Some of the most profound revolutions in sport have taken place only because the establishment has either not seen them coming or failed to take them seriously. Many have changed their sport so profoundly and quickly that the new eras they heralded were regarded as commonplace within three years.
The most recent and pertinent to South African sports lovers was the transition from amateurism to professionalism in rugby. Just 20 years ago, at the time the Springboks were winning the World Cup, players were still making the transition from grubby brown envelopes of used banknotes on match days to the legitimate contracts with everything from medical insurance to pensions.
Cricket is now facing the possibility of an even greater change: from an antiquated system of bilateral tours whose context is based largely on either history or financial gain to a legitimate league that means something to everyone rather than just the fanatical, loyal minority.
When the “big three” Test nations bullied the “small seven” into signing away any meaningful say in the administration of the global game just over a year ago – and the distribution of its wealth – they believed they had cornered the market. They were set for wealth without limits while the so-called small nations were consigned to survival rations for the foreseeable future.
The resentment it created has, however, not diminished. It has festered. Although England and Australia can build a sustainable economy on the back of the Ashes, even they rely on Indian tours to provide the cream. Everyone else is dependent on Indian tours for mere survival.
So why shouldn’t India beat the rest of the cricket-playing world with the big stick? Because they can’t make their fortune without them.
Outmuscled by his nemesis
One of the wealthiest men in cricket, Subhash Chandra, is well aware of the disquiet. Having tried once to revolutionise the game and been outmuscled by his nemesis, Indian cricket board president N?Srinivasan, Chandra is readying himself for an even greater challenge to the establishment.
The Indian Cricket League was the forerunner to the now established cash cow that is the Indian Premier League (IPL). Srinivasan crushed the league – with the tacit support of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and the rest of the cricket-playing nations on the basis that it threatened the health and stature of international cricket. Now that Srinivasan’s own tenure at the ICC is threatened and he has disenfranchised the majority of its senior members, his ability to fight a “rebel” international league is heavily compromised.
Chandra has the financial clout to make an alternative international league work. He owns the Zee TV network, which has outlets and agreements with other channels worldwide. His personal motivation may be revenge against Srinivasan, but he is not short of support. Apart from the “small seven” nations, he has the support of the associate nations that added so much value to this year’s World Cup. Ireland, Afghanistan, the Netherlands, Scotland and a host of others are set to be dumped when the 2019 version of the global game’s biggest showcase reverts to a 10-team format.
The rebel teams would need to sign half a dozen big-name players each and supplement them with another 10 young, up-and-coming cricketers. A management, back room and coaching team would take the squad per nation to about 20. A player could earn as much as R5-million a year for an initial three-year contract, with similarly tempting numbers for “lesser” team members.
Motivated by revenge
Just as in the case of Kerry Packer’s World Series revolution in 1977, an “unfashionable” venue with few or no ties to cricket could be hired. Almost 40 years ago, Packer used Gloucester Park, a horse-trotting stadium in Perth, and did what was necessary to make it playable. But it was a made-for-television event, so the live crowds made little difference. His motivation was revenge for not being allowed to bid for conventional television rights. So he set up his own international series.
Back then, players were paid nothing like their worth. It was easy to recruit most of the best players in the world. These days, top players are paid a fortune. But not all of them.
And a recent survey of professional players by the international players association indicated that – for the first time in almost 10 years – most were motivated by money (an IPL contract) rather than national pride (a Test cap).
South Africa is more vulnerable than any other nation to an approach from the rebels. There are more cricketers of first-class and international potential in this country than any other – including India.
Players like the Lions duo of Hardus Viljoen and Chris Morris are clearly of international class. What are their chances of playing for the Proteas? Why would they not be tempted by the chance of representing their country, informally or not?
Imagine a league in which teams from the 10 Test-playing nations, but including the top four associates, played each other home and away in one Test and two T20s every year, or perhaps over a two-year cycle. It would look like a “normal” league, with the same number of games, equal points and a future fixtures list you could understand. Fancy that.