End 'meaningless' tours - Graeme Smith
South Africa's captain, Graeme Smith, believes that Andrew Flintoff's decision to turn down his ECB central contract in favour of a "freelance" career has set a precedent that the ICC cannot afford to ignore.
Speaking to Cricinfo on the eve of the Champions Trophy, the second-biggest event in the ODI calendar, Smith said that the international game was going to have to adapt to its changing environment and cut down on the current glut of "meaningless" contests, if more of the world's leading players are to be prevented from following Flintoff's example.
As tournament hosts and the No. 1 ODI nation in the world, South Africa start next week's Champions Trophy as favourites, and with a proper challenge to whet the appetite after a rare three-month break, Smith reiterated that international cricket remained his absolute and over-riding priority. But, he added, unless the ICC tackles the thorny issue of the Future Tours Programme head-on, the riches on offer in the IPL and beyond will prove an even more tempting alternative to many cricketers who, by the very nature of their careers, have a finite period of time in which to make the most of their talents.
"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.
"For me international cricket is still the pinnacle," he said. "But you can't hide the fact that huge financial rewards and benefits for players have come into the game in the last few years, and it's obviously such a short career, so you want to make as much money in that time as possible. But I think playing for your country is the best, and the most important thing for us is to carry on being as successful as possible and try not to be distracted by other things that are taking place."
The FTP is a six-year calendar during which all nations are required to play each of the others, home and away, in at least two Tests and three ODIs. However, it expires in 2012 and a replacement has yet to be agreed upon, with some nations favouring the implementation of a World Test Championship to replace the often haphazard bilateral arrangements that are currently in place. But whatever solution is reached, Smith believes that a greater importance has to be attached to future international matches, and cited the current seven-match ODI series between England and Australia as a classic example of poor scheduling.
"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."
In the absence of such leadership from above, Smith was sympathetic with Flintoff's reasons for taking his career into his own hands. "I don't think you can blame Fred for the decision that he's made," said Smith. "He's had a very successful career, and at this stage of his career, he wants to maximise his worth and really take control of things. He's had a number of injuries, and for his own good, he needs to take control of the few years he has left in him."
Smith's immediate priority, as South Africa's captain, is to lead his country to glory on home soil in the Champions Trophy, and he is determined to put all other thoughts about the future of the game out of his mind.
"It's a terrific time to be a sportsman in South Africa, and to be a role model," said Smith. "When you think about our readmission after the apartheid years, we've got a young country in many ways, and our sport is going from strength to strength at the moment. The opportunity is there to grow, and the better that South African teams can be, the more the youngsters will want to be the heroes of the future. The Champions Trophy is another opportunity for that."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo