February 22, 2008

Money for nothing

The IPL auction has blown cricket's economy wide open with its astronomical salaries. Will the players be earning their keep?

Kicks for free: MS Dhoni stands to earn about $90,000 per match in a form of the game that is far from the premier version © Getty Images

In his early twenties, when many referred to George Best as the fifth Beatle, the world was his oyster. With his bright eyes, flowing locks, designer shirts, a Jaguar E-type in the garage, and skills that have seldom been seen on English football pitches since, Best epitomised the hedonistic 60s and a break with the bleak austerity of the post-war years. In those days he was on about US$295 a week - more than what Bobby Moore, England's World Cup-winning captain, earned.

According to an article in the London Times last November, inflation over the last 40 years stood at 1257 percent. Going by that figure, you might have expected today's top English Premier League footballers to be earning in the region of $3500, still significantly more than your average office worker. Think again. The average pro takes home $41,000 a week, after factoring in win bonuses and other performance-related incentives.

The big boys, though, are on a different plane. Chelsea's John Terry negotiated a new contract last year which made him the richest player in the league's history, with a weekly wage of $264,000. Eight others made over $196,000, while the likes of Fernando Torres at Liverpool and Didier Drogba at Chelsea had to make do with a mere $176,000. The numbers are similar for the top stars on the continent, such as Ronaldinho and Kaka. It's a measure of how far football has come in the new commercial age that no one needs to look enviously across the pond at US sports.

Tom Brady, who recently came very close to taking American Football's New England Patriots through a perfect season, signed a six-year deal worth $60 million in May 2005. His greatest rival, Peyton Manning of the Indianapolis Colts, earns more, but the seven-year contract worth $99.2 million Manning inked in March 2004 only puts him in the same ballpark as Terry.

On Wednesday, cricket entered that salary stratosphere, with the sort of rewards that former Indian cricketers who earned little over $6 for a Test match back in the 60s wouldn't have dared dream of. The Chennai franchise's bid for Mahendra Singh Dhoni didn't just surprise the other seven teams, it also blew the lid off the cricket economy.

Even today, a Test match appearance fetches an Indian player just over $5900, and the Indian Premier League's player auction may just have some reassessing the worth of their international careers. Adam Gilchrist has already bid adieu to international cricket, and Shane Bond has seen his contract with New Zealand torn up so he can play for the Indian Cricket League, the rival competition that's treated like a leper by the establishment. Even Darren Lehmann, who retired recently, is talking of a comeback so he can take a healthy nest egg with him into the Adelaide sunset.

The only difference between the cricketers and these others is, the latter really have to earn the big bucks. The American Football season lasts just over 20 weeks (if you make it to the Superbowl), and the likes of Brady and Manning are targeted for the worst treatment by behemoths on the opposing defense. The same goes for footballers like Liverpool's Steven Gerrard, who runs up to 13km during the course of a game. If you factor in England internationals and friendly games, Gerrard plays more than 60 matches in a season that lasts ten months. In the process, he would likely have inspired the defeat of a dominant Internazionale of Milan, and pitted his skills against Aresenal and Manchester United in games of the greatest possible intensity.

All Dhoni has to do is play 16 games for cricket's version of the Harlem Globetrotters. Not even its most passionate backer will say that Twenty20 is the ultimate test of a cricketer's skill. That remains Test cricket

For six weeks of IPL work, Dhoni will bank $1.5 million, marginally more than Gerrard makes in the same period. All Dhoni has to do is play 16 games for cricket's version of the Harlem Globetrotters. Not even its most passionate backer will say that Twenty20 is the ultimate test of a cricketer's skill, the game's answer to a Milan derby or the Patriots v the Colts. That remains Test cricket. Outwitting Australia at the WACA or defying India on a turning track in Delhi - these remain the game's most arduous assignments. Miscuing a six over midwicket on designer flatbeds in a hit-and-miss format doesn't even compare.

The IPL's stated aim is to encourage people to take up sport, and promote young cricketers. Presumably, they also want to attract the sort of fanatical support that acts as an invisible 12th man for teams like Liverpool. But with many players not attached to their local franchises, it's hard to see how that will happen. Why on earth is Manoj Tiwary playing for Delhi, Rohit Sharma for Hyderabad and Robin Uthappa for Mumbai? In football, players choose their clubs. Torres turned down many to come to Liverpool, while Kaka stays on at Milan despite everyone else drooling over his talent. That makes it easier for fans to embrace non-local players, safe in the knowledge that the new icon isn't just some mercenary out to make a quick buck.

