By Madan Mohan
Freelance cricket is once again the hot topic of cricket with Tim May and Adam Gilchrist making a pitch on their behalf. About a year ago, I had said that Chris Gayle, Shaun Tait and Dirk Nannes may not be mercenaries, but smart dudes who have seen the future. But I did not foresee such a swift metamorphosis in opinions on freelance cricketers.
A year ago, there was some amount of animosity towards freelance cricketers. In fact, towards any cricketer who was believed to have ‘prioritised’ the IPL. Gautam Gambhir was at the receiving end of criticism for playing in the Indian Premier League (IPL) with injury, which led to his missing the tour of West Indies. Gayle was the darling of IPL4, but he wasn’t showered with quite so much love back in the Carribean islands for what was seen as a mercenary attitude.
Cut to 2012, Gayle is available for the West Indies. His efforts to spare time for international cricket in the midst of IPL, Somerset and Bangladesh Premier League must be lauded.
As chief executive of Federation of International Players’ Associations, May has asked for the right of a cricketer to choose his livelihood to be recognised and said it is up to the cricket boards to make international cricket attractive for players.
And in fairness to Gayle or May, things are the way they are - at least partly - because of the way the boards have managed their assets. Recall that the promising pace bowler Ian O’Brein quit New Zealand cricket for a county contract. Not all cricketers, contrary to what some might believe, are multi-millionaires. When players of an established cricketing nation go months without pay, they can hardly be singled out for blame if they are attracted to greener pastures. International cricket is not everything that it can be and therefore, honour alone is not an irresistible magnet for players.
The power of a sporting competition with national colours remains as potent as ever. World Cup football, the Olympics and even the Davis Cup tennis in recent years draw crowds and bring new audiences to the respective games. Cricket has benefited from a strong set up of international fixtures and yet, through unimaginative scheduling and mismanagement, has not done justice to its potential. Long before IPL was even conceived, West Indies cricket suffered from frequent player-board conflicts. The Gayle affair, thus, should hardly be news to cricket watchers.
And yet, they are players, not financial planners or marketing gurus. There is the desperation of a gold rush in the air in cricket. Kevin Pietersen periodically airs his regret that more English players cannot be part of the IPL. Former cricketer and commentator Sanjay Manjrekar declared that he did not understand the game of TRPs and would regard packed stadiums as evidence of the success of IPL5; this when the tournament depends far more on viewers than spectators for its commercial viability. The jury is out on just how much of a success at all is the IPL5 but the players seem to badly want it to succeed.
It remains to be seen how the IPL will ward off competition from Formula 1 and, increasingly, European League football. Even Bollywood is not afraid of cricket this summer and has enjoyed two hits even as IPL waits for TRPs to find some upward mobility again. But for the players, it is manna and they don’t want to hear what the doubting Thomases have to say about the IPL. For them, there is nothing else like it in town.
The ICC must watch these developments and take note. In spite of delivering a blockbuster World Cup, it seems unable to stem the tide and maintain the pre-eminent position of international cricket. At least in the selfish interest of preserving its power and position, if nothing else, the ICC urgently needs to restructure the international cricket calendar and build it around marquee events rather than inconsequential bilateral fixtures.
May has said, “International cricket needs to realise that there is a competitor to their ability to contract players”. This will by and by be the language spoken more and more in cricket – of contracts and money rather than pride and honour. And far from wasting precious time over lamenting these developments, the ICC must indeed act to make international cricket attractive again.
After all, we wouldn’t have to watch the IPL if international cricket was really so awesome, right?
(Madan Mohan is a 26-year old chartered accountant from Mumbai. The writing bug bit him when he was eight and to date, he has not been cured of it. He loves music, cricket, tennis and cinema and writing on cricket is like the icing on the cake. He also writes a blog if he is not feeling too lazy at http://rothrocks.wordpress.com/)