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Week 3

June 19, 2017

It felt appropriate that such a monumental day in the history of South African cricket should start with something calming and peaceful, like an early morning run through Richmond Park to see the deer which still live a largely natural life in one of the largest cities in the world.

There are a few enclosed areas where the mothers, through the generations, know to give birth and raise their young, but that’s just to keep the thousands of dog-walkers at bay. Or rather, the dogs. Otherwise they are free to roam. Piccadilly Circus, Hammersmith, Kings Road, Knightsbridge… and then Richmond Park.

Talking of Knightsbridge, that’s where the announcement of the Global League Franchise owners took place at a lengthy function in the plush, five-star Bulgari Hotel between 12 and 4pm. And what an event.

Cricket South Africa could easily be excused for getting a little ahead of themselves when they booked Lord’s for the event and the ECB could equally be excused for ‘requesting’ the MCC to cancel the event on the basis that nobody had asked the host nation, or the ICC, or even informed them that they would be piggy-backing on the Champions Trophy hype. Anyway…

It was all supposed to be so logistically simple for the Proteas ‘marquee’ players when it was organised. A day after the Champions Trophy final, a lunch-time launch and an evening flight home for a 10-day break before returning for the test series. Instead, Hashim Amla, Quinton de Kock, JP Duminy, Faf du Plessis and Kagiso Rabada flew home for a week after the ignominious exit and then back again, for the launch, before returning home to complete their rest period.

So, the open secret was confirmed. Shah Rukh Khan and his Knight Riders will set up a third station in Cape Town following base camp in Kolkata and a satellite branch in Trinidad. It gives him and the ‘brand’ four months of global exposure to offer their sponsors – and enough financial muscle to offer the best players contracts which would dwarf those on offer from their national boards. The trend is as obvious as the rising sun with Delhi Daredevils and two Pakistan Super League franchises also expanding into South Africa.

The T20 Global League is immensely exciting for South Africa, from a cricketing, entertainment and economic perspective. It also happens to be the ‘tipping point’ after which there is no return to the global game as we have known it for most of the last century.

Cricket is now irreversibly en route to follow the soccer model of ‘club before country.’ The clubs ‘own’ the players and pay their vast salaries – they release them to play in African, European and Asian Championships, and World Cups. That’s pretty much it.

In cricket, in no more than two or three years, players will be refusing national contracts in their droves and signing with franchises with release clauses for T20 and 50-over World Cups. Perhaps some test matches, if the major nations and the ICC can get their act together to organise a meaningful league. With meaningful prize money.

The administrators have nobody but themselves to blame if they don’t like it. They’ve been arguing and disagreeing about international leagues for over 10 years. But then, they do also own the domestic leagues. Welcome to the new world.

June 18, 2017

Stand by for another entry into the top-10 “most watched” global events once the numbers shake down following the India-Pakistan final of the ICC Champions Trophy at The Oval cricket stadium in London on Sunday.

The Indian government’s broadcast legislation on events of “national interest” means the game was shown on the world’s largest public broadcaster, Doordashan, allowing hundreds of millions of Indians without access to satellite or cable television to watch the game.

Accurate figures are hard to obtain and are understandably the subject of hot debate among hosts, broadcasters, advertisers and sponsors but it is not only sports events which have attracted the world’s collective attention over the years.

It is almost 50 years since Neil Armstrong’s first moonwalk was broadcast live during which time the world’s population has almost doubled and access to television increased exponentially yet it is estimated that 530 million people watched those live pictures despite the event taking place at just before 3am in Europe. That represented approximately 14 percent of the world’s population.

The 2006 and 2010 soccer World Cup finals were independently estimated to have been watched by an average of between 260 and 322 million people with a ‘reach’ of between 600 and 638 million – impressive numbers but some way short of Fifa’s claim that 715.1 million had actually watched the 2010 final.

Multi-day events, such as the Summer Olympics, make the eye-watering claim around five billion people – over two thirds of the world’s population) catch a glimpse of the 20-day sporting extravaganza “at some point.”

It’s not just sports events which grab the world’s attention. The ‘Royal Wedding’ and subsequent funeral of Princess Diana were watched by hundreds of millions of people in the former Commonwealth and the rest of the world while the Eurovision Song Contest and the Miss World Pageant (which is broadcast in over 200 countries) regularly claim audiences of 200 million with a peak of closer to 600 million.

American sitcoms and medical dramas like Mash, Friends, Seinfeld, House and CSI are also seen by hundreds of millions of people, the only occasion they command a ‘live’ audience of any significance is when an emotional, ‘final’ episode is broadcast.

Given the cultural and geographical history of India and Pakistan, the passion for cricket in both countries and the tendency for its populations and leaders to use a relatively simple sport as a metaphor for so much else, Sunday’s match was expected to attract interest from significant expatriate communities in over 100 countries apart from the two protagonists.

