The last time there was so much of a fuss over the “future of the game” was when Chris Gayle in one of his typically nonchalant riffs seemed to suggest that Test cricket should die — the emphasis on ‘seemed’, because that is not what he actually said.
There is a world of difference between saying ‘Test cricket should die’ and ‘I wouldn’t be sad if Test cricket died’ — but that difference was lost in the ensuing furor, with Andrew Strauss leaping to the defense of Tests, various past worthies from the West Indies ‘slamming’ Gayle for his remarks and demanding his head, or at least his captain’s armband, on a platter, and the commentariat writing reams about how Gayle’s statement could be the thin end of a dangerous wedge that could split the cricket world wide open.
A character in the Michael Crichton novel State of Fear moots the theory that it is in the
interest of the political class, the scientific/academic establishment and the media to keep people in a state of permanent fear of something or the other. A similar idea drives Barry Glassner’s non-fiction work The Culture of Fear: Why Americans Are Afraid of The Wrong Things.
It certainly seems to be in the interest of the cricket establishment and the media to stoke some fear or other — the imminent demise of the ‘game as we know it’ being the top of the pops. The establishment quaked with this ‘fear’ [and the media recorded every quake] when ODIs began to get popular — and the arguments then were, there is much money to be made [and India, horrors, is the one making it] in ODIs — so, oh, woe betide Tests.
And then, of course, the administration reacted to its own fear by trimming the number of Tests in its global schedule and squeezing in bilateral and multi-lateral ODIs wherever it could, producing a world championship in the format, and then producing an interim ICC Championship as well.
Fear makes you do strange things.
Now, ironically, the same establishment is in a pother about the future of — ODIs and Tests!
The latest to catch a ‘grave’ dose of the fear infection is Stuart Clark:
“What scares me the most is where does it leave the game if people just go chasing large sums of money for a bit of hit-and-giggle,” Clark said. “I think we as players all owe it to Test cricket to try and keep it afloat.
Reminds me of late 1995, when a bunch of us quit our jobs with the ‘traditional’ media to join the yet to be formed Rediff. Friends reacted with shock. ‘What’s wrong with you? You want to give up journalism?!’ Clark, in similar fashion, contrasts ‘the game’ [uttered reverently, to mean Tests] with ‘hit and giggle’ to mean T20s — and to think that a decade ago, that is what they were calling one day cricket. Here’s Clark again:
“I know the administration is working hard at it, but I personally hold grave fears for where the game is heading. But while tournaments like the Champions League are very lucrative, I’d personally like to think at this stage the players at New South Wales would prefer to play for Australia.”
Ah yes, well, as someone said in the comments field of one of my posts yesterday, thank god there are still top players prepared to put country and honor — and even family — above filthy lucre. Like Michael Clarke. Like, so. And on page two of the same article, there is this little nugget about the now fear-raddled Stuart Clark:
Stuart Clark ($US250,000 reserve) almost pulled out this week but remains a starter, according to his manager Richard Errington. “We were thinking, ‘Why bother,’ but the BCCI said, ‘No, we want you there.’ Whether he gets picked up or not, we don’t know. If we do, fantastic, if we don’t, Stuey will be starting his law degree,” he said.
Tag line of the story: Stuart Clark, even at a low reserve price, didn’t attract a single bid at the February 2009 auction. Andrew Flintoff, a day after turning freelance, is already being courted — in Clark’s home country. [Brief digression: Andrew Flintoff might be well served, financially, by his agent — he is the best judge of that. But Flintoff might seriously want to consider getting himself a new press agent — someone who doesn’t make his principal a laughing stock each time he opens his mouth. The other day there was the bit about turning freelance so he could experience different cultures; today there is this bit about refusing the England contract so he can bungee jump. For god’s sake: Just say Flintoff refused the binding tie of a central contract because with his body deteriorating, he cannot last the grind any more and needs to be able to pick and chose, and also because with his use by date approaching, he needs to maximize his earnings. That statement would be unexceptional. It also will have the advantage of being the truth.]
Moral of the story: Those who can, earn; those who can’t, express ‘grave fear’. Bonus moral because I’m feeling generous today: Not everyone can turn freelance, because not everyone has this undefined but very real ‘It’ factor to command the kind of remuneration that makes freelancing worthwhile [why do you suppose even good journalists prefer the security of a steady job to the uncertainties of writing freelance?]
Michael Atherton makes a similar argument in his piece in the Times:
To describe Flintoff as cricket’s first freelance cricketer is a nonsense: Flintoff is doing what generations have done before him, players such as Sir Garfield Sobers, who played for West Indies when international cricket was less demanding than now, but then plied his trade for Nottinghamshire and South Australia, and whoever else would pay him to do so, outside his international commitments. Cricket grew initially as a gambling game, the best players little more than hired hands for gambling gentlemen.
Flintoff’s position is only noteworthy now because it flies against the trend in recent years, which has been for cricketers to tie themselves exclusively to their national boards in return for decent remuneration and extracurricular benefits denied to earlier generations. It is unlikely, though, that Flintoff’s move in a different direction will encourage others to do the same, despite the whisperings from the Professional Cricketers’ Association, which is agitating for a greater role at the expense of a governing body that it deems to be incompetent.
After all, there are few cricketers in Flintoff’s position. Flintoff is not unique, but there are precious few with the reputation already made, the financial clout and the personality to gamble on going it alone. Reputations are still made in international sport, not franchise-based domestic tournaments, and sponsors demand the exposure that is driven by international-based competition. His move does not herald the era of the freelance mercenary, moving magnet-like to whichever franchise pays the most.
In passing, note Atherton’s point underlined in the clip above, ref the recent trend of cricketers to tie themselves to the national boards in return for security. The supplementary point is, a player offered a central contract had no choice, not really: He could either sign, and enjoy a fairly decent wage even if during the period of his contract he wasn’t playing at a high enough level to be picked for the team, or he could sit on the outside looking in, and hoping to get the odd game because the salaried players weren’t good enough.
What has changed now is that players — those who bring high skill and the X factor — have a choice. And that is what is throwing the establishment into a state of fear — a fear of its economic ecosystem being damaged, which it tries to pass off as a more altruistic fear for the ‘future of the game’. [While on this, a story from my archives: the Wall Street Journal on the rise of the ‘rabble’.]
In a post on the subject of Flintoff and ‘the future of the game’ yesterday, I was making the point that much of this ‘crisis’ owes to an administration that refuses to rationalize its international calendar, to give meaning and context to its playing schedule. Here, on a similar theme, is Grame Smith:
“I don’t think you can blame the individual, but it’s an interesting time for cricket, and interesting to see where it goes now,” Smith told Cricinfo. “The crucial aspect is the decisions the leadership makes in the future. The ICC needs to give cricket a good direction, and crucial to that is how they look at the Future Tours Programme, because the decisions they make around that are going to be so important for the future of the game.”
“With the greatest respect, the seven ODIs taking place in England at the moment are more for financial benefit than meaningful cricket,” he said. “People want to see strength for strength, they want to see international sides trying their best in competitive tours. I mean, the Ashes was great to watch, it was competitive down to the last Test match, and speaking for myself as a cricketer, that’s how you want to see all cricket being played.
“But all these meaningless tours just sap your body, especially when you are playing away from home for a long time,” he added. “I think the ICC needs to really look at the format going forward, and really take control of the international game.”