Striking the right balance in modern-day cricket: Is it possible anymore? | Cricket - Hindustan Times
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Striking the right balance in modern-day cricket: Is it possible anymore?

By, Dubai
Jan 30, 2024 09:10 AM IST

Amid the fanfare surrounding the ILT20 in the UAE, a serious question kept pervading in cricketing circles: What's the future of cricket going to be like?

Driving through Dubai Sports City, one can't help but notice numerous hoardings for the International League T20 (ILT20), UAE's first franchise cricket tournament. The most prominent faces are those of Pakistan's Shaheen Afridi and Australia's star opener David Warner, both playing their first season of the tournament. Their presence has heightened public interest significantly, setting the stage for an exhilarating cricketing spectacle.

A still from the match at the International League T20 (ILT20)(ILT20)
A still from the match at the International League T20 (ILT20)(ILT20)

The second season of the ILT20 began earlier this month, drawing significant attention from fans worldwide. Last year, the league struggled with low in-stadium attendance due to the absence of players from cricket powerhouse nations like India and Pakistan – the lifeblood of the cricket-watching population in the Emirates. However, despite this setback, broadcast viewership remained impressive. This year, the inclusion of star Pakistani players, including T20I captain Afridi, Shadab Khan, Imad Wasim, and Mohammad Amir, has sparked renewed excitement among fans in the region. Shaheen Afridi's towering posters adorn populated areas in Dubai, Sharjah, and Abu Dhabi, symbolising the league's growing popularity among UAE residents.

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However, amidst the fanfare surrounding the ILT20, a serious narrative pervades cricketing circles. The rise of T20 leagues has significantly impacted international cricket, with Test cricket bearing the brunt of this transformation the most. As the league commenced on January 19, concerns over the future of the game's longest format loomed large. This concern is exemplified by recent developments in South African cricket, where the board named a second-string squad for a Test series against New Zealand. The decision stemmed from players' obligations to participate in South Africa's T20 franchise league, SA20, which runs concurrently with the ILT20 in the UAE. Additionally, there's a growing trend of players announcing early retirements to prioritise participation in lucrative T20 leagues worldwide. Pakistan's Imad Wasim is the latest example of this trend, further fueling discussions about the balance between traditional and franchise cricket.

“I think it’s clear there’s an appetite for T20 cricket in both the audience and the players. They are very much attracted to the shortest format,” former Australian cricketer-turned-coach Tom Moody tells Hindustan Times during a chat on the sidelines of the league. Moody is currently the head coach of Desert Vipers at the ILT20.

“It’s a reflection of society. We don’t have the time we used to have many years ago. I still think there’s a place for Test cricket; there’s no question about that. We have seen so many wonderful Test matches being played out recently. I believe there is hope for Tests, but there are going to be a lot of playing nations which will find it harder to sustain a full calendar of Test cricket purely because of the challenge of franchise cricket,” he says.

Last week delivered a double dose of cricketing drama as Test matches unfolded in India and Australia, culminating in shock defeats for the home teams. In Hyderabad, England staged a remarkable comeback to clinch victory by 28 runs against India, while over at Fortress Gabba, the West Indies – often perceived as favouring the shorter formats – pulled off a stunning upset against Australia.

A clear divide exists among the four nations involved in these encounters, with India, Australia, and England comprising the formidable 'Big Three', capable of sustaining a robust Test calendar. However, for the West Indies, the path to maintaining a strong Test presence is fraught with challenges.

With a history of players prioritising franchise cricket over international duty, the Caribbean side often grapples with a talent drain. The recent withdrawal of former captain Jason Holder from the Test series against Australia to participate in the ILT20 epitomises this trend. Holder's decision reflects a broader dilemma many cricketers face worldwide, torn between the allure of lucrative franchise contracts and the demands of representing their national teams.

“Honestly, if we continue in this manner, Test cricket will die,” Holder tells this writer during his chat with this writer in Dubai. “It's sad, but it's true, based on the current structure. You've got the big three who practically command all the revenue regarding the disbursement of ICC funds. And it's difficult for smaller territories such as the West Indies to compete.

“We just don't have the financial resources that they do. We're struggling to even stay afloat in terms of cash flow. And it's hard to develop our facilities and structures as they're meant to be. And with the little finances that we have… pretty much all the money we get goes straight back up into covering expenses and debt.” FULL INTERVIEW

Holder’s teammate at Dubai Capitals, Sam Billings, took a drastic step not to play Test cricket to have a more balanced cricketing calendar for himself. Billings played last for England in the longest format against India in 2022; since then, he has made sporadic white-ball appearances for the side.