India started as strong favourites given their overwhelming victory against Pakistan in the opening group game although captain Virat Kohli admitted before the match to a great appreciation for the way Pakistan turned their tournament around: “Very impressed. The turnaround has been magnificent. Obviously if you reach the finals you have to play some good cricket, and credit to them, they've turned around things for themselves really well. They've beaten sides that looked really strong against them, but the belief just showed on the field the way they played together as a team,” Kohli said.

Not only have the players from both sides made a point of emphasising that it is a game of bat-and-ball without cultural, ethical or religious significance, but the fans of both nations have mingled happily together without any of the rancour or ill-feeling which has tarnished previous meetings.

The clamour for match-day tickets the day before the final reached feverous levels with ‘underground’ prices soaring past £2 000 for a £70 d ticket.

Even two hours into the match there were literally thousands of supporters outside the gates watching the action on big screens and hoping, somehow, to find a way inside.

June 15, 2017

Shortly after Pakistan’s opening match of the Champions Trophy during which they had been soundly thrashed by India, I interviewed opening batsmen Ahmed Shahzad.

It was awkward because I had been told that captain Sarfraz Ahmed was going to be the interviewee. I wasn’t entirely certain who he was. Three times he introduced himself as “Ahmed”. There are several Ahmeds in the squad.

He could, and was wholeheartedly forgiven for the eye-roll which preceded the interview. He spoke eloquently and nodded enthusiastically in agreement with my assertion that, despite the heavy loss, all they had to do was win their remaining two games “convincingly” to make the semifinals. It seemed highly unlikely to me – and most other viewers.

Then we had to wait almost an hour for our Indian player to appear – Hardik Pandya. At some point I heard my name being called from the vicinity of the players area. It was Mickey Arthur.

“Tough day,” I said after our usual handshake and hug. “Ag, yah, but we’ll be fine,” replied Pakistan’s head coach with a smile. “Seriously? It was a bit of a hiding…” I stammered. “We’re playing well, bad days are part of the job,” Mickey said, exuding far more calm and confidence than appeared appropriate at the moment. Guess that comes with the territory working with Pakistan.

And now here they are, in the final. Pakistan against India and Arthur is in charge of one half of one of sport’s greatest global events. Soccer World Cup final, Superbowl, Cricket World Cup final.

The 2017 Champions Trophy final will be shown live on India’s national broadcaster, Doordashan, which will rate it among the most viewed sporting events ever. Tighten your seatbelts for Sunday.

Ravi Shastri joined us on radio commentary today and confirmed that today’s Indian squad is among the best the country has ever produced – and almost certainly the best, notwithstanding his reluctance to compare teams and players of different eras.

But with captain Virat Kohli setting fitness standards never seen before and Ravindra Jadeja doing the same with fielding, Shastri soon loosened up: “This is the best Indian team ever, in terms of depth and across all formats,” he enthused.

Bangladesh were solid in the biggest match in the country’s history. If they had aimed for 320 they might have been bowled out for 200. They were sensible and calm, gave themselves a chance. Or thought they did. Kohli and Rohit Sharma destroyed them, and the fans among a record attendance of nearly 25 000 stayed as long as they could, desperate for a close-up view of their heroes and even a selfie or two, for which the players obliged. Briefly.

June 13, 2017

One of the biggest challenges facing both players and the travelling media when these ICC tournaments end in failure is the immediate aftermath when it feels like you’re a gate-crasher at someone else’s party.

There is no shortage of great stories, none better than the delight of millions of Bangladeshi and Pakistani supporters that the two lowest ranked outsiders before the tournament, at 33-1 and 25-1 respectively, have reached the semifinals.

In a couple of weeks' time South Africa will once again be sharing the main stage with England when the four-match test begins but, for the remainder of this week, it feels right to stay out of the way.

I return to action on Thursday having been asked to commentate on the India-Bangladesh semi at Edgbaston in Birmingham but there will be a degree of anaesthetic on the day, at least at the beginning.

Like everyone else, I just hope the minnows put up a decent fight and don’t get thumped.

The last 48 hours has presented an opportunity to hide away deep in this country’s fabled countryside. So deep that different eras are experienced, a time folk popped in on neighbours unannounced and borrowed cups of sugar through the back door even if they weren’t at home.

Britain’s iconic red telephone boxes are now obsolete in their original capacity but, understandably, there is a strong desire to keep and reinvent them.

In the boroughs of London they have been stripped of their coin-operated phones, refurbished with secure locks and rented out to entrepreneurs who operate mini coffee and sandwich kiosks.

I found this one in a village with no more than 100 houses being used as a public library.

Around 300 books, DVDs and CDs were neatly stacked on solidly constructed shelves and there was a visitors book in which withdrawals and returns were entered.

An ‘honesty’ fee of 50 pence was requested per transaction but was waved if an item was donated. Everything was immaculate. The register indicated it had been so for over two years.

It was market day, too, down the road in the local town. How come English potatoes are so huge? A single one would satisfy my family. Do they leave them in the ground much longer than in other countries? Is it the variety? Fertilizer?

These are the questions which preoccupy us in times such as these. Far less taxing than wondering what was going through the batsmen’s minds at The Oval on Sunday.

Good luck Pakistan, good luck Bangladesh.

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