Cricket unites South Asian expats in second home Saudi Arabia

In the helter-skelter world of international franchise cricket, now is peak time.

Betway SA20’s (South Africa’s Twenty20 cricket league) final was played in front of a full house at Newlands, Cape Town, on Feb. 10.

A week later, the final of DP World ILT20 2024 attracted a packed house to the 25,000 capacity Dubai International Stadium. And on the same day, the first match in the Pakistan Super League took place in Lahore. The final of the Bangladesh Premier League is scheduled for March 1.

A start date and schedule for the Tata Indian Premier League is awaited, as these are dependent on the yet-to-be-announced schedule of the national elections, which are to be held in April.

The most touted start date is March 23, with match locations and dates rolled out in phases once the polling schedule becomes clear. A date for the final is rumored to be May 26, which is barely a week before the International Cricket Council T20I World Cup commences.

While the IPL is unquestionably the most watched cricket franchise league on and off screen, the DP World ILT20 lays fair claim to be the second.

According to the Broadcast Audience Research Council India, the 2023 edition of the IPL registered 505 million television viewers, its biggest ever level. Hindi-speaking markets contributed two-thirds of the audience, an increase of almost half compared with 2022. Some of the increased interest was generated by children, whose propensity to view rose by an astonishing 64 percent.

The DP World ILT20 operates within a four-week window compared with eight weeks for the IPL. Match attendances were up by 300 percent in 2024.

BARC figures revealed that the first 18 matches of ILT20 2024 attracted 161 million views, with 46 percent of the audience women and 56 percent aged under 30. A 12 percent increase was achieved among urban audiences in India compared with the previous year.

In 2023, 255 million fans were reached in India and 367 million worldwide unique viewers via TV and digital channels.

Clearly, ILT20’s appeal is growing, India representing the most significant market. Final audience figures are awaited with anticipation.

The audience profile for SA20 displays different characteristics. Nielsen Sports SA reported a 36 percent rise in viewership within South Africa across the first 19 days of the 2024 edition, compared with the inaugural tournament in 2023. Remarkably, almost two-thirds of the audience was reported to be over the age of 50.

League officials are also looking to tap into the Indian market, given that all six franchises are Indian owned. In 2023, 131 million people were reached there, more than 100 million less than achieved by ILT20. Again, final figures are awaited for SA20 2024 before an assessment of relative appeal can be made.

Any comparison needs to account for the Pakistan Super League, which is also building its brand.

A claim by a former chair of the Pakistan Cricket Board that the 2023 PSL had outperformed the IPL in terms of digital ratings – 150 million viewers on digital platforms compared with 130 million – were not helpful and widely derided.

Nevertheless, the size of Pakistan’s population and the popularity of cricket in the country combine to ensure that viewing figures will compete at the top end of franchise leagues.

Audience figures are not the only criterion to judge the attraction of franchise leagues. Prize money, salary levels, broadcasting revenues, sponsorship, standard of play, strength of competition, and quality of facilities must all feature in any assessment.

The development of local talent is another factor being addressed differently by the franchises. In the case of ILT20 it is an imperative. Each franchise must have at least four UAE players, of whom two must feature in the playing 11.

In 2024, the standout UAE performer was Pakistan-born Muhammad Waseem. He scored 321 runs opening the batting for the MI Emirates, the fourth-highest aggregate in the league. It included 43 in the final that set the MI Emirates on their way to victory. The performance enhanced his credentials which had received a boost in 2023, when he was also the UAE’s leading player in ILT20 2023. In March last year, he was appointed the UAE’s captain.

A further boost was in prospect as, during ILT20 2024, Islamabad United signed him for the PSL. However, because of his involvement in ILT20’s knockout stage, it left only a short gap between the final and the UAE’s Cricket World Cup League 2 matches against Canada and Scotland in Dubai between Feb. 28 and March 9.

This year, the most successful of the players who have grown up in the UAE were 20-year-old Zuhaib Zubair, who claimed 11 wickets for the Gulf Giants, and 21-year-old Alishan Sharafu, who scored 220 runs, including an undefeated 82. At 18 years old, Aayan Afzal Khan already seems like a veteran, having captained the UAE under-19 men’s team, and debuted for the senior side aged 17. This year he claimed six wickets for the Gulf Giants.

In an amendment to the tournament conditions for 2024, franchises were allowed to include players who are serving residential qualifications to be eligible for the UAE.

Haider Ali made an impression, taking seven wickets for the Dubai Capitals, as did the unknown left-arm fast bowler, Mohammed Rohid, with nine wickets. Some of the other locals did not get the chance to play much but will have received a cricket education from the established international players.

More anomalous was the low number of appearances afforded to some overseas players. One example is 22-year-old Englishman, Will Smeed, who played only two matches for the champions, MI Emirates. His career, so far, is an unusual one. After impressing observers as a teenager in white ball cricket, he decided in November 2022 to focus on that format. Effectively he retired from red ball cricket without playing a first-class match.

He is a fully signed-up member of the franchise helter-skelter but surely game time is needed to stay on it to showcase such talent.

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