One of the men right at the forefront of setting up this league is none other than one of South Africa and the world’s greatest Test captains – Graeme Smith.
The 41-year-old took some valuable time out to speak to TOI.
Excerpts from an interview:
So much is happening in the world of cricket right now, and much of it is centered around the new T20 leagues coming up. South Africa has made a terrific statement by getting six IPL franchises on board, finding a great window and signing up some really big names…
Yes, and we’re very excited. We’ve been working tirelessly behind the scenes for a while now in setting this up. And now we’re public with six very strong team owners who’ve invested in the league and South African cricket. It’s not just the credibility that these team owners bring to the league that’s important, but sustainability is hugely important too for a league of this kind. The partners who’ve come on board are key to that.
All of this has been very exciting for us and now it’s about delivering on the league itself. The pressure points for setting that all up and getting ready for January, as you can imagine, is quite extensive. We’ll be working with everybody to have it ready in time.
What do we expect? For the cricket to be competitive. If that happens, the fans are going to love it and it’ll be massive.
South Africa is also uniquely positioned to cater to global time zones simultaneously. How good and unique is that proposition?
From a business perspective, the time zones that South Africa caters to globally is a real asset. We’re lucky to be able to access so many global cricket markets because of that. The weather will be great in January. So yeah, ‘prime time summer’ – that’ll work beautifully, and we’ll be uniquely positioned to ensure the product is consumed well around the world.
CSA shares excellent relations with India. Right now, this may not mean much in the present context, but given the stake BCCI holds in world cricket, it’s great to have the “right friends” from a futuristic perspective…
Add to it, the rich history between Indian and South African cricket that goes back to even before my time, post-apartheid. The people, the competitive nature, the support that South African cricket has received. Even when we look back at the last Indian tour, when Omicron hit, Jay (BCCI secretary Jay Shah) and the Indian team were happy to support us and come over – the tour was hugely successful and absolutely necessary from a South African cricket perspective. So, it’s nice to have those relationships.
There’s a lot to learn from the BCCI considering they’ve built something so successful and take a lot of guidance from them. From our perspective, we really want to set this up as something strong going forward – both, commercially and from a cricket POV. We’d love to attract global audiences, and particularly the Indian audience. Our partners and our relations with India is going to be the key to any kind of success we may want to achieve in this competition.
What also sets the SA league apart is the potential for the domestic ecosystem that South Africa already has – a definite shot in the arm…
The key is to see what kind of a difference this league goes on to make to South Africa’s domestic circuit. The idea, not just behind what we’re doing but in general, must be to ensure cricket begins and continues to grow at the grassroots at all times. The mindset was always to make it a success in your own country.
We’ll be a South African league. Yes, we’ll have international talent but the majority of the players in the XI (seven) are going to be South Africans. So, the opportunity for them to grow, the opportunity that comes with our owners and their investments into the grassroots and the development system of South African cricket is just huge and tremendous.
It is a domestic product and South African cricket comes first. The global expertise coming in, by way of four overseas players in the playing XI, and these experienced franchises backing these teams, is going to benefit the growth of South African cricket, the growth of the players and growth of the business as well.
It’s so important with these leagues that they do benefit the ecosystem of the country that they’re in, to develop the game and it just leaves cricket in a better place.
The commentary on how the onset of T20 leagues, and that they will eat further into bilateral cricket windows, and that the game won’t be the same anymore, is deafening right now. Your thoughts…
I think the landscape certainly has been changing over the years, no? Every home federation has been looking at the sustainability of cricket in their country going forward. And I think it’s very important for South African cricket to have a product that they own, that they could develop and monetize. It’ll only strengthen South African cricket, not only from a playing perspective but also commercially.
South Africa had fallen behind on that front and needed to get going. We also had to take some ownership of our own sustainability and this league is a key part of that.
Talking of bilateral cricket, if you look at the focus of the ICC, it’s becoming packed now. Look at the next seven years, you have seven world events, the calendars are getting tight and it’s not easy to figure this all out. So, present-day cricket is a topical point and has become an issue and that does need someone to look at it and see how they can balance it going forward.
