History has a funny way of repeating itself when it comes to cricket. For a game that has been played competitively for three centuries, nothing really is new.
Match fixing? It all started in the 18th century when traveling professionals rode on horse-back — and later by train — from village to village, playing for large purses in winner-take-all matches.
Combined with rampant drinking, this invariably led to violence and match fixing and it was in the 1850s that the elite class of England stepped in to cleanse the game and set up the county championship where amateurs ruled over the pros for a century.
The division between amateurs (known as ‘gentlemen’) and professionals (‘players’) remained in English cricket till it was formally abolished after the 1962 season.
The first cricketers to be banned for match-fixing? No, not Hansie Cronje, Mohammad Azharuddin and Salim Malik. It was William Lambert. The year? 1817!
Colored clothing? No, it was not Kerry Packer and his World Series circus of 1977-79 Down Under that was the pioneer. Those same village teams centuries ago would were brightly colored shirts of red, green, purple, etc. to distinguish which parts of England they were representing.
What about fat-cat businessmen flaunting their wealth and buying up the best players? Long before Kerry Packer, Sir Allen Stanford, Abdul Rahman Bukhatir, Vijay Mallya and Ali Bacher, there was William Clarke (of the 1840s) and other entrepreneurs who would travel the length and breadth of England with their teams of professional cricketers who were paid handsome wages and raked in hefty prize money too.
Plus fat bonuses from shady bookies and punters who had infiltrated the game not long after the first recorded match in which prize money (10 Pounds Sterling) was on offer way back in 1700.
Clarke’s story is particularly fascinating. In 1846 he bought up the best cricketers in the land and formed the All England XI under his captaincy, an all-conquering side that took on and invariably trounced challengers throughout England.
But by 1852 champion fast bowler John Wisden — founder-editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack — broke away with a bunch of young pros who felt Clarke’s match fees of 4 to 6 Pounds Sterling per game was insufficient and formed a rival side, the United England XI.
Thus it has forever been with cricket, the so-called ‘gentleman’s game’. And so it is with England all-rounder Andrew ‘Freddie’ Flintoff who is being dubbed international cricket’s first freelance player.
Flintoff may well be the first of the modern era, though it could be argued that it was Australia’s all-rounder Andrew ‘Roy’ Symonds who had actually beaten Flintoff to that title a few months earlier. The cases of Flintoff and Symonds are similar though not identical.
Tired of his constant late-night drinking bouts and skirmishes while under the influence of booze, Cricket Australia finally gave Symonds marching orders last year. He has been out of the national team ever since, but that hardly seems to bother him.
In fact, rumours abound that Symonds deliberately broke team rules so he could find a convenient escape clause from national duty.
Symonds’ agent had made it clear that now that he did not have national commitments, his client was free to sell his talents to Twenty20 franchises around the world.
At $1.35 million, Symonds was the second highest richest cricketer after MS Dhoni when he was snapped up by the Deccan Chargers in the IPL auctions of last year.
He got to play only four games in the inaugural season in 2008 as he was still a part of the national squad. But this year he was free to play the entire IPL season in South Africa and was one of the stars for the Chargers as they charged from last place to first in the span of 12 months.
Late night boozing sessions don’t appear to be an issue with the IPL franchises. Indeed, it is practically a pre-requisite with players’ attendance at sponsors’ parties a must.
So it is hardly surprising that the Chargers’ management have expressed full support for their star player despite his poor disciplinary record.
In the case of Flintoff, he announced his retirement from Test cricket at the end of the recent Ashes series but made himself available for the England squad for 50-over and T-20 Internationals. But Flintoff’s agent has made it clear that he will be available only to play for England if his other professional commitments allow him to. And that is sure to lead to a clash eventually with the ECB and his teammates as well who have already begun to resent his attitude.
Flintoff, we are told, will be plying his trade — assuming he regains full fitness — in T-20 leagues in India (where he is already signed with the Chennai Super Kings), Australia, South Africa and perhaps in the West Indies as well.
The likes of compatriot Kevin Pietersen, West Indian Chris Gayle — who has already publicly expressed his disdain for Test cricket — and Kiwi Brendon McCullum will be keenly following the Freddie saga. As will be players’ agents who are rubbing their hands in glee at the treasures on offer from franchises around the cricket world, far in excess of what they are paid to be on national duty.
The IPL, we have been informed, will insist on ‘No Objection Certificates’ from players’ home associations. And what if these are withheld? Will we then enter the domain of ‘restraint of trade’?
For that matter, will the franchise owners not raise a hue and cry if denied the services of their superstars?
So is the concept of freelance cricketers a new one? Not quite. And it was a star Indian cricketer who, back in the 1950s, caused quite a stir with his demands.
‘Vinoo’ Mankad was considered the world’s leading all-rounder when India toured England in 1952. Mankad had an offer from Lancashire League side Haslingden which would pay him over 1,000 Pounds Sterling for the season, a considerable sum of money at the time.
At the peak of his powers, Mankad requested the BCCI to give him an assurance that he would be picked for all four Test matches on the tour so he could turn down Haslingden’s offer.
The Board refused. But they were forced to backtrack after the team was humiliated in the first Test at Headingley — scene of the notorious 0 for 4 second innings score-line which continues to mock Indian cricket. Mankad was back for the second Test at Lord’s which will forever be dubbed ‘Mankad’s Match’ thanks to his heroic all-round display.
The legendary Garry Sobers too turned himself into a traveling pro in the tradition of the horseback players of the 18th century. He was a big star in English domestic cricket in the 60s and was sensational for South Australia too in the Sheffield Shield.
The difference? He never skipped a Test match for the West Indies in a career spanning two decades. Today’s freelance cricketers — and their ever-present agents — appear to have another agenda altogether. And the toothless International Cricket Council can only look on helplessly.
(This article originally appeared in All Sports Monthly, October 2009)