But the Englishman remains a busy cricketer; he played in the Big Bash League earlier this month and was part of the mass exodus from the Australian league to the ILT20 ahead of the latter’s start. Billings played for the Brisbane Heat till January 10 before flying to the UAE and turned up for the Dubai Capitals nine days later.

“It is very difficult to balance. I’ve made a decision not to play red-ball cricket anymore. So, for me, it is more about getting the balance. At one point, I was playing 11 months a year,” Billings told this writer.

“The energy, physically but also mentally, does dwindle over time. For me, it’s about getting that balance now, and I feel like I’m getting that. I think you have to be selective with where you are playing. You can’t play everything. With the IPL, it comes down to an auction, so there’s no certainty to that. So, it’s balancing what’s certain and what not.”

In Billings’ case, not being centrally contracted also made a case to play in franchise leagues. “When you are not contracted with the cricket board centrally, it gives you the flexibility to play where you want. That’s something I’ve done. If you are in good form, hopefully, that gets you into the England side. It’s one of those things. There’s so much cricket going on it’s very hard to balance it all out,” says the Englishman.

While Billings has parted his ways with Tests – at least for now – another England star, Jamie Overton, may follow a similar path if his international prospects don't change. Overton's solitary appearance for England came in a Test match in 2022, but he remains a prominent figure in franchise cricket leagues. He recently featured in the BBL before joining the Gulf Giants in the ILT20 in Dubai; he only had a four-day gap between his appearances for the Sydney Strikers and the Giants.

“It's (leaving Test cricket) always a thought. The way I’m looking at things now, I want to play as much cricket as I can. Maybe 3-4 years down the line, if I don’t play Test cricket, I need to seriously think about what my role could be going forward. For the moment, I just try to play all cricket and play for England in all formats and see what I get to,” Overton says.

It’s a ‘fascinating’ world, says Flower

Amidst the ongoing debate between the allure of Test cricket and the popularity of franchise tournaments, former England coach and Zimbabwe legend Andy Flower turned devil's advocate. Flower, who helmed England's coaching staff from 2014 to 2019, has since made a seamless transition to franchise cricket, with notable stints at the Lucknow Super Giants in the IPL and, most recently, the Gulf Giants in the ILT20.

For Flower, franchise tournaments represent more than just a platform for entertainment; they serve as a fertile ground for nurturing young talents and providing them with opportunities to sustain their livelihoods. That is, indeed, true for almost all franchise leagues around the world. While IPL has built many a career, even the ILT20 – in its first season – unearthed a host of local players who went to make international debuts for the UAE. One of them, Muhammad Jawadullah, was working as an electrician in his day job when he was called for trials by the Sharjah franchise.

Beyond the cricketing reasons, Flower finds personal fulfilment in the cultural melting pot that is the dressing room during such leagues.

“It is fascinating to watch the business of franchise cricket evolving so quickly; it is interesting to observe as a cricket lover. The franchise game has helped give exposure to players coming from around the world. It demystifies some of the relations between nationalities, and I think it has been a really good thing.

It calls for amazing camaraderie and shared learning in the dressing room, too. You get to learn skills and knowledge of different cultures coming together. I love that sort of cultural sharing and mixing.

“How the ICC balances international cricket and franchise cricket is going to be fascinating over the coming years. There’s so much cricket being played, and cricket is being pulled here, there and everywhere. It is going to be interesting to see what decisions are made to try and balance this out,” Flower tells Hindustan Times.

The victories of England and West Indies last week shared a common thread: the emergence of young talent against formidable odds. Tom Hartley, making his debut, showcased his skill by claiming a seven-wicket haul in the second innings, propelling England to a memorable victory in Hyderabad. Similarly, Shamar Joseph, who had little experience with the red ball just two years prior, overcame a toe injury to dismantle the Australian batting lineup, also taking seven wickets in Brisbane.

“At the end of the day, if you ask any young player breaking through in international setup, their prized possession will be to play Test cricket and be recognised as a player who conquered the Test cricket at the highest level,” Tom Moody tells us in his closing remarks on this debate.

Test cricket's status remains the highest. The issue, perhaps, is how long a player can commit to it.

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