October 9, 2009

For club or country?

If the IPL brought the issue of players' loyalty to the fore, the Champions League has drawn a line under it

Piyush Chawla moved around the lobby, wearing an all-access pass. Greetings exchanged, he said, "Now, I'm a Shark," and pointed to the Sussex Sharks badge on his t-shirt. An Indian legspinner swearing allegiance to a foreign club. "People might have forgotten me as I don't play for India anymore, but I'm happy to represent Sussex," he said. Chawla's divided loyalties are a symbol of the cracks that are forming in the foundation of cricket.

Two years ago the IPL established a new order in cricket, introducing the franchise-based system to the game, and making cricketers a commercial commodity. Now the Champions League, conceived on the club-based model of the UEFA Champions League in football, has even greater potential to revolutionise the game: if it clicks, cricket's biggest prize-money event ($2.5 million to the winner) will undoubtedly place more pressure than there already is on players to give precedence to club ahead of country.

Show me the money
Cricket is the only mainstream team sport that survives on international competition. Every other sport lives off club-based or franchise-based competition. "There must be something in the model, for every other sport to follow club-based competition," Neil Maxwell, who was the CEO at Kings XI Punjab in the first IPL, says.

Maxwell, a former Australia A player, who was also once the marketing director at New Zealand Cricket, reckons the difference in the standards of play between the elite nations and the others, as a result of the FTP model, is hurting cricket more than anything else. "We are seeing the flaws in the country-versus-country model, where there is a huge disparity in the standard of teams. Some matches aren't competitive and some countries are choosing to play others more regularly, so you haven't got an even spread of the wealth generation."

Club-based cricket, on the other hand, provides regularity of competition and more balanced contests. That, Maxwell thinks, is the main reason why the Champions League is bound to change cricket.

A probable shot in the arm for events like the IPL and the Champions League is the increasing frustration on the part of players, and player associations, at the relentless international schedules designed by the administrators. Compare this to football, where countries play each other sparingly. Top footballers make US $5-10 million a season playing for their clubs, and though they get paid a pittance to represent their countries, it is the honour and prestige that motivates them to play.

"That is fine on a basis that it is less regular, unlike in cricket where players are called on to play [international cricket] 10-11 months in a year," Maxwell argues.

So has the time arrived where players pick club over country? Dirk Nannes, the Australian fast bowler, who now represents Delhi Daredevils in the Champions League, predicts the club-based model will definitely be a lucrative and viable option especially for some players. "It certainly becomes an attractive option for the older guys who are close to retiring," Nannes says.

Nannes says he would personally still rather play for his country, but "it certainly would be tempting if you are on a high-end IPL contract, where you earn millions of dollars. Then, of course, I would think twice."

It came as quite a shock for Nannes to be picked for Australia earlier this year; he wasn't in the original squad of 30 picked for the World Twenty20. "Without playing a single game of domestic cricket I've gone from being ranked at best 31st to, in the next Twenty20 game, being in the playing XI," he says. "So that has changed things a little bit."

At 33, Nannes says he has to start thinking about life after cricket and how best to prolong his career. How does he stretch his career to, say, the age of 38, he wonders. "Is that going to happen playing four-day cricket? Maybe I've got the chance to play Tests, but if I don't make the squad in another year, what purpose is there for someone my age to play four-day cricket? I don't get a very big wage and it is definitely going to limit my career at the back-end. This is the form of the game I'm good at, and I can play till I'm quite old."

Not all players agree. Justin Langer, the former Australia opener who is now captain of the Somerset Sabres, one of two English sides in the tournament, says the Champions League cannot radically alter the game of cricket, but it will certainly place an extra emphasis on the domestic competition. "For example, for Somerset, a smallish club in the south-west of England, to be thrust on the world stage is a great honour - a huge thrill for both the club and the players" Langer says.