A very interesting line you’ve mentioned – boards need to take onus of their own sustainability. This needs to be carved in the stone for all cricket boards, especially in today’s times…
Changing with the times is crucial. The world doesn’t want South African cricket to just fade away and not be competitive. It needs to be competitive. The world of cricket can’t survive on three or four teams. Or maybe it can, but will that help? So, obviously, the way forward is to grow the game and have more competitive teams. The onus lies on the board here to take ownership of their own sustainability, help the game grow, and make it more competitive so that we can challenge the ‘Englands’ and the ‘Australias’ on and off the field. It is important that it happens.
The league is a big step in that direction to make sure CSA is sustainable, that there’s an investment into the grassroots, that players back in South Africa are rewarded for their talents as well.
When news flashed that South Africa had “pulled out of Australia ODIs” – was that narrative correct? Or was there more to it than what came out?
Firstly, for South Africa to be out of South Africa during the prime time of the year is a massive thing. Because, commercially, that’s our prime time of the year in South Africa, the fans are on holiday, revenues are at their highest for CSA. So, for them to be in Australia during Boxing Day and New Year is something incredible.
And this is not the first time SA has been vocal about it either…
Yes, we all know how it works. Unless you’re at home, you don’t get the revenues. It’s the home games that provide those revenues. The decision was taken in the best interests of our league. I also know that the CEO at Cricket South Africa reached out countless times to try and reach a solution with Cricket Australia over those three ODIs. We offered a number of solutions for it, which didn’t work for Cricket Australia. Unfortunately, things reached a point where they are now. I think there could be no solution found for the offers that CSA made.
I think it was months of engagements and meetings during the IPL final and I know they really tried to make it work. We have good relations with Australia, England, India, West Indies and all the boards. We need to work together but there needs to be an understanding that cricket in South Africa also needs sustainability, and we need to put focus on that as well.
The fact is people underestimate what a big call it is to be in Australia. Yes, it’s great for cricket and having played there myself in that Boxing Day and New Year’s Test match, it’s definitely exciting for the world game and CSA should be complimented for making that commitment as well.
The general notion right now seems to be that CSA and UAE T20 leagues are at war over signing of players. What’s the real picture?
I think signing of players is more of an issue for the UAE currently. Obviously, everyone wants to talk about talent when you’re launching leagues. But the majority of the squads in the SA league will be made up of our own talent. We have a rich player base that we focused on investing in. It’s great to see over the last year, our South African T20 team and the way they’ve gone about. Look at our batting units over the last two or three years in England. We weren’t ‘there’ two or three years ago, and it’s taken some bit of effort there to get going.
That’s also the core vision of the league, to develop the game in the country and keep it competitive.
But then yes, there have been stress points of closing international players, particularly with the UAE, especially given the amount of international players they need. But that said, here in South Africa itself, we have got a very strong base and we’ve already attracted some really strong international talent that’ll play an important part in launching our league at the level and scale we want to.
What do you make of this whole narrative around one being called a ‘domestic league’ and the other being called an ‘international league’…
I guess I’ll leave it to the UAE league to answer that and also the ICC actually. The ICC wants to keep its world events like the World Cups that are international events. Those are the biggest international events.
I think from my perspective all these (T20) leagues eventually need to cater to the home ecosystem and benefit the region. There needs to be an investment to develop the game at home and that has to be top priority.
That was on our minds when we started working on this and that’s the idea of what our league and our logo is based on.
It was great to see how the owners who won the bidding process looked at how they can develop and invest into the grassroots of the game, which is the key part of this entire exercise.
Yes, there needs to be financial sustainability, as I said. But investment in cricket has to be the key if we’re looking at this in the long term.
It can’t get any better than to have all IPL owners coming there, given the self-taught lessons and experience they bring to the table by virtue of having run teams over the last 15 years…
Absolutely. The years of experience they bring together in terms of developing brands and teams is incredible. They bring a lot of that to South Africa and have done a lot of work in terms of helping, supporting and setting up this league and the product. They also bring excellence, which is important. They come as a professional team, many years of professional coaching, talent scouting, understanding of the T20 game and how it’s evolved and bring all of that to South African cricket.
The meeting of minds, the knowledge, the interaction with coaching staff and players and investment in growth is very exciting.
How will SA proceed with the sale of broadcast rights for the league?
We now move into the global markets from a broadcast perspective. We have signed a local broadcaster for the Sub-Saharan market, which is SuperSport. We’ll now reach out to other territories to find the right commercial partners. We have started to identify what processes we’re going to put in place, and we’ll start engaging with them soon.