The sort of money thrown at young players in the IPL - is Tiwary really worth twice as much as Michael Hussey, even if Hussey only plays half the season? - should also make us wary.

American Football offers the greatest cautionary tale of too much, too soon. A few years ago, Michael Vick of the Atlanta Falcons was the most exciting quarterbacking talent around, the future of the league, and in possession of a contract worth $130 million over 10 years. These days he languishes in a penitentiary in Kansas, after a federal investigation exposed his involvement with Bad Newz Kennels, a pit-bull fighting and gambling syndicate. No one should expect young sportsmen to be role models, but you also don't want them to end up like Vick, or Best, who died an alcoholic a couple of years ago.

Perhaps the last word should go to Stephen Jay Gould, one of the great scientists of our age, who fell in love with sport in an era where excess wasn't the common denominator. "No one can reach personal perfection in a complex world filled with distraction," he wrote about his great idol, Joe DiMaggio. "He played every aspect of baseball with a fluid beauty in minimal motion, a spare elegance that made even his rare swinging strikeouts look beautiful ... a fierce pride that led him to retire the moment his skills began to erode."

Hopefully, we'll be able to say that one day about some of those who have clambered aboard the IPL gravy train.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at Cricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • gandhik1 on February 24, 2008, 3:39 GMT

    The players earn a lot more than they deserve but the league will earn the money so the players have to earn their part. But I do believe this was the wrong way to distribute the players. The best way for this would be to have a draft with all players. Some thing like all the major leagues in the United States. So the highest bidder for the teams get the first pick and let them decide on their own what each player in their team deserves. But set a minimum fee for these players so they don't get underpaid. Once a season is over the league is going to have some stats on what each team costs, hence a particular cap space should be set up for each team. That way you would'nt see every good player in a single team. Also from next season onwards every player that wants to play in the league should sign up with the league and a paricular draft is held before each season with worst record gets first pick. Young players should also undergo a similar selection right now with limited salary.

  • premmsn on February 23, 2008, 16:16 GMT

    All said and done, one has to come to accept that a 5-day long game is not going anywhere, for that matter not even a day long ODI. How much of a ODI does anyone truly enjoy...the first and last 10-15overs? Time is of essence these days. People want to see something fast paced filled with action, one that lasts for a couple of hours, and keep moving on with their real lives. True T20 might not be a real test of skills of a cricketer or a team, so the focus should be on tuning the game but one has to accept that the format and the length of the game is here to stay.

    That said, this auctioning of Cricketeers is crazy. It was like bidding and trading of slaves when particularly the player does not have an aorta of say in the decision. It could have been done in a much more elegant way of behind the scenes negotiation through a players agent, in that way the player has a choice.

  • OzzieSteve on February 23, 2008, 2:08 GMT

    IPL is a junk tournament. Its just one millionaires team against another millionaires team, and who cares about the result. Nothing good can come out of this for cricket. It will create jealousy and resentment amongst team mates in natioanal sides , and will eventually collapse just like World Series Cricket, for the same reason - the results mean nothing.

    I think it is a plot to destroy Australia's domination of the game - divide and conquer, and Cricket Australia should be aware of the divisions it will create in the national side and ban all contracted players from playing IPL.

  • Crkt_Fan on February 23, 2008, 1:02 GMT

    For all you cinics in India, Australia and the rest of the cricket world chill out. This is only the beginning of the professional phase of Cricket. I am sure the system is not the most efficient. There will be many changes to the existing set up. And, what is wrong with cricketers making money while they can? It is not like Tiwary or Dhony is demanding the money. The player is being paid the price. Where is greed in this??? I have been following cricket for 36 years and agree that nothing can come close to Test Match Cricket, but the game and mentality have to change. Wouldn't you change your job if the competitor to your company is paying you 10 20 or 30 thousand more??

  • Nash_Suns on February 23, 2008, 0:26 GMT

    I am only interested in the revenue and jobs these games create. Few examples include mechandises, sports clubs, Electronics etc. Since it is the first year of IPL it makes sense for an auction of players. Eventually when the league grows players will select the team they want to play(only if they like the offer they get). As dileep stated its not always true that players in NBA, NFL, EPL play for the team they like. There are lot of instances people move to different teams for a better offer. Every successful league went tru auctioning and critic comments. Lets us all cheer for IPL please and make Cricket globally popular.

