‘Cricket has got the energy back’ – Smith on SA20 success
by Vijay Tagore • Published on Tue, Feb 7, 2023,
Graeme Smith, the commissioner of SA20, says there has been an Indian cricket touchpoint to South African cricket for many years and explains why the league chose six IPL franchises, declaring he has no problem in it being called a mini-IPL. He was categorical that the window for the league won’t change so that the FTP can be protected but hinted that the league’s wild card policy may not be there next year. Excerpts from an interview…
Why has SA20 been so successful despite cricket in South Africa struggling in so many other ways?
Very good question. Probably quite a difficult one to pinpoint. I think it is because of a collective number of aspects. One of the objectives of SA20 is to put something successful and relate to the South African fans. There were a lot of negativities in South Africa for a long time. We spent a lot of time speaking about how we could change that, how could we change the narrative, how to re-energise cricket in South Africa and how we could bring the fans back..? A lot of these decisions we made around marketing, ticketing, pricing, by speaking to the public. That was our main goal. Once it picked pace, we had strategies around it. I think the fan experience has been great. The quality of cricket, which is our co-product, is good. New South African talent is being spoken about. Once the ball got rolling, the energy was created.
Are you confident it will rub into South African cricket?
I hope so. It has been amazing how many people have approached me saying they watched the first ODI against England and we beat them like that for the first time in years now. Cricket has got the energy back which is what we wanted to do. Obviously, we want the Proteas men and women to be successful. Our goal here is to benefit players and strengthen players who can perform for South Africa at the international stage as well. We know it won’t happen overnight.
The general impression of the SA20 is that it is an extension of the IPL.
We don’t see that as a negative. I don’t have a problem with that. We have been fortunate to attract the type of teams we wanted. We got six of the most experienced franchises in the world who got huge experience in building the teams over their last 15-16 years. The fact that they wanted to build their global brand through SA20 is a positive. It has benefited everyone across the board. These are global brands, and fans around the world, in India and South African, recognise these brands. There has been an Indian cricket touchpoint to South African cricket for many years. The other factor which has been amazing is how fast the local fans have got behind their teams. It is city-based and the fans being in the stadium from PE to Durban to Cape Town and emotionally involved was something we thought would take a lot of time. But it was incredibly instant.
Was it difficult to find a few South African investors?
We did not have a plan to have six IPL owners. We wanted to attract quality people, we spoke to around 30 people, 30 companies and 30 entities. We then handed over Deloitte to do the due diligence. The six teams that we see today were considered the best. In the end it was a no brainer.
But how do you explain the business model? There is a perception that there would be losses of about $5-6 million for each franchise every year.
I think it is a journey and they understand that. We know what we would like to deliver for them. They did not make money in the IPL in Year One either. Eventually they will as our business model is very strong. Also, they are very strong business operators within themselves. I am very comfortable with where we are now. The opinion of the local business and sponsorship market has changed and there is energy towards the league. That is what we intended to do.
Are you comfortable with the clash of your windows with other leagues? Is the window likely to change in future so that more quality international players can take part?
Players from both the leagues are earning. It is a good time for the players. It is a good one if you are a top player. Look, in a perfect world, you would not like to clash with anybody. Unfortunately, that is not the reality. We have an FTP, we have a Boxing Day Test, we have a New Year Test. So, this will remain our window.
You have seen turmoil in South Africa cricket due to Kolpak. You are seeing players preferring early retirement or shunning national cricket contracts, Trent Boult for instance. In such a backdrop, how do you explain your policy of Wild Card? The franchises may be willing to shell out $ 5 million for top cricketers, who could be tempted to leave national teams.
I am not sure the Wild Card would be there for us every year. We still don’t know the policy for next year. We have not drafted our player regulation for the second season. The South African domestic season was not played (before the SA20 auction), the World Cup was not played yet. So, there were a few factors which we thought would give opportunities for new young players. The only internationals we had signed through Wild Card were Dhananjaya de Silva and Jofra Archer. You are bringing up a bigger issue of world cricket.
But you are not just a South African administrator, are you? You are an administrator of world cricket too. You owe responsibility to world Cricket as well.
We do. Our reasons for Wild Card were cricket related. We wanted to give opportunities to new cricket heroes. The IPL auction had not happened when we had finished. We did not know who would be picked. So, there were a whole lot of factors for this. Our challenge for us now is to have our player regulation right from second year.
How could you have allowed Temba Bavuma to be unsold? He is your national captain, like you were once. Could you not have avoided that embarrassment?
We needed to be careful here. Our job in the league is not to interfere in certain things. Selection is up to the teams. Obviously, we would have loved to see Temba picked up. We are glad that he has performed well and he is playing now (for Sunrisers Eastern Cape). He has shown everybody with his performances and he has got the reward. To step in or not to step in — we had to draw a line. Integrity of the league has got to be No. 1 for us.
Finally, why is India so important for South African cricket?
For a number of reasons. The fan base, love for cricket, eyeballs that come with India and the commercials. The fact that so many businesses and television channels (the league is being shown in Sports 18 and Jio Cinema) love cricket in India, it is the backbone, like you might say Europe is the backbone of football. We are very lucky with the sub-continent as we got very lucky with cricket there.