Project 654 and the new era of domestic cricket

Cricket South Africa’s proposal to change the format of domestic cricket has met with resistance from the South African Cricketers’ Association, which claims it was not consulted.

Project 654. It’s mentioned in shop talk between staff at Cricket South Africa (CSA) and whispered in their interactions with curious media folk. It’s code for the austerity measures adopted by the bleeding cricket governing body, swimming against a tsunami in the form of a projected R654 million loss in revenue over the next four-year cycle.

Project 654 is also a way of explaining why there were vegetable canapés, cheese, Salticrax and soft drinks at the announcement of the Proteas ICC Cricket World Cup 2019 squad in April.

In days gone by, some hacks lamented, the alcohol would flow freely and there’d be the hope of scoring a free T-shirt or two. Those were the days of largesse in South African cricket, when the game was simpler, more lucrative, with less distraction – and sponsors knocked down the door of CSA. It was a pre-Twenty20 world, a pre-IPL era and a pre-global financial crisis order. “Money’s too tight to mention,” as Simply Red put it.

The impact of shrinking economies has been felt around the world, without sparing South African markets. T20 leagues spawn more T20 leagues (and even T10 ones), and the threat of Brexit has inspired a rush for Kolpak contracts in the United Kingdom in the context of the rand’s demise against global currencies.

In short, cricket in South Africa is less of a money-spinner than it ever was (if it ever was), and CSA’s attempt to progress with the times and address this financial crisis has raised more questions than answers about its ability to make ends meet and still produce quality players at all levels of the game.

Shortchanging the players

At the beginning of April, CSA boldly announced its plan to dismantle the current two-tier system of six franchises and 13 provincial teams, and replace it with one tier of 12 provincial teams by May 2020, with the option of adding two more teams at a later stage.

Out go the Titans, Warriors, Dolphins, Cobras, Lions and Knights, and to the fore come Western Province, Gauteng, Northerns, Easterns, SWD, North West, KwaZulu-Natal and Free State. Northern Cape, Border, Eastern Province and Boland will also be back to compete domestically, with Limpopo and Mpumalanga waiting in the wings to join in 2023.

It was the kind of brave action needed to halt the bloodletting. But in trying to save domestic cricket, CSA may be short-changing its most important asset, the players. After narrowly avoiding legal action in the fallout of the Global T20 Challenge failure, CSA faces another standoff against the South African Cricketers’ Association (Saca). The association claims its players were not consulted sufficiently about the restructure, which threatens the livelihood of as many as 70 players, according to Saca.

CSA claims it did consult Saca by meeting with them about the restructure, which raises the question: What is consultation? A meeting, a gentleman’s agreement drink at the bar after a game or a signed agreement? At this stage there is no evidence to support either side of the argument.

If the domestic restructure goes ahead and Saca has no choice but to play ball, a 12-team provincial system may allow CSA to survive in a harsh financial climate. It may not benefit the quality of cricket in South Africa or audience numbers, though. It might expose more players to top-level cricket, broadening the pool from which to choose players, but it could fragment supporters and sponsors.

A lot of cricket, but fewer fans

As far as local cricket is concerned, there appears to be more supply than demand. This past summer alone, fans have been bombarded with two full international tours of Test matches, one-day internationals and T20 internationals against Pakistan and Sri Lanka. That offering was followed by a 190-match domestic bonanza for local fans in the shape of the Mzansi Super League (60 matches), the Momentum One-Day Cup (60), CSA 4-Day Franchise Series (10) and the CSA T20 Challenge (60).

It’s not as if the standard of cricket has been sub-par either. The CSA T20 Challenge, in particular, provided some thrilling moments, and perhaps one of the best T20 matches ever played in South Africa when the Lions met the Warriors in the final at Wanderers Stadium on 5 May.

An exceptional Lions team dominated from the start – led by a brilliant Temba Bavuma captain’s century – to post 203/4. Warriors captain Jon-Jon Smuts dragged his team in swashbuckling fashion to within 11 runs of the Lions total.

