EPL to shift for stars, but can it benefit everybody?

Gayle and others can build the game in Nepal, but perhaps not in the way most think.

The world was ready to sit down and watch the 2020 Everest Premier League, the first sport of any kind in Nepal telecast in high-definition.

Flying above the pack as the country’s premier T20 franchise tournament, the league crossed new boundaries, signing a foreign broadcast partner in 1Sports. State-of-the-art cameras and equipment were set up, and agreements around the world were falling into place to beam Nepal and all its beauty to millions of homes around the world.

The final piece of the puzzle for the EPL was to sign a number of Full Member international players, or “Iconic” players, to build the reputation of the league and luring in more viewers through the profile. Upul Tharanga, Corey Anderson and Dwayne Smith, free from further international commitment, put pen to paper, and Chris Gayle, the big fish in the T20 pond, was reeled in to play for the Pokhara Rhinos.

Then the pandemic hit Nepal like everywhere else. The EPL’s dream to showcase their cricket, their fans and their country was thrown into disarray.

Chris Gayle signed on for EPL 2020
Chris Gayle had signed for the Pokhara Rhinos before COVID collapsed cricket (ICC Media Zone)

Picking up the pieces, tournament organisers scratched their heads, working out how to reschedule.

Nepal is by no means the only country forced to consider their approach to post-pandemic cricket, though their position in the cricket world and their own governance means they must work by a different logic. The new Cricket Association of Nepal is still finding its feet after reforming in December, and the T20 leagues in collaboration with the board are re-assessing their role. Franchise leagues were the life support for cricket in the country, but now there needs to be a unified effort between leagues and the board for Nepal to be greater than the sum of its parts.

A huge force behind this push has always been the support at the ground. Capacity crowds at the TU Ground are likely no matter who is playing, and pending social distancing measures, people will again flock to watch the EPL. Gayle and others are a privilege for fans to see, but crowd numbers in previous years suggest the love of live cricket is all that’s needed to get people inside. For the EPL, the next step is to capitalise on that interest through a slight increase in ticket prices, while selling rights to foreign TV outlets, opening income streams.

After consultations with the Nepal Ministry of Home Affairs, original reschedule plans for the league were based around “the closest possible time whenever the situation is favourable,” according to their announcement of the postponement. Since then, EPL Founder and Managing Director Aamir Akhtar has clarified his stance, acknowledging that new dates in a post-COVID world would be based on the availability of Gayle and other Full Member internationals.

“Of course the availability dates for Chris Gayle and other foreign players shall be considered, and shall be put on priority,” Aamir explained to Paul Radley of The National in UAE.

“We would love to have him in the EPL, if everything works out. He has a huge fan following in Nepal.” 

Aamir’s comments raised a few eyebrows around media circles. Attracting foreign interest for the EPL by signing Full Member cricketers is nothing new, though no one organising a T20 franchise league has made that a priority, let alone admitted it. Tournaments don’t set dates based on players’ availability. Instead, tournaments approach players to fit their schedule. When the ink dried on Gayle’s deal back in January before the pandemic hit, Rhinos owner Deepa Agarwal couldn’t hold in the excitement any longer, and felt the Jamaican’s talent will rub off on everybody.

“It’s almost unbelievable that a man who is synonymous to T20 cricket will be playing for my team in Nepal’s biggest T20 event,” Agarwal said in a league press release.

“This is going to be an exciting learning opportunity for all my players to play with this legendary cricketer and the rest to play against him. We are ready for the Gayle Storm!”

The presence of Gayle will certainly raise the profile of the game in Nepal, but only in the estimations of people outside peering in. Looking at the domestic players and Associate cricketers who have graced the EPL with class in its short history, is it suitable to move the tournament for such a select few? For every cricketer struggling financially in today’s world, uncertainty on when their next pay packet comes in cannot be easy. The funds generated by the likes of Gayle playing in the EPL must subsidise the outlay to bring him in, and generate the revenue to reimburse everybody else. Irrespective of Gayle and others being there for only two weeks, if this is Aamir’s plan, that’s how cricket in Nepal will grow.

