Lasith Malinga and Chris Gayle (L) opted for IPL over country © Getty Images

 

By Akash Kaware

 

Cricket is a unique game in many ways, not the least of which is the fact that playing for your country still represents its highest level. While most major sports in the world moved to a club/franchise model a long time ago, cricket has only recently started treading those waters. And as it happens with any kind of change, there was bound to be optimism in some quarters and resentment and trepidation in others.

 

As a result of the shift that IPL and other Twenty20 leagues around the world are bringing about, the players suddenly have a lot more options. All of a sudden, you don’t have to be a Sachin Tendulkar and don’t have to play for your country to make a decent living as a cricketer. That is a welcome development for mid-level players who had no hope of ever representing their countries and could not make ends meet through domestic cricket alone. But now the money being thrown around in these leagues is even drawing away players who actually are good enough to play for their country.

 

Chris Gayle, Kieron Pollard, Dwayne Bravo and Jerome Taylor are all playing in the IPL while the West Indian team flounders against Pakistan at home. When the Sri Lankan board asked their players to return well in time to prepare for the tour of England, only Tillakaratne Dilshan was keen to do so, the rest dawdled, while Lasith Malinga promptly chose to retire from Test cricket and decided to join the team for the one-dayers after the IPL was over. Predictably, they copped a lot of criticism for putting club before country. But is such a criticism fair?

 

As an avid fan of Test cricket, I would personally love it if players put country before club and Test cricket before every other form of the game, whether international or domestic. But this is an unrealistic and naïve expectation.

 

Put yourself in the modern players’ shoes. If you were offered a job that paid you ten times the money you make in a year for just six weeks’ work, if the pressure was considerably less, and if the top management was more competent than at your current job (I’m assuming here for example, that the likes of Mumbai Indians and Royal Challengers Bangalore are better-managed entities than the Sri Lankan and West Indian cricket boards), would you even blink before accepting the offer? And before we even mention patriotism and the pride of representing the country, I would say that the only people who have the right to take such moral high ground are probably the men who stand the post and defend the borders of our countries, not people like you and me who would rather work for an MNC than following a career in the IAS or the Armed Forces. If we are to call cricketers mercenaries for chasing more money, what does that make us?

 

If anything, a cricketer has even more of a reason to say, “Show me the money”. Most of us get to work until we are in our 60’s, but a cricketer has to be exceptionally good, not to mention fit, to last even ten years at the highest level. For some cricketers, life outside cricket can be scary, for having started young, cricket is all they know. And not every cricketer can go on to become a coach or a TV expert. I don’t see someone like Malinga, for example, who is such a unique bowler, going into coaching once his playing days are over. And if Chris Gayle joined the ESPN commentary team, I would not understand half the things he would say! Can you blame such players for putting financial security before everything else?

 

In the current scenario, if players are put in a situation of choosing between club and country, and if that player is not English or Australian, I’m afraid in most cases we are not going to like the players’ answer. The solution would be to not put players in that situation by creating a window for the IPL in the international calendar. But again, that would set a dangerous precedent.

 

The IPL has inevitably inspired imitations in other countries too. Australia has the Big Bash, Sri Lanka have announced their own league, England and South Africa already have domestic T20 competitions, and of course, we have the Champions League too. While these leagues are not the behemoths that the IPL has become, who is to say they won’t become the players’ preferred destinations in the future? If players start demanding separate windows for these tournaments too, how can they be refused? How many windows can you create? Or would you then create a window for international cricket? The year only has 365 days after all!

 

There are no easy answers to these questions. And the situation is complicated more by the fact that the ICC has no say in the matter of scheduling, it is very much the prerogative of the individual boards. Unless all boards put their heads together and work out a feasible schedule that will not put players in a spot and ensure that no format of the game is marginalized, we will continue to hear stories of players opting for Twenty20 millions over Test match glory. But with several cricket boards in varying degrees of disarray, this is easier said than done. But there’s nothing wrong in hoping!

 

(Akash Kaware is an Indian IT professional, who would’ve been a successful international cricketer if it hadn’t been for an annoying tendency to run towards square-leg while facing tennis, rubber or leather cricket balls hurled at anything more than genuine medium-pace! Watching Sachin Tendulkar, VVS Laxman and Rahul Dravid convinced him that breaking into the Indian team was not going to happen anytime soon and hence he settled to become an engineer and MBA, who occasionally wrote about cricket. A few months ago, sensing his uselessness and constant use of cricket websites at work, his company banished him to Canada. His hopes of playing international cricket have, thus, been renewed!)