Cricketer as mercenary

But if Flintoff pulls it off, and becomes a successful, globetrotting cricketing brand, then the game will never be the same again.

It is no wonder that Freddie Flintoff’s decision to reject an England contract and turn freelance [interestingly, most articles on the topic in recent times use the subtly pejorative ‘mercenary’, rather than ‘freelance’] is causing considerable heartburn. David Hopps gives you the reason why:

Players’ representatives were privately predicting last night that England’s control of their most sought‑after players will now gradually weaken as Flintoff sets the trend. Such a scenario would turn players into powerful mercenaries contesting a hotchpotch of club Twenty20 tournaments, as well as international cricket, for the highest bidder.

National boards thrive on their monopolistic hold over the game in their respective regions. It helps them lock in the top players into contracts that, in turn, permit them to dictate where the player can play and when — and most importantly, how much or how little they can get away with paying them.

Media reports of cricketers earning big money through central contracts invariably omit one calculation. The board makes its money on the back of the services of the players, so what proportion of its earnings does the board hand out as remuneration, and is that a fair proportion? In other words, the payment is ‘big’, as seen through our eyes — but is it commensurate with the value the players bring to a board that, absent good players, has no viable alternate revenue stream?

The answer, inevitably, is no. And in the absence of alternate streams of employment, players made the best of the situation and took what they were given.

What private leagues like the IPL have done is to change that dynamic, to provide alternate avenues of employment — avenues that are far more lucrative than the sums handed out by the national boards. For instance, if Flintoff plays a year of ODI and T20 cricket, his central contract will still not give him as much money as the IPL would if he played one full season.

If Hopps’ fears turn true, cricket administration will have to adjust to an entirely new way of functioning, and face questions they never had before. Like, so:

His decision leaves a lot of questions unanswered. If Flower wants a week’s get-together at Loughborough ahead of a one-day series, will Flintoff feel obliged to attend? If England do not monitor his form and fitness, who does?

It might be natural for golfers or tennis players to travel the world on an individualistic search for personal fulfillment. But cricket demands a compromise between individual ambitions and team demands. Any perception that Flintoff had won special privileges would not rest easily in any dressing room.

Agreeing with Hopps for the moment that cricket demands a compromise, where does ‘compromise’ exist in the current scenario? The board’s attitude is, these are the rules, these are the conditions, this is what we are prepared to pay you, take it or else. Earlier, there was no ‘or else’ — now there is, and suddenly words like ‘compromise’ creep into the discussion.

I suspect it would be wrong to see Flintoff’s action as purely ‘mercenary’ in its motives. For far too long international players, and their association, have fought for a seat at the big table. They have asked that the individual boards and the ICC take some of their urgent concerns into consideration — as for instance the international calendar, packed increasingly tight with money making opportunities for the boards and for the ICC that it leaves little room for the cricketer to rest, to recover from injury, to work on skill sets diminishing under the attrition of constant match play.

This concern — which is just one example, and not the whole laundry list — has been repeatedly voiced to the ICC by international captains on the few occasions the ICC deigns to call them in for meetings, and by the players associations. The ICC has routinely paid lip service to the need to rationalize the calendar, and a day later added another ‘world’ tournament to the mix.

It could, because what was the player going to do?

Now there is an answer to that question — the player will rationalize his own calendar. Flintoff is yet to speak of the reasons behind his decision [or when he does, produces asinine comments, like he is turning mercenary because he can learn about different cricketing cultures]; the statements have all come from his agent who, natural enough for the breed, focuses on the money to be made and in the process has Flintoff painted ‘mercenary’.

But I suspect on the basis of what I’ve heard from players over the years that if you sat the all rounder down and talked to him, you would find that the relentless grind he is subjected to, a grind that has grievously impacted on his body, has as much to do with his decision as the money to be made. In that connection, note that when players talk of choosing between the IPL and international cricket, they do not say there is more money to be made in the former — what they do point out is, they make as much in two months of the league as they do in a year of international duty. In other words, the considerations are money and time.

All of which likely comes as a nightmare for the administration — which is reacting in predictable ways. England captain Andrew Strauss, for instance, ‘leaves the door open’.

“If Freddie is committed to playing for England he’s still a great asset for us in the shortest forms of the game,” Strauss said. “I’m sure he still feels he’s got a lot of cricket left in him, but it’s a bit too early to react to this at this stage. It’s a conversation the ECB will need to have with him and his management over the coming days.