  • scifilvr on February 22, 2008, 22:07 GMT

    Let the market decide. Which translates to, let the public decide what they want to watch. Why would Tests be more sacred than 20-20 or 10-10 if it were to come to it? Make no mistake, I for one prefer watching Tests to 1-days, leave alone 20-20s (given I watched the entire Ind-Aus Test series shelling out hard earned $ to watch Channel 9 live over the internet from the US), but who am I to say: 1. The Indian public are stupid, and they should rather watch Tests over 20-20 or 1-day? 2. The Indian Cricketers should not be paid as much as they can get / demand?

    The former is morally wrong, the latter is unethical. Each of us in either the shoes of the players or the team owners would do the same.

    Yes, what will need to happen is players having access to: 1. better physical conditioning 2. better ICC/BCCI planning of itineraries (oh yes, its possible, dont let anybody fool you it cant be managed). But both of the above will happen as $ trickle down.

    God bless professional cricketers!

  • Rajan9 on February 22, 2008, 21:54 GMT

    Of course this is too new for all of us, but wait and watch, it will evolve. Too many critics are too quick to rubbish the value of T20 and the technique (or lack of) employed and required for the new game. Give it a couple of seasons and it will evolve and grow. Just like One Day cricket did. My theory is that ultimately, T20 will hasten the demise of fifty overs cricket. The die hards will continue to swear by Test cricket, but the masses will gravitate to T20 completely from ODIs. It's very conveniently and smartly packaged for the 21st century. Give it 5 years at the outside. By then T20 would have come of age, with a new breed of cricketer - extremely athletic, bold and possessing specialised skills - all resulting in a spectacular end product. The sheer scale of the economy of this new game will ensure that. ODI cricket, afterall did improve so many things in its wake. Even Test cricke

  • DeepCower on February 22, 2008, 21:47 GMT

    Another IPL bashing article! Would people wake up and stop pretending to be purists and stop writing like only they know how to admire classical cricket? I can so imagine traditionalists back in the 70's saying the same thing about one day cricket. And we love it now, don't we? People who write disparagingly about T20 cannot promise that they won't be glued to the TV when it happens. Because the thing is so damn exciting. Really, what is the problem? Alright, they earn a lot. But then, we don't compare every high earning member of the society to Vick or Best, do we? There are people who don't earn much that are also gamblers and alcoholics. Oh, well! Sport is dynamic. We have to embrace changes. I enjoy test cricket as much as anyone else, but to see every journalist in the world sip his morning coffee and start detailing in one column or the other why exactly he thinks IPL is no good is really rather tiring. Give it a shot. It might well be the next best thing in sport.

  • Sruji on February 22, 2008, 20:57 GMT

    Well done Dileep. It needs quite a research for those comparisons.

    My concern is about, people's uptake the rivalry between Indian cities. As Dileep mentioned how fans of Hyderabad connect Symonds as their sporting icon? What if Mumbai offers more money for Rohit Sharma.. what about those fans who supported him all those previous seasons?

    On the other hand, Indian fans didn't have the culture like those Anglo or American club fans and the healthy sporting rivalries (well, there are several occasions to prove it wrong). We are notorious for our passion and out of control behavior at times. This newly bread rivalry between cities could lead to tensions between fans.

    Well, this is just a thought.. and I don't think BCCI would care about it.

  • cricfan11166592 on February 22, 2008, 20:42 GMT

    Contemporary modernity and India's own drive to modernity have collided at various junctions (to great consternation of the old order). Indian corporations going transnational is one such 'junction' as is India's take on Neo-liberal socio-economic engineering of the nation state. Cricket is another and consciously or not the whole exercise reeks of adopting the Amercian mercenary model for sport thus aping India's new role model in its pursuit of 'progress'. Neo-liberal capitalism drives cricket as it drives professional sports - sporting sophistry. It remains to be seen if the model works as a necessary opiate for the masses and thus profitably. Orwell would have smirked at this turn of events, he who said that football was opiate for the British masses. Never fear though Bollywood will sedate the millions left behind on the road to modernity

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