30 Under 30 2024

IPL built a talent pipeline for Indian cricket, we hope SA20 does the same for South Africa: Graeme Smith & AB de Villiers

Smith and de Villiers, the commissioner and brand ambassador, respectively, of the T20 franchise league in South Africa on turning profitable in its first season, the lessons learnt from the IPL and why they could get third time lucky

Published: Feb 9, 2024 12:08:01 PM IST
Updated: Feb 9, 2024 12:43:04 PM IST

IPL built a talent pipeline for Indian cricket, we hope SA20 does the same for South Africa: Graeme Smith & AB de Villiers(left)Former South African skipper and SA20 Commissioner Graeme Smith (left) and brand ambassador AB de Villiers Image: Getty Images

In its very first year, SA20, the domestic franchise league in South Africa, turned a profit and added a substantial stimulus to the local communities. To quote the organisers, it has contributed 4.1 billion rands to South Africa's GDP and 958 million rands to its household income. It has also narrowed the losses for Cricket South Africa (CSA), the majority shareholder of SA20. In an episode of Forbes India’s podcast Sports UnLtd, commissioner Graeme Smith and brand ambassador AB de Villiers, both cricket legends in their own right, take us behind the scenes and tell us how SA20 is reinvigorating cricket in the country. Edited excerpts from the conversation:

Q. There were two previous attempts to get a domestic franchise league installed. What did it take to get it right this time and have the SA20 rolling?
Graeme Smith: South African cricket has always needed its own product. You look at how the rest the world is going—the ICC in itself is becoming an events-based organisation with a world event every year. Cricket in South Africa tried a handful of times and had not been successful. So it was a challenge to go into the market and find people that were confident in what you wanted to build. I think, early on, we got the structure and the business model right, we managed to build it slightly outside the CSA, we got MultiChoice involved—that was a big building block for us to be able to bring one of the biggest broadcasters in Sub-Saharan Africa. We were able to attract six IPL franchises who started the journey of building global franchises outside of India. Once we had that in place, it was just about building it out. In season 1, we focussed a lot on our broadcast partnerships—with SuperSport in Sub-Saharan Africa, the next big one for us was in India with Jio and Viacom, which was a 10-year deal, then Sky, Fox and other broadcasters around the world, which then enabled the platform to commercially build the league out.   

Q. Can you briefly say what you meant by building it slightly outside CSA?
CSA is still the majority shareholder of SA20 as the licencee of cricket in South Africa. But we’ve got a standalone shareholders’ agreement, a different board structure, different reporting structures. So even though they are the majority shareholders, SA20 is managed just slightly outside the federation.

Q. SA20 turned a profit in its first season, which is quite astounding. We read that it’s narrowed the losses for CSA as well. How did you crack the code?
The important thing was always the first broadcast deal that we were able to use as a basis to attract partners. The six IPL franchises that came across and signed agreements to partner with SA20 for a very long time was incredible, because those are six entities that know how to run a franchise. For 15-16 years, they have been the most successful franchises in the world game, they bring cricket expertise, business expertise, commercial expertise. With them, you're bringing real assets into South African cricket.  

For us, we had massive ambitions. We believed in the strong South African player base, like what IPL has done in India, and we were able to attract top international talent. We went around the world and we sat in front of broadcasters, and they backed our vision. We believe we can be the biggest league outside of India and people felt that with the six IPL franchises that we attracted, and cricketing ecosystem that already exists in in South Africa, there was an opportunity to be hugely successful.

Q. AB, you are the brand ambassador for the second season. What does SA20 mean for you?
AB de Villiers:
The first time Graeme called me and told me what his plans are and how he wanted me to be involved, I was very excited. I've played under Graeme for many years and from the first day we met, I was comfortable following his lead. When he called me with this idea, I didn't really hesitate.

