Why the Masters Champions League was neither Masterful nor Champion
The inaugural Masters Champions League petered out on Saturday evening, its last whimper some decibels below the volume tournament organisers must have aimed for as they planned this final hurrah for cricket's ageing greats. Its grand final, in which the Gemini Arabians beat the Leo Lions by 16 runs, was neither special nor unique, a very acute reminder of the two-week process as a whole. It's not that the Champions League lacked quality at the crease, far from it, it's just that - for all its potential extravagance - the entire event felt like a dinner party that had been arranged at the last minute. Sure, the guestlist was great - but the table wasn't properly laid and the food was hastily cobbled together out of leftovers at the back of the fridge. The illustrious names that populated the six teams' rosters went through the motions professionally and properly, but the tournament retained all the look and feel of a testimonial when it explicitly sought to be so much more. In its mission statements, the Masters Champions League stated its intention to be a platform for former stars of the game the stage to thrill, excite and entertain. As it was, while entertaining, the final product was undercooked.
It was good cricket, but good cricket is freely available at any Sheffield Shield or County Championship match throughout a summer in both hemispheres. This was half-baked sporting grandeur, a league which promoted itself as being much bigger and much better than it actually was. Yes, there were big names playing big shots in big stadia, to the sound of loud music under the flailing ashes of noisy fireworks. But crowds reached little more than 20 per cent of capacity and, internationally, the matches were relegated to internet streams and three-paragraph match reports several webpages below the cutline. From this Englishman's perspective, it was an effort to tune in - and, believe me, I wanted to. I'd have loved to have stumbled upon live coverage of the tournament on mainstream television but it remained elusive.
Barely advertised. Barely noticeable. Barely even there.
While the Big Bash was pushed heavily by Sky Sports throughout their coverage of England's tour of South Africa, its Masters cousin was largely ignored - the runt of the T20 litter. For those who were not aware of the existence of the competition, it would have been easy for the Champions League to have floated on by like a dinghy through the fog. That's desperately disappointing, for all involved. It's impossible to doubt the passion and ambition of organiser-in-chief Zafar Khan - and in securing the talents of Virender Sehwag, Kumar Sangakarra, Muttiah Muralitharan, Shivnarine Chanderpaul, Brian Lara, Herschelle Gibbs, Sourav Ganguly, Jacques Kallis, Adam Gilchrist, Mahela Jayawardena, Graeme Smith, Brett Lee and many, many more, he proved his commitment to the event could make it a success in years to come. But there has to be demand for that supply to remain relevant. Those who turned out to watch in Sharjah and Dubai were the same hardy group of cricket loyalists who have backed Pakistani internationals in recent years and the Sharjah Cup before that, but where were the yet-to-be-converted? Where was the next generation of cricket fans? Perhaps, as it looks to find the stability necessary to fulfil its 10-year contract, the Champions League should look outside of the UAE for host venues. The Cricket All Stars shindig in the United States last autumn provided a peculiar enough blend of spectacle and intrigue to be turn its gimmicky appearance into a major draw. The Champions League, more gormless than gimmick, all seemed a little disorganised. Late payment for hotel rooms, miscommunication with the press, general logistical issues when it came to the players' itineraries - its various problems belied the class of those players who had agreed to be involved. Moreover, it didn't seem to offer anything new - a tried-and-tested format, lacking the intensity of the IPL, without the patriotism of the World Cup, minus the aggression of the Big Bash. While in the US, the sight of Curtly Ambrose loping across the pitchers' mound at Dodgers Stadium to chase a Sachin Tendulkar leg glance was so unusual as to be engrossing, in the UAE this winter the competition just did not feel different enough. The Champions League was presented as a finished product way when it fact it was still little more than good ideas scribbled on the back of a napkin. It was a well-intentioned dud; a promising starting point but nothing more.
The "retired" players weren't all "retired", and many were not paid on time, while those who did bowl a ball in anger did so without international media paying them much attention. In its current format, the Champions League will splutter, choke and drown before its second birthday, yet the general premise of the tournament is both infinitely marketable and proven to be very well received. Shah and his team should take immense credit for pulling together the basic structure but they rushed far too quickly into the staging. In doing so, they may well have threatened the competition's livelihood.
Over the coming months, the cricket world's full attention will focus on India - first the World Cup and then the IPL - and the Champions League needs to show the humility to sit down and take notes. Introducing yet another T20 tournament in an already congested marketplace is becoming an increasingly difficult task and, without innovative ideas, such competitions will find themselves locked out of the global jamboree. Khan must recognise that his event was launched too quickly and, subsequently, the damage may already be done. Whether the likes of Sehwag, Sangakarra and Kallis - barely retired, if retired at all - will be keen to return to the second edition of the tournament after their experiences this time around remains to be seen. If assurances can be made about the worldwide coverage and salaries, the big names might be back. Otherwise, the Masters Champions League may have to take early retirement. Sam M. - Freelance Sports Writer