Dean Kino, head of the Champions League governing council, echoes Langer's sentiments. "Contrary to the perception that players might give priority to the club, one of the great benefits of the tournament is, it is going to improve the next generation of international players," Kino says, pointing out how tournaments like the Champions League and the IPL provide opportunities for domestic crickerers to play against, and with, better quality players. "Dirk Nannes and David Warner are good examples of players who have come out of club championships in the past."

"Central contracts have lost their relevance. Ultimately the performers are the players. You will have to play by them"
Amrit Mathur, Delhi Daredevils CEO

Freelancer, mercenary, what's wrong with it anyway?
After years of being subdued by administrators, players, fuelled by the attractive pay packets in the IPL, are daring to make themselves heard. Kevin Pietersen's remark last week about central contracts not being lucrative anymore is a case in point. A few days after that, Dwayne Bravo said that if asked to choose between country and club, he would reflect first on the money on offer on either table. Unlike the two Andrews - Flintoff and Symonds - Pietersen and Bravo haven't yet publicly declared their freelance ambitions, but it seems only a matter of time before players of all calibres start charting independent paths, unshackling themselves from restrictive central contracts.

Amrit Mathur, Delhi Daredevils' chief operating officer, says the biggest challenge facing administrators, starting now, will be player management. "Central contracts have lost their relevance," he says. "Ultimately the performers are the players. You will have to play by them."

Nannes looks at it in practical terms. "People can call me a mercenary, but in five years' time I'm either going to be having a whopping big mortgage because I continued playing first-class cricket or I'm going to have no mortgage and stay comfortable for the rest of life. If you completely take emotions and loyalty out of it, you don't need to slog" he says

Langer, among the proudest upholders of the tradition of the baggy green during his playing days, is clearly a loyalist. "You've got to remember, we had to play a very tough competition in England as a team, as a club, and I'm not sure how this would encourage the freelance system," he points out. Langer thinks the number one priority for all young players is international cricket, and one of the responsibilities of domestic cricket is to accelerate the progress of young players to play international cricket. "IPL and such events are a bonus."

Maxwell isn't too keen on the term freelancer either. "At the end of the day every English Premier League footballer, every NFL player, every NBA player, every baseball player, is representing his club. They are only called freelancers because the model is changing," Maxwell says. Cricket follows an antiquated model, he says, and predicts an "evolution" in the next three to five years.

For Kino, the issue is moot: since the Champions League isn't going to clash with any international series, players don't need to make a choice, he points out. As for whether the new leagues will bring about a flood of premature retirements among established international players, he thinks it is too early to say.

Maxwell is confident that ultimately the club-based system will take over from the international model. "At some point you need to understand what the consumer wants. At this point unfortunately a lot of consumers don't want Test cricket - only the older generation wants Tests and I'm one of them. But a 10-year-old is going to want to play Twenty20 cricket."

The future is already here
An indicator that the club-based model is here to stay can be found in the participation of sponsors for club events. ESPN Star Sports, which has the broadcast rights for the Champions League, stated in a media release that 95% of available advertising inventory has already been sold.

Kino stresses that sponsors have shown enough interest in the market to sustain both types of competition - international as well franchise-based. "Advertising revenues, sponsorship revenues and commercial support for the game is centred around quality of events. The events aren't marginalising each other. On the contrary, they are accommodating each other, from both a commercial and economic perspective.

Maxwell believes the Champions League owes much to the success of the IPL brand. "We opened doors for people to buy equity in cricket two years ago, so the floodgates are open now." An interesting illustration of the paradigm shift is how Indian corporates are now sponsoring most foreign teams that are competing in the Champions League.

Yet a major test for the game is just six months away, when the third season of the IPL will coincide with the latter part of the domestic season in the southern hemisphere. No doubt the club v country debate will come to the fore in very real terms.

It is Lalit Modi who has the last word. Asked if he is confident about the Champions League replicating the success of the IPL, Modi smiles widely and says, "You asked me the same question before the IPL too."

Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo

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