/ 23 October 2009

Hamburger cricket and all

Tennis used to be a big deal in South Africa in the 1970s and 1980s and no doubt those who followed the sport couldn’t imagine the day when the SA Open didn’t feature on the world tour, let alone today’s reality that sees any seriously aspirant youngster wishing to pursue a career in the sport compelled to travel abroad.

Of course, there are some brilliant and dedicated people working for the improvement of tennis in South Africa at the moment, but that’s not the point. At the moment it lacks serious funding and has become a minority or social sport.

The same fate could never befall rugby or cricket, of course. Well, certainly not rugby. You would think. Woven into the fabric of many sections of South African society and boasting a more robust production line of first-class players than any other country — as well as a world-champion national team — rugby seems bulletproof at the moment.

Cricket, on the other hand, has far less control of its own destiny — certainly at international level. With other worthy but handicapped contenders, the Proteas’ administrators have become (willingly or not) utterly subservient to the money and power their Indian counterparts wield with little pretence at responsibility.

The coach of the Indian national team, Gary Kirsten, may be at the forefront of forward thinking when it comes to the future of the game, but his views don’t even merit a footnote when his bosses get together.

”At the moment,” he says, ”cricket is heading towards a time and a place it doesn’t want to be. Every aspect and format of the game that exists today has come about because of Test cricket and the ambition of players to compete for their countries at that level. Unless that is recognised and attempts are made to preserve it, cricket will become much less loveable in just a few years. Basically, people will recognise meaningless and hollow ‘competition’ and will become bored with it.”

Kirsten may speak in glowing and what some may discern as ”retro” terms about Test cricket, but he is no old fogey. ”Test cricket
needs to be modernised and jazzed up to fit in with the pace of modern-day life. If that means including just a single Test between all nations every year, some as part of a series and some just as one-off events, then let’s do it,” Kirsten says.

”We could have a world Test champion every year. But, if that’s not possible, we should definitely have one every two years. It would give Test cricket between all nations some badly needed context. There are just too many ‘so what?’ series taking place.”

Kirsten’s other suggestion is that Test cricket, as the hardest form of the game, should be the most rewarding for the vast majority of its exponents. A dozen or so superstars will still be paid exorbitant fees by the Indian Premier League (IPL), which would exceed all else, but Test cricket should be the major financial as well as emotional incentive for 95% of the world’s international players.

”That is exactly what we discussed and agreed upon at the last meeting of the ICC cricket committee,” says a frustrated Proteas coach, Mickey Arthur.

”The ICC appointed us [14 current and former captains, players, coaches, administrators and umpires] to the committee to decide what is best for the long-term future of the game. We did that — by deciding that Test cricket needs to be given primary status with a world championship offering $10-million to the winners. But it was rejected by India and England because their agendas are different,” Arthur says.

The ”agendas”, of course, are purely financial. ”Not just financial,” says former Australian off-spinner Tim May, now the head of the international players’ union, Fica, ”but the most short-term, money-grabbing opportunism you can imagine. The people making these decisions are not ‘cricket people’; they are businessmen blinded by the riches of today and aggressively ignorant to the realities of tomorrow.”

What this means for South African cricket is clear: hamburger cricket (T20) will demand (and financially command) that the best-perceived players are available. For those players to be available they will have to be free agents and unhindered by binding contracts with either franchises or national boards.

It makes little sense for an established international cricketer to join his countrymen on a pointless tour of Bangladesh if it clashes with an IPL or Champions League season — or any of the other much-anticipated T20 leagues.

”You would have to be naive or hopelessly optimistic not to see a problem in the near future,” says former Protea, now player agent, Dave Rundle. ”National contracts, for certain players, will have to guarantee certain release clauses, otherwise a top player will wilfully refuse to maximise his earning potential. There is a helluva lot to be said for representing your country and playing international cricket, but it doesn’t last forever and there will come a time when even the most patriotic cricketers will have to make a pragmatic choice,” Rundle says.

Cricket South Africa (CSA) chief executive Gerald Majola insists that the ”threat” posed by the ”freelance” option will be handled by him and staff just as effectively as the Kolpak ruling, which allowed South African players to ply their trade in county cricket without being regarded as overseas professionals.

”We believe that we offer a holistic package, including a share in the game, excellent year-round salaries, bonuses, medical care, mentoring and coaching, that is attractive to players and which adds much value to their pride in playing for their country,” Majola says.

”Playing for the Proteas at the top of the international tables also adds value to the player in terms of gaining other contracts to run alongside that of the national contract. Organisations such as the IPL are well aware of the fact that international players add much attraction to their tournaments and are keen to ensure the implementation and success of the ICC’s Future Tours Programme.”

Majola’s optimism is understandable, if slightly contrived. After all, it wouldn’t do much for CSA’s share price if he said: ”Yep, the Indians have got us by the short and curlies all right.” But he does make another comment, which clearly suggests that he, too, recognises that national contracts will have to be adapted in future to keep the best players loyal.

”We believe in our system as being the best for our players as it is a joint venture and we believe it will remain extremely attractive in the future without depriving players of other financial opportunities.”

In other words we’ll continue to rule our players with rods of iron and military-style discipline. Except when they want to go play in India, at which point we will pack their suitcases, top up their medical aid, drive them to the airport, kiss them goodbye and wish them a safe journey — both ways.

Hell, we’ll even water their gardens and feed their dogs if it keeps the Indians happy.