI and T20 series in November and December. It’s looking increasingly unlikely that the MSL will attract the kind of talent that will sell tickets and fill stadiums.

Kolpak players such as Kyle Abbott (if he comes) will be treated as overseas players. But with just weeks left to go, there are still plenty of questions.

CSA has already recruited the help of executives who ran the IPL, hinting that they either expect huge interest in the tournament or they have little clue of what to expect. The answer may be a bit of both.

When the T20 Global League was announced last year, the names in the mix included Chris Gayle, Kevin Pietersen, Kieron Pollard, Jason Roy, Eoin Morgan, Brendon McCullum, Dwayne Bravo and Lasith Malinga. As things stand today, all of them (except Pietersen) have now signed with the Abu Dhabi T10 League, which starts on 23 November and ends on 2 December – in the middle of the South African tournament.

Where we stand at the moment 

Here’s what we do know: there will be six teams playing 32 matches on a home-and-away basis. Those teams are Cape Town Blitz, Durban Heat, Jozi Stars, Nelson Mandela Bay Giants, Paarl Rocks and Tshwane Spartans. The venues are Boland Park (Paarl), Newlands (Cape Town), Wanderers (Johannesburg), St George’s Park (Port Elizabeth), Kingsmead (Durban) and SuperSport Park (Centurion).

Each team will have 16 players and can have a maximum of four overseas players. The players will be centrally contracted by the league. We have no knowledge about prize money or what sponsors are likely to pay for a seat at the table.

We know SABC holds the broadcast rights to the tournament and this will be delivered live on SABC 3 and Radio 2000. What we don’t know is how the SABC will afford this mammoth undertaking given its financial status and lack of personnel. Some reports suggest the national broadcaster will seek outside help from Singapore to broadcast the tournament.

According to SABC chief operating officer Chris Maroleng, however, the tournament will be mutually beneficial to both SABC and CSA. “This is a crucial partnership in terms of our turnaround strategy because it presents us with an opportunity to derive commercial value from sports content and sports broadcasting rights. It is also an opportunity for us as the SABC to redeem ourselves,” he said at the announcement of the partnership.

Obstacles that CSA must overcome

It seems CSA may be running out of friends who are willing to support its staging of this tournament. It ran into serious legal issues with previous team owners when it jumped the gun and announced an equity share deal with SuperSport without consulting or considering all stakeholder interests. This ultimately led to a breakdown of trust, which CSA may struggle to regain. Stranger things have happened in cricket.

There are also external obstacles for CSA to overcome. The Abu Dhabi T10 League has reportedly said it will stop high-profile South African and international players from registering to play in the new league due to a clash of fixtures. It’s possible that this is the snag that CSA is trying to address.

The Abu Dhabi T10 League draft includes South African players such as Morne Morkel, Colin Ingram, Cameron Delport, Marchant de Lange, Hardus Viljoen, Rilee Rossouw and Roelof van der Merwe.

Other big names include Jason Roy (Eng), Shane Watson (Aus), Colin de Grandhomme (NZ), Darren Sammy (WI), Andre Russell (WI), Rashid Khan (Afg), Alex Hales (Eng), Dwayne Bravo (WI), Brendon McCullum (NZ), Mohammad Hafeez (Pak) and Shahid Afridi (Pak).

The Mzansi Super League is late to the T20 party and CSA will need to work hard to establish it as a sought-after tournament to participate in. The IPL is already the benchmark and continues to set records for sponsorship and rights fees. The Caribbean Premier League has just completed its sixth season. The Emirates T20 League begins on 16 December and runs until 11 January 2019. It features cricket superstar AB de Villiers as an ambassador, not a player. In its ninth year, it’s also an established competition on the T20 roster.

The Big Bash League, itself under threat from the Emirates League, starts on 19 December and only ends on 17 February 2019 – two straight months of helter-skelter cricket.

Changing the rules on T20 tournaments

Cricket governing bodies are also ring-fencing their national players in favour of their own T20 leagues, with an eye on the 2019 Cricket World Cup. This further diminishes the likelihood of quality players making the journey to the tip of Africa.

The International Cricket Council (ICC) is apparently trying to limit associate nations from hosting their own T20 tournaments, saying they’re usually run by third parties (like those that staged the IPL) with more of a focus on profits and no real interest in the development of the game. This is a struggle South African cricket can ill-afford to lose.

The world cricket governing body is also contemplating limiting to three the number of tournaments a player can participate in.

Chris Gayle, who has played for no less than 22 teams in his 20-year career, most of them T20 tournament teams, has made a substantial career outside of the traditional ICC tour calendar. He underlined his commitment to league cricket, and family time, by ending his List A career and pulling out of the West Indies upcoming ODI and T20 series against India. This year alone, he has turned out for at least five different teams in five different T20 leagues, earning tens of thousands of dollars.

Gayle’s late career path may also suggest a change in the way young cricketers approach their careers. It’s possible that the highest paid cricketers will never play test or ODI cricket and head straight into the many T20 leagues across the globe. It’s possible that players are already being bred to play T20 cricket exclusively, negating the need to move up the ranks of provincial and national structures.

The Proteas’ David Miller made his choice known just a few weeks ago when he made himself unavailable for selection for four-day or test cricket.

Then there’s the money. Eoin Morgan has reportedly accepted a contract of $500 000 (about R7.2 million) for the Emirates tournament and will earn weekly what he would make in two months playing in the Big Bash League.

What kind of money will be on offer in the Mzansi Super League? We don’t know yet.

On the face of it, South African cricket has entered a realm it’s finding complicated to deal with. The foray into fully commercialised fast food cricket has been made with trepidation, and an eerie lack of clarity, not to mention controversy.

But we finally have a tournament to speak of. That cricket in South Africa and CSA need this modern, entertaining brand of cricket is not disputed. The financial and developmental gains can’t be denied, but the keen attention being paid to the MSL by all interested parties stems from CSA’s knack for stepping on its own wicket at times in its zest to make some serious cash.

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