The idea of Gayle and others rubbing shoulders with Nepal’s talent and showing them the ropes of the game is a red herring. Just how much can players learn in fortnight? With Gayle carrying the batting line-up on his admittedly broad shoulders, domestic players could get away with doing very little. The league and Nepal’s governing administration will profit from the attention, but it won’t magically nurture the current generation of Nepali domestic talent. Think about the way Chris Gayle plays his cricket: languid and nonchalant, sticking to his strengths of power and brute force. He can play a simple game because he knows his game and his capabilities. He can clear boundaries at times even without finding the middle of his bat. Just how beneficial can this be to a player’s education to be playing with or against Gayle across a handful of games? Think of every opening batsman in Nepal desperate for some time in the middle. Few are as tall as Gayle, and none are as physically broad and strong. Most Nepali players rely on a mix of power hitting and turning the strike over, and there is nothing wrong with that. Paras Khadka, with the discipline to know when to attack, and when to nudge the ball around, plays the type of game Nepalis should be emulating.

A supreme Nepali opening talent, once found, won’t fit the skill-set of Gayle, but that doesn’t mean he cannot deliver winning performances like Gayle over the course of his career. There are many ways to skin a cat, and Gayle’s way is almost exclusively his own. The idea of him imparting some trade secret and players taking it in within two weeks, all while he is trying hard to ensure he earns his keep, is a little naive. Not to mention the fact that the slow TU surface is likely to stifle the way he plays. Nepali cricket will grow on the back of the profits made from Gayle being there, with the profits, after rewarding Aamir and CAN’s work, hopefully going back to grassroots and infrastructure projects.

Kevin O'Brien EPL
Kevin O’Brien, playing for the Kathmandu Kings XI, cuts behind point. (Supplied/Aamir Akhtar)

Many of the players that Nepalis can learn arguably the most by those who have played there already. Kevin O’Brien, who has Test, ODI and T20I centuries to his name is a prime example. Grinding in Associate cricket for over a decade before Ireland’s upgrade to Full Membership, O’Brien is still one of the first names on the Irish team sheet in his mid-thirties. A consummate professional with experience in all levels of international cricket, Kevin’s nous arguably brings more from an educational front. Aamir, speaking on the Emerging Cricket Podcast late last year, partially agreed, but believes it is the heights of Full Membership that brings career lessons.

“The reason we are trying to attract full member players, I would say the top Test nation players, is because we want to create a legacy with Nepali cricket and we want contributors to Nepali cricket. Kevin (O’Brien) and Richard Levi who played last year, they actually did a lot with the local cricketers. This is what we want from more (Full Member) cricketers.”

Levi and O’Brien are two players who have been forced to graft and tune their game to meet the needs of T20 franchises and their respective countries, consistently developing. Gayle on the other hand has operated at one speed, at an elite level, who could struggle to come down and apply his experience in the rung below. Gayle is a smarter operator than many give him credit for, but the pressures of him putting on a show as the draw card may suck his time and efforts. The players around him will hang on his every word, though it could be debated just how applicable his game and his mindset can be applied by local cricketers looking to climb the ranks. Aamir after Gayle originally signed, outlined the West Indian’s greatest benefits to Nepal and its cricket.

“When you’re talking Chris Gayle, you’re talking beyond cricket. Of course he is one of the finest the game has ever seen in terms of power hitting and strong will, but I feel the inclusion of Chris Gayle will benefit Nepali Cricket as a whole and also the promotion of Visit Nepal 2020.”

There’s nothing wrong with Aamir and Nepal driving the game forward through Chris Gayle and others, but it is important to acknowledge how the game will harness the attention, and Gayle among the other names have been brought in to attract foreign suitors. As long as a cut of this money goes into development and infrastructure of Nepali cricket, then all’s well that ends well. Nepal’s players benefit most speaking to the Rohan Mustafas and the Kyle Coetzers arguably more than Gayle, though the country will see developmental benefits if the revenue raised from his profile and attraction goes into grassroots and facilities around the country. The game can only be its strongest when its weakest facets are addressed.

It doesn’t matter how tall a building is if the platform is shaky. For Nepal, it is important the game can benefit from the ground up.

By Daniel Beswick (@dgbeswick1)

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Our original story on the EPL shifting for Gayle.


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