“I think we need to sit down and speak to him as to the reasons he’s done that, and then we will make an informed decision as to what that means with his availability going forward. Obviously there is a reason why he hasn’t agreed to it and we need to find out what that reason is.”

Check out this piece by Alan Tyres, that I stumbled upon through Cricinfo’s Surfer. The first point Tyres makes:

The Observer reckons that a full commitment to England for ODIs and Twenty20s could pay Fred just 30,000 pounds a year; although The Telegraph speculates that a figure of about 70,000 pounds is nearer the mark.

Either way, this is chicken-feed compared to his million-a-year deal from the Chennai Super Kings. And here’s the problem for the Two Andrews: England’s, ahem, mouth-watering one-day engagements against mighty Bangladesh in the spring cut into the IPL schedule, meaning that Chennai, not unreasonably, would not pay him the full-whack for half the work.

Yeah, well, what earthly purpose will be served by the England-Bangladesh bilateral ODIs [Consider for instance the absolute lack of spectator interest in the ODI series England is playing right now — against Australia, no less]?

Another clip from Tyres, that speaks to the heart of my argument:

Should we be crying ourselves to sleep at night worrying about the bank balance of this already very rich chap? Of course not. But in this instance, I think England fans should say to Flintoff: thanks for all that you’ve done, now go off and earn your money as you see fit.

There will no doubt be plenty of people who will thunder that it is a disgrace anyone could even consider playing for Twenty20 franchises when there is a chance of an England cap on offer. To them I would say: it’s only the England ODI side.

A lot of people would pay good money NOT to be in the England ODI side at the moment, given the utter mediocrity and the endless slog of meaningless fixtures.

If, for example, the ECB are trying to promote an ODI against West Indies with a weakened XI while Flintoff is simultaneously off earning a crust with the Durban Ringbinders or whoever, then they are indeed going to have problems. But maybe that is not the end of the world: if they can’t sell the ODIs, maybe we will stop having so bloody many of them.

Exactly. The administration will harp on the ‘m’ words — money, mercenary. But it will never admit that it has contributed to player dissatisfaction through its non-stop drive to fill every available date with yet another meaningless game [England versus Australia 7 ODIs? Three successive dead rubbers after the series is decided?].

On a related note, Andrew Miller points at another problem with contracts:

Not surprisingly, Flintoff’s rejection has significant implications for the ECB’s contracts system as well. For five years from their inception in 2000, they were the best thing that has ever happened to English cricket, because they provided job security and consequently a forging of a team ethos. But since 2005, their worth has been freefalling, with the suspicion that the recipients belong in a “cosy club” – not least some of those named on the 2009-10 list.

Maybe a few more Freddie Flintoffs could be a good thing after all, if it forces a modicum of rationality on those who administer the game and taught them to not take the game, and the players, for granted?

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14 thoughts on “Cricketer as mercenary

  1. I think the fear is a bit overblown. Tell me 10 cricketers today who can command a price to play in any league. There aren’t too many because most of these leagues require true ‘match-winners’ like a ‘fit’ Flintoff, KP, Sachin, Gilly. The ‘mercenary’ or whatever you call would be fit only for these guys. Others are good only when they play in a ‘team’ where they might find ideal roles. Secondly before a league takes in a guy they would want to see the international worth of the player. Is that guy capable of taking in pressure and delivering. So lot of work is required before thinking of going ‘solo’.
    The Boards should also now understand that they need to respect the ‘players wishes. That will be a welcome change. Players finally know their worth and administrators will truly be only administrators. They cannot ‘…’ around a players career anymore. For all the effort the players put in, I think this scenario is a wonderful change for them. BTW, if this happened two decades ago (when Sachin first came in) he would have been a billionaire by now….

  2. On the other end of the spectrum, Aussie players like Ponting & Clarke need to be complimented for turning their backs to the IPL to focus on their international commitments….

    • Sure. Equilibrium of sorts between the two types of cricketers will emerge in time, if the ICC leaves well enough alone. 🙂

  3. Looks IPL has closed down that loophole. Freddie would still need an NOC from ECB to play the IPL. He has the NOC for IPL3, through a NOC granted by ECB last year for 2 years . But if, say, there is a “very important” tour of Zimbabwe comprising of 7 ODI and 3 20/20 matches that clashes with IPL in April 2011, ECB might choose to not give him the NOC.

    • Yes, but IPL contracts end in 2010, and new contracts will be drawn up.

      The present contract is drawn up for Freddie as a contracted England player. Once he is no longer contractually obligated to play for his country, that changes, and with it, the need for the NOC is obviated.