Sadly, Bavuma’s most thrilling white-ball innings to date and Smuts’ brutal display of attacking shots echoed only among the few thousand fans who bothered to turn up on that autumn afternoon in the Highveld.

A restructure to the domestic system may make such strength versus strength encounters rare, making it less appealing to audiences and sponsors as a result.

The six franchises currently cost CSA about R90 million to operate. The governing body says the 12-team setup will cost less and players’ salaries won’t be affected. How that is possible has not yet been explained.

According to CSA, by downsizing from 20 to 12 teams, there will be 90 fewer matches per season, which means CSA will spend less on flights, accommodation and catering.

Saca resistance

CSA wants the Mzansi Super League to be the jewel in its crown, the tournament that will bring in the money that funds the rest of domestic cricket. As it stands, this is a pipe dream. According to CSA, the league suffered a loss of around R80 million in its inaugural edition in 2018 and is expected to lose R209 million over its first four years.

Working with a public broadcaster that’s struggling financially will broaden the competition’s audience but do little for the CSA coffers. It is at this point that Project 654 becomes more than a water cooler side joke. It is the plan that could make or break domestic cricket. Saca is not amused and has already sent a lawyer’s letter to CSA.

Saca president Omphile Ramela said: “We reiterate our concerns around the financial position and around a decision which has significant consequences both for the game and the players, taken without regard to our agreements and without following the consultation process specifically provided for in our Recognition Agreement.

“Saca cares about the financial sustainability of the game and this is not only about what happens next year, but also about the years to come. Our concerns relating to this have simply been ignored by CSA. We also care about ensuring the best possible domestic structure for the players and the game and believe that this should be the subject of proper consultation and agreement, instead of there being a decision which will have significant consequences, forced on us and the players.”

Saca chief executive Tony Irish was in a more threatening mood. “Our lawyers have made it clear to CSA that its failure to comply with our agreements may well lead to legal action.

“At the same time, we are open to finding responsible solutions to the financial challenges facing cricket, and to ensure the best outcomes from a cricket point of view.

“We have invited CSA to engage in mediation on the issues. If CSA fails to comply and does not accept our invitation to mediate, Saca will be compelled to take the legal route. The future of the game is in the balance and as a critical stakeholder, we believe the players have a right to know what the financial position actually is, how it is being dealt with and how this is going to affect not only them but also all other cricket stakeholders.”

Steering the CSA ship from the looming iceberg

CSA chief executive Thabang Moroe is adamant, however, that the organisation is not in a financial crisis, but is merely preparing for a possible crisis on the horizon.

“It’s important to state that we are not recovering from anything. What we are doing is seeing an iceberg in front of us at CSA and we are steering our ship before we hit it. Our finances remain strong. We just want to make sure that we continue to remain strong,” Moroe explained. “We’ve got healthy cash reserves and healthy investments which are still performing well … we’re just trying to make sure that cricket stays sustainable.”

CSA’s accountants have calculated that the new restructure could reduce its projected R654 million loss to a mere R200 million loss, provided it can maintain current sponsorship deals and introduce new ones into the system.

You can’t fault CSA for trying in an environment that is not conducive to revenue growth. But is it listening to insiders who suggest that the English model of a two-tiered, promotion-relegation system is a better route to go? Is it heeding the warnings of Saca about player drain and the effects this could have on professional cricket?

CSA manager for cricket Corrie van Zyl said the number of professional contracts in the new structure of 12 provincial teams as opposed to the current six franchises still needed to be worked out.

“We have plans and we have worked with certain assumptions, and the number of players is an assumed number at the moment,” said Van Zyl.

Saca still has time to consider its options, and as the domestic game moves along this corridor of uncertainty, domestic players – whose livelihoods, let alone hopes and aspirations – hang in the balance. Lean times call for extraordinary measures to ensure cricket survives its current financial malaise. CSA usually gets its way, mainly because the alternatives are too ghastly to contemplate. And so Project 654 becomes a mantra to a new mission and a new era in domestic cricket.

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