From an ambassador’s point of view, it's not a difficult thing to do when you have passion for cricket in South Africa and to grow the game over here. When we grew up, we remember seeing full stadiums, we played games on the side of the field watching our heroes perform in the middle. That sort of disappeared over the years and it's great to see that return with SA20. I went to Centurion Park the other day as a fan and I could just see that old feeling of excitement and passion of watching your superheroes perform.

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Q. Both of you have been part of the IPL as it scaled multi-fold over 16 seasons. Are there some learnings from IPL that SA20 has taken?
The IPL has been incredible. I remember in 2008, when we joined the IPL, I don't think any of us had any idea of what was coming. I’ll never forget the first season. It’s one of those turning points in the future of the game and we were all lucky to be there. Outside the commercial strength of the IPL, the thing that stands out for me is the amount of talent that has come through the tournament, and what it’s done for Indian cricket, the exposure that it has given to the next generation. That’s the lesson we can learn from. We’ve got a good relationship with Indian cricket, the BCCI has been outstanding in terms of being able to pick up the phone and bounce ideas off and guide when we're building the product.

AB: India changed our lives completely since the IPL. Graeme hit the nail on the head—when we all arrived in 2008, no one knew what to expect. I think 99 percent of people expected it to fade away in 2/3 years. And not long after, it establishes itself as this incredible league, where we got the world's best players playing against each other. That's one of the biggest keys in making a league like this a success. That's where the SA20 is also on the right track—you want to attract the best players, you want to share dressing rooms with the best. In 2008, I walked in there and Glenn McGrath, Dan Vettori were on my team. That was unheard of that you would rub shoulders with some of those guys. You get the players excited, and when they are excited, you have a successful league. The fans will come in and enjoy the cricket.

Q. How much is the absence of Indian players hurting SA20?
It's been a dream of mine to see some of the Indian players play over here. When I did a bit of work in India last year, there was certainly a bit of interest, so I don't think we’re far away. It would be fantastic to get the approval someday down the line from the BCCI to get some of the top players here. But, for now, I think there might be a bit of attention on the former players, some of the recently-retired players. Maybe when Virat [Kohli] retires after some few years, we’ll see [laughs].  

Q. In terms of cricketing gains, what has SA20 brought for South African cricket?
AB talks about a player like Jordan Hermann. He just got his first 100, and he's a 22-year-old cricketer. There’s Ryan Rickleton. There's a T20 World Cup around the corner in the Caribbean and the US, and this is the platform for these players to put their hand up for selection. There's players across the board that are dashing for that selection of the 15 that goes to the World Cup.

AB: The number of domestic players who’ve done well are too many to mention. One of the big success stories of this tournament is having to play a rookie in every game—it forces the selection team to balance the side out to make sure you have enough experience around that youngster. I've mentioned Jordan Hermann briefly—I spoke about him last year and while he stayed relatively consistent, he didn't shoot the lights out. But I saw more than that, so it was nice to see him come through the season. He's definitely put his name in the hat for the future. Quite a few times I’ve spoken about Dewald Brevis. I'm so excited about the youngsters getting this kind of exposure.

Q. CSA has sent its second-string side to play a Test series in New Zealand, holding back its first-team players for SA20. Your thoughts on the scheduling clash, and what this means for international cricket in general?
Look, it's not an easy one to talk about right now. But I think it's not ideal and shouldn't really happen. Going forward, finding ways to work together in terms of making sure the scheduling works well is important. Both AB and myself have played a lot of Test cricket, we love to see Test cricket strong. The thing for me though is that Test cricket's never going to be more than a 6-or-7 nation format. It's not going to grow into new nations or commercially change the game for cricket into the future. But it's a format that can be protected. I'm on the MCC cricket committee, 6-7 months ago we asked the ICC to look at a fund to protect Test cricket. T20 is your growth format, it's going to introduce new people to the game, it's going to introduce new players, it's going to be your talent pipeline into the future. Look at LA28 or the World Cup going to the US, and other nations starting to play. T20 cricket is your growth into the future.

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