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Show me the money

Wealth continues to drive the game of cricket. But for how long? asks Gulu Ezekiel.

india Updated: Sep 22, 2009 22:24 IST

Last year on the eve of the inaugural Indian Premier League (IPL) season I had written that the dawn of the freelance cricketer was upon us with Twenty20 tournaments mushrooming around the world. Now England’s Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff has carved out his little bit of cricket history by declaring himself as cricket’s first free agent.

It is still unclear how his own board, the England Cricket Board (ECB) and the IPL committee will react to his agent’s announcement that Flintoff intends to travel the cricket world, making appearances for franchises as far-flung as India (Chennai Super Kings), Australia, South Africa and perhaps even in the West Indies.

IPL supremo Lalit Modi has stated a player cannot appear for his franchise unless he gets a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from his parent body. But it has become clear that the IPL rules and regulations are written in a kind of magic ink that tends to disappear once the franchise owners make their demands. In the IPL today, it has become a case of the tail wagging the dog.

There is also the nagging question of restraint of trade. Can a national body like the ECB come in the way of a cricketer who does not sign contract (as in Flintoff’s case) and decides to sell his wares to the highest bidder? At best they can choose not to include him in the national side.

Considering Flintoff can earn tonnes more plying his trade around the word playing Twenty20 (aka ‘cricket-lite’) than appearing again in England colours (he has already retired from Test cricket), this would appear to be a no-brainer for both the agent and the player.

Since players’ agents work on a commission basis, it is obvious they will encourage their star clients to go for lucrative deals rather than opt for national duty. Or as Cuba Gooding Jr. put it so succinctly in Jerry Maguire: “Show me the money.”

Aussie bad boy Andrew Symonds had hinted even before Flintoff that he would take the freelance route. Symonds was banished from the national squad due to his drinking issues and his agent has been busy trumpeting his Twenty20 wares. Others like Chris Gayle, Kevin Pietersen and Brendon McCullum are sure to follow. And really who can blame them when the toothless ICC watches on helplessly even as the game is hijacked by businessmen out to line their pockets? What is fascinating about cricket is how the more things change, the more they actually remain the same.

Competitive cricket emerged over 300 years ago in England and the first recorded match with prize money on offer (£10) dates back to 1700. The early pros would receive lucrative challenges from clubs and villages around England, riding on horseback and later by train to earn their living. Today horse and train have been replaced by the corporate jet.

But by the mid-19th century, widespread betting mixed with alcohol led to match-fixing and violence. The authorities plucked from elite schools and colleges stepped in to clean up the game and establish the county championship where amateurs held sway.

South African captain Graeme Smith has dubbed events like the just-concluded England versus Australia ODI series as ‘meaningless’. But does he seriously think Otago Volts v Wayamba or Cape Cobras v Sussex Sharks in next month’s inaugural Champions League will have any meaning to them?

History has a nasty habit of repeating itself especially by those who either ignore it or are just plain ignorant. Watch this space!

Gulu Ezekiel is a senior sports journalist and a Delhi-based author