From start to finish, a whiff of panic lingered over the way the Big Bash League and its clubs handled AB de Villiers‘ brief and ultimately dead end flirtation with the tournament. As the most game-changing addition to Australian cricket, and indeed sport, in well over a decade, the BBL deserved better than to play host to a saga that had no winners.
Whether it was Cricket Australia, the clubs or their broadcasters Seven and Fox Sports/News Corp, the eagerness to secure de Villiers after he declined to take part in the tournament last season seemed motivated as much by worry about the summer to come as it was by robust belief in the strength of the competition that already exists.
De Villiers and his management, having fielded offers by more than half the clubs, indicated on Friday that he was no longer interested, providing no concrete reasons other than to complain about the “repeated media leaks” about his interest and then the terms by which he would be secured.
Given the length of the tournament, the constraints of the BBL salary cap and the close proximity of news that Australia’s best white-ball players would be away in India for an ODI tour during much of January, thus depriving the league of much of its best homegrown talent, the sense that it was “AB or bust” left plenty of questions hanging in the air.
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For one thing, the sort of money that needed to be cobbled together, via the successful club, CA’s marketing funds and the broadcasters – both of whom were involved in discussions around signing de Villiers to “value-add” deals to help get him to the figure he desired – made a mockery of the payments usually available to players taking part in the tournament, while raising the issue of whether de Villiers would be in Australia as a cricketer or a billboard.
A figure in the region of A$350,000 for a handful of games made even the headlining five-year, A$1 million deal signed by Chris Lynn with the Brisbane Heat in 2017 look puny. Global market pressures from the BPL and elsewhere forced CA, the clubs and broadcasters to raise their eyes above the usual sorts of deals, but there were plenty of voices questioning the integrity of an arrangement that would allow the successful – most likely major market – club to benefit from one player being paid so much outside the cap in broad daylight.
Not for the first time, tails seemed to be wagging dogs. The first indications of de Villiers coming to Australia only became apparent after it was clear that the BCCI would insist on a tour of India in mid-January, duly depriving Fox Sports of the exclusive ODI content on home soil it had paid the lion’s share of a A$1.18 billion rights deal to secure. ESPNcricinfo understands that broadcasters were contacted and asked to put in lucrative commentary offers to de Villiers’ management by way of sweetening the deal, this after CA had itself written to the clubs to indicate it was willing to put in extra funds in the region of A$50,000 to help add ballast to any club’s offer.
Such exchanges bore the stamp not of the maturing and successful league that the BBL now is, but instead of the nascent exhibition tournament that it was eight years ago. Back then in 2011, similar package deals ensured Shane Warne and Kevin Pietersen, to name two, were secured as high profile talent.
Elsewhere Chris Gayle was attracted to the Sydney Thunder on a deal that was believed to constitute near enough to half the club’s entire salary cap. Entering season number eight, having grown from a start-up as part of Fox Sports’ then modest domestic rights deal to being worth roughly half of the total $1.18 billion rights value, the BBL really should be past such dealings.
Imagine, for a moment, a salary capped league such as the AFL in which broadcasters were approached to offer extra money outside the cap to a particular player to ensure their arrival at a club in the league’s preferred market. While the constraints of the BBL cap are determined as much by CA’s wider strategic goal of maintaining the primacy of international cricket as by any cash shortage, there has to be a more systematic and professional way to go about things.
That, of course, is if the BBL is to be viewed as a league with genuine club support, and not an exhibition tournament where the overall “product” watched by as many viewers as possible regardless of the competing teams or their context means more than anything. This tension has been evident in discussions about the shape of the competition for next season, from whether the finals series should include the current four teams or be raised to five out of eight, as well as the aforementioned issues around marquee recruitment.
Undoubtedly the exponential increase in the number of games per team has created problems, but so too the vagaries of pitches such as problematic drop-ins at Docklands Stadium – home to the Melbourne Renegades – and the Sydney Showgrounds – home to the Thunder.
Among the most intriguing learnings from last summer was that some of the biggest television ratings for the entire tournament took place when the Heat’s Ben Cutting and Max Bryant laid waste to the Melbourne Stars by chasing down 156 inside 10 overs – an audience not for a contest, but for freakishly big hitting.
That sort of display was most certainly in the minds of all those parties working to get de Villiers to Australia. In their future decisions, the integrity and longer term growth of a competition must take greater precedence. All the scrambling made the BBL look less like the biggest addition to cricket down under in decades, and more like a league struggling to stay afloat.