PORT OF SPAIN: West Indies cricket’s increasing fixation with the T20 format comes clearly into focus over the next six weeks with the fourth edition of the Caribbean Premier League getting underway on Wednesday.
Defending champions Trinidad and Tobago face St Lucia at the Queen’s Park Oval in the opener.
That the franchise previously known as the Trinidad and Tobago Red Steel now carries the branding of Trinbago Knight Riders reflects the increasing international appeal of the tournament, and more specifically, the growing attraction to the immensely lucrative Indian market.
With Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan, owner of the Indian Premier League two-time champions Kolkata Knight Riders, now the controlling stakeholder of the Port-of-Spain-based franchise, even the timing of the four home matches (9pm local time) to catch the morning television audience in India reflects the outward-looking perspective of the competition organisers that has often been at odds with the preferences of West Indian audiences.
While most matches in the three-week inaugural season of the CPL in 2013 started at 8pm and attracted capacity crowds for almost all fixtures, since then there has been an increasing move towards midday and afternoon matches that are seen to be more attractive to television audiences in larger cricket-watching markets internationally.
Last year’s international television audience totalled 90 million and the CPL 2016 goes a step further with the staging of six preliminary matches — more than at any other venue — in the United States at the internationally-approved Central Broward Regional Stadium in Lauderhill, Florida.
West Indies, New Zealand and Sri Lanka have played T20 Internationals previously there but this is the first time that the CPL is venturing to America.
The format of the game is seen as ideal to capture the interest and patronage of the expatriate West Indians and Indian sub-continentals who have often complained of being starved of opportunities to see their cricketing heroes first-hand.
Another first this year, and one that is likely to have a detrimental impact on the traditional game, is the clashing of the CPL schedule with the West Indies home test series.
Four Tests are to be played against India in July and August with the first two in Antigua and Jamaica likely to feel the impact of cricket fans being drawn to their television sets at home rather than to the venues as CPL matches are played in St Lucia and Florida simultaneously.
Home Test cricket audiences have dwindled significantly over the past decade as the West Indies fortunes continued on a downward trend.
Many fans in the region now prioritise the CPL ahead of the representative Caribbean team, a reality that is likely to be even more evident over the next two months.
While players’ salaries pale by comparison to what is available in the IPL, the combination of the joyful, tourist-oriented Caribbean setting and contracts that reach an upper limit in the region of $150,000 continues to attract more of the best available international talent.
However, that excludes the notable exception of Indian players who have never featured in any competition outside of their multi-million-dollar domestic event.
Three years ago, the top-ranked international players in the inaugural CPL were Australia’s Ricky Ponting, Muttiah Muralitharan of Sri Lanka, the Pakistani pair of Shoaib Malik and Mohammad Hafeez, New Zealander Ross Taylor and South African Herschelle Gibbs.
In 2016 though, the increasing prestige and appeal of the tournament has attracted a host of international talent with A.B. de Villiers, arguably the most complete batsman in world cricket, and fellow South Africans Hashim Amla and Faf du Plessis featuring for the first time.
Also a first-timer at the CPL is recently-retired New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum.
Eight years ago he savaged the Royal Challenges Bangalore attack on the way to 158 for the Kolkata Knight Riders in the very first match of the inaugural IPL season.
On Wednesday, he will at least attempt to have a similar impact making his debut for the Trinbago Knight Riders as they take on a St Lucia Zouks team led by Darren Sammy, the man who captained the West Indies to their second World T20 title earlier this year.