Watching cricket in the Caribbean, at times, raises significant concerns.
Empty stands, lack of interest among locals and the steady decline in the quality on the field have proved to be a dampener in recent years. The concerns are raised even further when a side like India, power-packed with global cricketing stars, is unable to pull crowds to Tests or One-Day Internationals.
Things are significantly different though when the shortest format makes an entry. The one-off Twenty20 International between Windies and India saw a packed house that was missing in the recent preceding five ODIs. Agreed the short format appeals to the young, the energetic, and the exciting brand of play ensures there are little or no dull passages in the game.
But what about the Test loyalists? The ones who believe that Test cricket is the pinnacle of the game. Why have they started staying away from the game? That’s a debate you won’t see for the next six weeks as the Caribbean islands get ready to host the fifth edition of Caribbean Premier League.
‘The biggest party in sport’, the tagline the tournament greets you with, has a reason to be hopeful. In the last four years, the tournament has not only gained popularity but also has seen a steady rise in the television ratings and viewership. It recorded a reach of 134 million in the last edition according to the tournament website.
And there’s more to keep the broadcasters and viewers interested – the rise of viewership ratings in places like India. From 44 million to 82 million (2015 to 2016) in a space of just one edition gives the sponsors the much-needed rationale to invest in the game. The rise in numbers, in a country where most matches are televised early morning, shows the tournament has successfully established itself as an emerging competitor to the IPLs and BBLs. Something, Dwayne Bravo stressed on while speaking to Cricbuzz.
The fact that the numbers are on the upward curve is also because the fans are able to see their local stars in action. The likes of Darren Sammy, Bravos, Kieron Pollard, Chris Gayle, Sunil Narine and others. The turmoil created by Cricket West Indies (formerly known as the West Indies Cricket Board) has not only impacted the players, who don’t turn up for the national side for now, but also the quality of the outfit that gets on the park. Add to that the prospect of seeing players like Brendon McCullum, Kumar Sangakkara, Kane Williamson and other established names, and you have a blockbuster product right there.
What about the cricket then? Of course, a tournament can’t survive only because of the glamour, the atmosphere and the bling it brings on the table. It’ll be naive to think CPL can produce Test cricketers that’ll change Windies’ fortunes in the longest format. But credit should also go to CPL for ensuring there’s a steady flow of talent that make Windies dynamic and dangerous in T20Is.
This edition will also see Afghanistan’s Mohammad Nabi and Rashid Khan ply their trade for St. Kitts and Nevis Patriots and Guyana Amazon Warriors respectively. And then there will be Mehedi Hasan – the young Bangladesh off-spinner, still trying to find his feet in international cricket, aiming big and trying to establish himself. If Hasan’s ambitions are anything to go by, he sees CPL as a ticket to the IPL.
Lasith Malinga will miss the tournament and so will Ben Cutting and Chris Lynn. But there will be Mitchell McClenaghan, Jesse Ryder, Mohammad Hafeez and ICC Champions Trophy 2017 star Hasan Ali to make up for that. The fifth edition will see some top international cricketers in action, which for a young league is a massive achievement.
CPL has also been trying to exploit the potential the United States of America market holds. After successfully hosting matches in Florida, albeit at a loss, and aiming to continue to do so, they are now looking at various ways to reach the diaspora of fans settled in the US that don’t belong to just cricket playing nations like India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and the United Arab Emirates. The first step to that is to host warm-up matches between USA, Patriots and Jamaica Tallawahs ahead of the tournament. The tournament will also see USA Under-19 players – 19 of them – work with the sides as net bowlers and as 12th men.
And to think of it, all this is great before you realise Cricket West Indies, for the second edition now, has somewhat shot itself in the foot. Last year it was India’s Test series that clashed with the tournament and this time around some of the players will be in the United Kingdom playing a Test series. Make no mistake, it’s not a pleasant experience for the players playing away from home when people are focused on CPL. They too want to be part of ‘the biggest party in sport’.
Friday, the cacophony will sound familiar. The beat-matching fun jigs in the stands will return. The hip-hop moves to celebrate a wicket or an ‘enter sponsor name’ maximum will be there in plenty bundled in fun package lasting 37 days but, make no mistake, challenges for CPL are much bigger now. The IPL and the BBL have set the benchmark high for other budding leagues. And if the rising numbers are anything to go by, CPL’s overall health is doing and going to do just fine.
But you need not worry about that. Join the bandwagon, get ready to groove on the catchy tunes, get behind the teams and get ready for a Caribbean party as the action starts Friday at the Darren Sammy National Cricket Stadium with St Lucia Stars battling Trinbago Knight Riders from 9 p.m.