Trio star as Desert Vipers claim first victory of season

Cricket franchise leagues provide growing competition as DP World ILT20 set to start in UAE

Hard on the heels of the first matches in cricket’s SA20, the DP World ILT20 (International League Twenty20) will open on Jan. 19 in Dubai. Both tournaments are showcasing their second editions, and both regarded their first editions as successful.

SA20 was rewarded with the purchase of three-quarters of tickets across all fixtures and seven sold-out matches, including the final.

That was not the case for ILT20, but it boasted live viewing figures of more than 200 million on ZEE’s linear and digital platforms. It was also broadcast on CricLife throughout the UAE and the Middle East and North Africa region.

SA20 is shown by Viacom18 to Indian viewers, a critical market for the tournaments.

Both SA20 and ILT20 are seeking to enhance their product offer in 2024. The commissioner of SA20 has expressed the view that, “the teams look much stronger than in season one.” That has been mainly because of Cricket South Africa’s decision to mandate leading national and provincial players to play in SA20 over any other competition, including national representation. Almost 70 percent of players are South African, and 20 percent are British, with the balance coming from six other countries.

There is an added aspect in that the T20 World Cup is only five months away. Hence, SA20 is a potential selection proving ground for both developing and established talent in front of large, enthusiastic crowds.

There was an overriding financial imperative for CSA behind the creation of SA20, as detailed in last week’s column. A report commissioned by SA20 has pointed to its wider impact on both the national and local economies. The franchises have a developmental remit to nurture young cricketers within their hinterlands. That is also a strong feature of ILT20.

The strategy of the Emirates Cricket Board from the outset was to build a sustainable model for UAE cricket, both developmental and financial. A core feature has been the mandate that each squad must include four UAE players, of whom two must be in the playing 11. The fact that nine were overseas players caused concern in other franchises, who tend to have a limit of four overseas players.

The ECB does not have a strength of playing resource to achieve that ratio. What it seeks to attract is high-quality players and create an environment in which domestic players will learn.

Recent performances by the UAE’s men’s team at both senior and under-19 levels have already begun to reap the rewards of the policy. Although beaten in the final of the U-19 Asia men’s one-day international cup by Bangladesh, reaching that peak ahead of both India and Pakistan spoke volumes for the learning which the players will have received by association with experienced international players during ILT20.

At senior level, last November, the UAE almost reached the T20 World Cup final, suffering a semi-final defeat by Nepal in the Asia regional qualifying competition.

One gratifying feature for the ECB to set against that disappointment was that the ILT20 was awarded List A status in December by the International Cricket Council. That means that the tournament is recognized as an official T20 one and that all tournament statistics will be recognized as official.

That is good news for the players and should provide the basis for continuing to attract those of high caliber. It is the first associate member league to receive such status.

In 2023, apart from the 24 UAE players, it was England and the West Indies who provided most players for ILT20. It is the same in 2024, with English players accounting for one-third of the non-UAE players, West Indians 20 percent, and Sri Lankans 10 percent. A further 10 percent are from associate-member countries, something that the ECB has been keen to promote. There will be a five-strong Pakistani contingent, four contracted to the only non-Indian-owned franchise, the Desert Vipers. The Dubai Capitals have a small contingent of Australians, including David Warner as captain.

There will be movement in and out of squads according to other demands on players.

Seven players in teams that reached the finals stage of Australia’s Big Bash League left to fulfil their ILT20 conditions. The Pakistani players in ILT20 will join late because of national commitments in New Zealand, while the Pakistan Super League will open on the same day as the ILT20 final. Most Sri Lankan players are on national duty in Zimbabwe. All this churn can be disruptive, breaking the balance and rhythm of teams.

As an example, the possible loss to last year’s runners-up, the Desert Vipers, of four Pakistanis for the final stages carries high risk. The Viper’s strategy is different from the other franchises.

First, it is owned by Americans, the Glazer family, 75 percent owners of Manchester United. Secondly, it has placed sustainability at the heart of its operations, aiming to cut emissions to 50 percent by 2030 and net zero by 2040. Thirdly, it has signed Pakistanis.

In a point of differentiation by ILT20 for 2024, each team has the option to substitute one player at any stage of the match after the completion of the first over of the innings. Once substituted, a player cannot participate in the remaining part of the match. This provides a tactical tweak for captains and coaches.

Penalties for slow over rates have also been introduced. Another new development allows each franchise to pick two wildcard players, who can be brought in at any time during the tournament.

Not only does this add to the competition for places within franchise teams, but it also increases competition for players between leagues. This is likely to intensify in future as they vie for position.

One aspect of that is the salary cap. The BBL had a 50 percent increase this season to $2 million, just shy of SA20’s $2.09 million, whereas ILT20 can spend $2.75 million.

Unless some compromises on dates are found, market forces will hold sway and the level of churn currently evident may well be exacerbated in future.