      • http://cricket.rediff.com/report/2009/sep/16/brendon-mccullum-inadvertently-jeopardises-flintoffs-ipl-future.htm

        An amendment to the tournament laws was made just two weeks ago in order to prevent players from trying to become free agents by rejecting contracts from their national boards in order to play in the more lucrative IPL.
        ……
        Where the requirement of a NOC by their home boards applied only to retired players, McCullum”s attempt forced organisers to rewrite the law so that NOCs are now also required by any player without a national contract.

        “The new amendment reads that international players need NOCs from their home boards ”for two years post-retirement/not in contract”.

        • Right. But my best guess is, that will remain on paper.

          Many things wrong with that. First, if I cease to be employed by someone, an NOC by that someone is not worth the paper it is written on, no?

          More to the point, which board is going to deny an NOC to a retired player — even if it knows the retirement was prompted by “mercenary” concerns? The player would turn around and sue the board for maliciously denying him the opportunity to earn his living as he sees fit.

          Cricket administrators frame all kinds of odd rules and amendments and such, most of which won’t stand legal scrutiny.

          • I think the key part in your article is where you say IPL is a private league. This is actually not so true. Although the individual teams are owned by private entities, the league is part of BCCI and the same hapazard rule making that you see in BCCI’s working is applicable to IPL.

            How else can you explain the rules against ICL players? If IPL were actually a private entity, they would have tried to kill ICL not by arm twisting but by making the life of IPL players better and IPL a better league.

            The same kind of deal making will start between ECB and BCCI.

            I think BCCI realizes that IPL is an amazing tool it has to influence all other boards. Trust me, they are not going to give this power up easily.

      • No Prem,
        even if freddie is not a contracted player, it would still be two years before the need for an NOC from the ECB is obviated. those are the rules of the IPL, drawn up just 2 weeks ago. If you retire/lose your contract/reject your contract etc… u still need an NOC from your home board for the next 2 years.
        Much as i dislike Modi’s megalomania, that is an admirable decision by the man.

  4. Hi Prem,

    I agree that Freddie should have the freedom to choose when and for whom he plays — knowing that his playing career will be over in about 5 years from now. He is no mercenary, only trying to make his money that is rightlfully due to him. Having said that, the problem, as you point out rightly, is a bigger one for the Cricket Boards worldwide if Freddie sets the precedent. This is what the ICC should have thought before giving a full throttled go-ahead to IPL. (Heck, reminds me of Americans helping Taliban grow without relaizing the ‘potential’ consequences, or not be bothered by them)

    While we sit here and urge Freddie to go on, a thought springs to mind that will we (Indian supporters of the game) support this move if MSD, Viru, Zak and Sachin also go the same way? I have my doubts.

    The game is given a natinoalistic ferver and sold to millions by the completely unaccountable board for many years now. The players themselves are fooled into believing that they are playing for the country and not for the board! The crowd will make villians out of demi-gods if our guys follow Freddie’s path. Shuddering thoughts follow.

    But leaving the immaturity of Indian fans aside, I think it is definitely a step forward which will change the way the game is played henceforth. A lot of things will undoubtedly change, and my only wish is that the test matches should stay.

    • We likely won’t accept MSD going the Flintoff route, just now — but what if a veteran player in his final days decides he wants to play the one form best suited to his game, and the rest of the time go where the money is? I think we would be accepting of that, especially if the player is up front about what he is doing and why.

      But that is a short term question. My long term hope is that more players will in fact follow Freddie — because if and when that happens, it might finally force the ICC and its member boards to see sense, to accept that they share the responsibility for the waning interest, and that they more than players or lawmakers have the means at hand to turn the tide.

      • Hmmm.. I hope the average Indian fan is as sane as you think he / she is.

        I think this might do to cricket what all Grand Slams have done to Davis Cup – am not sure whether the analogy fits here because one is a team game while other is an individual one

        While it is probably the way forward for cricket to be played, one hopes that the money does not dictate the game to a further extent than it already does now….

        But no doubt it is going to be a terrific door-opener for the players…

        • That, Ranjeet, brings up a larger talking point: I believe if you are an administrator, there is a balance you need to strike. On the one hand, you have to be aware of the sensibilities of your customers and what they want out of your product. But equally, you have to be able to insulate yourself from your customer’s more irrational moods. I was calling the shots, I wouldn’t worry too much about the insane elements, as I would on what the right way forward is — and I’d try to define “right” as the best solution for the players, the game, the boards and the ICC, in that order. 🙂

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