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By Suresh Menon
When Kerry Packer was signing up the top players from around the world for his rebel cricket series in the 1970s, Sunil Gavaskar, then India's leading batsman, gave it some thought. What convinced him to turn his back on Packer was the likelihood of never playing for India again. He was 28, at the height of his powers as an all-time great.
Following Kevin Pietersen's decision to retire from the 50-over game, there is no threat of his not playing for England again unless his cricket board gets vindictive. To most people, Pietersen's decision seems to be a prelude to playing the various domestic T20 tournaments around the world; these are short, less demanding and above all, lucrative. Chris Gayle has shown how much more you can make from the game with much less effort; he is the most widely-traveled T20 exponent, with home grounds in four continents.
The Gayles and the Pietersens (assuming what everybody is guessing at comes to pass) will cop much criticism. There will be talk of putting club before country, money before honour and all those moral cliches that are rolled out on these occasions.
But is the future already here? Is this the way forward for international cricketers? Is the right to choose – the bane of authority everywhere – becoming part of the players' kits? Administrators argue, and with logic on their side, that they invest in a player from a very young age, provide him with facilities, coaching and opportunties and it is unfair if the player then decides to strike out on his own. For that is what T20 cricket is. It is an individual sport cleverly disguised as a team game. Restraint of trade apart, cricket boards will soon have to deal with top players and their version of having the cake and eating it too: Test cricket for the honour and T20 for the money.
The two formats can co-exist, and will need to, especially if the relationship is to be symbiotic, with T20 driving a new audience to Test cricket.
It is easy for former players to strike moral postures and condemn the act of a superstar like Pietersen who is is still a young man, yet to turn 32. Past players did not have this choice to make. Interestingly, when India's cricket board decided to award players a one-time bonus running into hundreds of dollars, no player who had raised serious objections to the IPL turned the offer down because the money being from IPL was 'tainted'. Nor did they put up a united front when Kapil Dev and Kirti Azad were refused the bonus for their anti-Board stand on issues. Follow the money, advised the course 'Deep Throat' to the reporters who were investigating the Watergate scandal in the US. It is advice most players have taken to heart.
It is practical to have just two formats of the game – Tests and T20, the one to retain its pristine values, the other for gimmickry and razzmatazz that would be out of place in a five-day trial of character. The 50-over game – seen as the interloper not so long ago, but accepted as establishment now – might lose out in this equation. It seemed to be tottering even before the last World Cup, but India's win has given it a new energy.
Once egos are laid aside and the focus shifts to better planning, the demise of the 50-over game might actually be good for cricket. It will mean fewer matches in a year, and perhaps a greater focus on Tests. T20 will rise or fall with the market; Test cricket cannot be allowed to.
Players pack in a lifetime of cricket in a few short years, and something is bound to give. When Mahendra Singh Dhoni declared last year that he might have to give up Test cricket soon to concentrate on the shorter formats, the talk turned to patriotism, not tiredness or excessive effort.
Three decades and more ago, the choices before a Gavaskar were limited. The Dhonis and the Pietersens have a wider choice. Occasionally they will choose wrongly – but boards must acknowledge that the choice exists whether they like it or not.