For over 50 years, the world of football’s major headache has been the club versus country dilemma. Cricket has been bedevilled with plenty of controversies over the last century. But club vs country was one thorny issue it never had to contend with.
Until now, that is. The Indian Premier League (IPL) in just its second year has plunged international cricketers into a quandary. Their dilemma is over whether to choose to wear national colours and travel around the world the whole year; or stick to their IPL franchises and pocket ten times more money for playing six weeks of lightweight cricket in one country.
The issue has come into sharp focus with a number of recent incidents. The most recent is the case of England all-rounder Andrew Flintoff, of the Chennai Super Kings, who received the highest bid this year along with compatriot Kevin Pietersen.
Flintoff has had to return home for knee surgery and will miss next month’s Test series against the West Indies. There is a cloud over his fitness for the Twenty20 World Cup and the prestigious ‘Ashes’ series against Australia, both to be staged in England later this season. For just three IPL appearances he will reportedly receive $600,000 — or $200,000 for each three-hour game! Such money was unheard of till a couple of years ago.
Flintoff is part of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) central contracts system. Former England captain Nasser Hussain has attacked the ECB as ‘wimps’ for not insisting that the injury-prone Flintoff miss the IPL and rest, ahead of the hectic international season. That is what Cricket Australia did with their fast bowler Shaun Tait. In fact, a number of top Australian players voluntarily gave this IPL season a miss.
But both Hussain and Mike Atherton, another former captain, have also attacked English cricketers for being greedy — for wanting lucrative central contracts and IPL deals as well. New Zealand all-rounder Jacob Oram, also of the Chennai Super Kings, is frank about his priorities.
While not denying the pride of playing for one’s country, Oram admits that the IPL has brought about a change of priorities for the world’s cricketers. He says he intends to quit Test cricket in order to preserve his body for the more lucrative and less physically taxing 20/20 leagues springing up around the world. The latest of these is the American Premier League (APL) to be staged in New York at the end of the year. The APL claims to have recruited a number of recently-retired players as well as those connected with the ‘rebel’ Indian Cricket League.
The difference between Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket — which lured the majority of international cricketers away from national duty in the late ‘70s — and the IPL is that the latter is part and parcel of the establishment, since it comes under the purview of the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI).
In effect, and right under the eyes of the hapless ICC, the BCCI has created a monster that has the money power to change the structure of world cricket as we’ve known it for nearly 150 years. The ICC could solve the problem by keeping a window open for the IPL in every year free of international cricket.
However, one can be sure that the likes of Lalit Modi and his minions would not be satisfied with that. Last year, flush with the success of the inaugural season, he grandly announced two seasons a year for the IPL. Modi and the BCCI may have created a monster but it is far from Frankenstein’s creation, which destroyed its creator. Instead it could well be a precursor to multiple IPL seasons as well as IPL clones, both sanctioned and unsanctioned, like the ICL and APL. For the players, after all, 20/20 cricket is like money for jam.
In our modern, market-driven world, where the term ‘traditionalist’ is mocked and despised, country versus country cricket may soon cease to exist.
For those of us who have a genuine love for cricket as a sport — as distinct from and opposed to ‘show-biz’ and ‘entertainment’ — that is a grim but realistic scenario.
Gulu Ezekiel is a freelance sports journalist and author based in New Delhi