Promising lift-off for the MSL

South Africa’s T20 bash began with AB De Villiers stealing the show. And there might be other, hidden benefits to the tournament.

AB de Villiers had no clue who Kyle Verreynne was when the pair locked eyes in the lift at Newlands Cricket Ground on Thursday, a day before the Cape Town Blitz took on De Villiers’ Tshwane Spartans in the first match of the inaugural Mzansi Super League (MSL).

“I didn’t know who he was. We looked at each other. He didn’t say anything at first,” De Villiers said. Of course, the Cape Cobras’ Verreynne knew who De Villiers was but played it cool, maybe star struck, we’ll never know. Both men, on opposite ends of their respective careers, shared a handshake and wished each other well for the game ahead.

It was perhaps the kind of good luck that served Verreynne well the following evening, when he thrashed an unbeaten 53 off 34 balls in the opening game. In return, De Villiers appears to be the good luck charm the MSL needs. Cricket’s mega star cracked 59 off 30 balls in his familiar audacious manner as the sun set behind Table Mountain.

There may be a new dawn for cricket in South Africa if the MSL can be turned into a success and if the machinery that drives quality cricket content grinds into gear. The MSL stage is a surreal experience for ardent cricket fans who have become so accustomed to a different level of production, commentators and even sponsors.

It’s almost as if a parallel cricket universe has emerged and reskinned the beloved game, forming new allegiances both on and off the field.The nearly 7 000 fans who were assembled at Newlands would have seen branding from companies like Sportsmans Warehouse, BetWay and Amul, an Indian dairy producer (talk about milking it).

What have become the household names of banks, breweries and cooking oil were missing from this equation, not that they were sorely missed. By most accounts, the SABC’s broadcast was average, but not horrible. Global Sports Commerce, the company tasked with producing the tournament, are the masters behind India’s T20 cash cow, the IPL, and Spain’s domestic football league, La Liga, both of which have a global audience. Even though the production of the first MSL broadcast may have lacked some polish, it could be shrugged off as early jitters with the hope of finding its feet.

Friday’s opening match was preceded by a concerted effort from South Africa’s cricket governing body, CSA, to turn up the volume on the MSL. Within weeks, CSA managed to get a tournament off the ground when few expected them to, and they did it on what was clearly a tight budget. How the tournament will become financially sustainable is the real test. For now, it was time to celebrate the first wicket, even though the match had not been won yet.

Payday still years away

There were pyrotechnics, dancing millennials and egregious interpretations of electronic music played at decibel levels that can only be described as age-defining. The “fan journey”, though, as the MSL has emphasised, began much earlier. For once, there were virtually no queues for beer and burgers. That may not please the vendors, though, because the MSL is mostly about the money. Everyone involved has the opportunity to earn more income on the world stage, although payday is still a distant dream.

CSA chief executive Thabang Moroe has already admitted that the league will only break even around its fifth year. That’s probably an understatement, as it’s taken seven years for Australia’s Big Bash League to see any profit. The slog is hard and long, and there will no doubt be many more years before the MSL can establish itself as part of the global elite T20 leagues.

Broadcast revenue is the name of the modern cricket game – not just title sponsorships and trade partnerships. All 32 MSL matches will be broadcast in India, England, Australia, North America and the Caribbean, amounting to a television audience in the tens of millions – potentially.

There is no guarantee yet that the MSL will take root with fans globally. It was quite clear at the opening match that fans were mostly there to watch ABD in the opening match. Few players, apart from Chris Gayle, perhaps, will spur greater excitement than De Villiers and, as long as he delivers, the MSL is in good hands. Gayle’s impact will only be felt for half of the tournament as he dips in and out to attend to matters in the UAE and the T10 League.

He was dismissed for a modest 23 off 19 balls in the Jozi Stars’ first match against the Nelson Mandela Giants. The Giants’ overseas-based player, Ben Duckett, stole the show with a match-winning half-century to give his team the win.

Apart from the big names, the MSL needs to deliver exceptional cricket, of a standard that is on par with the IPL. The evidence presented during the opening round suggests that the MSL will see some thrilling encounters and sparkling individual performances. It started off well for the 21-year-old Verreynne and the actively retired De Villiers. Verreynne’s innings was full of gusto and energy. The former SA under-19 player took risks and embraced the confidence that coach Ashwell Prince showed in him by promoting him up the batting order to number four.

The ABD show

Later, it was De Villiers’ turn to show up for the crowd. The expectation was palpable, and the moment was soaked in significance: the Chuck Norris of cricket, the man who can do no wrong, “Mr 360” himself, came striding out of retirement to dance again out in the middle. The public hoped that ABD would do a 180-degree and quit retirement. He only teased their imaginations with an exhilarating 59 off 30 balls, displaying his freakish ability to invent and reinvent cricket shots at will. One switch hit in the 11th over of the match left the crowd in awe and caused Twitter followers to have a minor meltdown.

De Villiers’ knock was the perfect tonic for the MSL’s first match, and a reminder of the quality that exists in the league, even without some big names from the T20 circuit.

Sunday’s performances in Paarl reinforced that perception, as a thrilling 400-plus match climaxed at the delivery of the very last ball. De Villiers’ Tshwane Spartans narrowly edged Paarl Rocks by just one run. Gihahn Cloete’s 80 and Theunis de Bruyn’s 66 set up a formidable 203/5 by the Spartans.

Paarl Rocks made a valiant attempt at chasing it down. Needing four runs off the last ball, the Rocks’ Patrick Kruger’s attempted six off the bowling of Andrew Birch was sailing through the air, headed for victory, only for Dean Elgar’s face and body to get in the way and restrict the shot to two runs. The Rocks were one run short and gutted, but the crowd who had gathered on a Sunday afternoon were treated to an incredible match between two evenly matched teams.

Blooding a new generation

For the Boland Cricket Union, the MSL presents an opportunity to see world-class cricketers on a regular basis. Nearly 5 000 gathered at Boland Park on Sunday, and if the Rocks continue to produce performances like they did on Sunday, there’s every reason for those crowd numbers to swell. The Boland is a region in need of help. Tired of playing second fiddle to its larger cousin in the Mother City, it has produced the likes of Roger Telemachus, Henry Williams, Charl Langeveldt and Justin Ontong, and probably deserves the fruits the MSL is likely to bear. It can only bode well for cricket in South Africa.

The greatest gift the MSL might, in fact, give to South African cricket may not be large amounts of cash to CSA but the exposure it will give to a new generation of limited-overs cricketers such as Verreynne, Ferisco Adams, Anrich Nortje, Sinethemba Qeshile and Eddie Leie. That could be the true legacy of the MSL in years to come. It’s a tough prospect to think about, given that just weeks ago, there was no MSL, no sponsors and no official broadcaster. That CSA managed to put something together might mean that miracles still can happen in cricket.

In acting in haste, they may learn some difficult lessons along the way, something they say they are prepared for. So it seems that for CSA the benefits outweigh the risks.

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