Viewership may be falling, television ratings down, but some 300 players have been shown an alternative way of making a livelihood. And such things cannĂ˘?t be unlearned.
By Suresh Menon
Chris Gayle’s odyssey in recent years – as a hired gunman or a professional sportsman depending on your point of view – has been interesting. Whatever the merits of his skirmish with the West Indies cricket board, it has freed him as a globe-trotting T20 player, entertaining crowds in India, Australia, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe while his national team struggles in Test cricket.
It is a choice an increasing number of players will make as the T20 leagues around the world gain momentum. Ironically, Gayle has expressed his personal sorrow over the diminishing importance of Test cricket as he sees it. After 91 Tests and two triple centuries them, Gayle is entitled to his opinion.
For the moment, however, he is once again the star of the IPL, carrying Royal Challengers Bangalore on his shoulders with an ease and self-confidence that is infectious. So long as he is at the crease, no asking rate is too high. He gives himself time to get his eye in – a rare luxury in the IPL – and then launches into an attack that comes with the stamp of both authority and inevitability. Five sixes in an over against the leggie Rahul Sharma brought RCB back into the game against the Pune Warriors; his 87 settled the issue against King’s XI Punjab later.
The Gayle effect on cricket will be felt far more widely than in terms of sixes hit or matches won. When the Federation of International Cricketers’ Association (FICA) conducted a survey (admittedly from a small sampling), 40 percent of the players said they were happier to play in the IPL with all its money than for their respective countries. A third said they would announce their retirement from international cricket prematurely to participate in the IPL or similar leagues.
As of now, the players need the formal permission of their cricket boards to play the various T20 leagues, all part of the respective domestic calendars.
In the not-too-distant future, it is possible to see the individual, rather than the board making that choice. ‘Restraint of trade’ is a phrase that makes the ICC nervous – it was the argument used after Kerry Packer ran a private tournament which led to bans by cricket boards and a court case.
Should Gayle, who is only 32, wish to play T20 rather than Test cricket for the remainder of his sporting life, can his board really prevent him? He is a crowd puller, as are players like Kieron Pollard and Pakistan’s Shahid Afridi, and if a sufficient number of them get together and convince the IPL, for example, that they would rather play in India, wouldn’t the Board of Control for Cricket in India ensure that they did?
Pure speculation, of course, at the moment.
What the IPL has done is levelled the field as far as aspirations go. The odd player might still talk about batting (or bowling) for the country and the joys of patriotism, but what really drives the professional sportsman seems to be money, and lots of it for a short period of work.
The message is clear. If Test cricket is nurtured the way IPL is, then Test cricketers will have to earn more from that format than from any other. The national boards can tilt the balance one way or the other merely by adding more dollars to one or the other format.
This is a pretty cynical way of looking at sport, but it has been shown to be effective. It doesn’t matter whether the moneybags come from Mumbai or Jamaica or Dhaka, the piper calls the tune.
There is of course the possibility that players actually prefer the shortest format of the game, and would rather play T20 than Test matches. Even if they acknowledge that the longer version is more challenging or has many more layers, they could still say they are not looking for challenges or layers, merely a competition that gets over in three and a half hours.
In its fifth year, the IPL continues to raise questions. Viewership may be falling, television ratings down, but some 300 players have been shown an alternative way of making a livelihood. And such things can’t be unlearned.