April 28, 2011

Why blame players for choosing club over country?

The issue of loyalty is not as straightforward in cricket as in football and American sport. Ultimately it's about the players getting just reward for their talent

Club or country? Chicken or egg? Which comes first? It's a question that has been at the forefront of cricket aficionados' thoughts over the past fortnight after the hullaballoo involving Sri Lankan players in the IPL, and Chris Gayle.

Because it's such an emotive subject, the shades of grey are seldom seen. Depending on where you stand, someone like Lasith Malinga is either an opportunistic mercenary or a young man messed about with by administrators while trying to do his best for himself and his family. The IPL is either the source of all evil or the best thing since bread came sliced.

Those who decry it ignore how it has finally given top-level cricketers some degree of control over their own destiny. Its apologists overlook the effect it has had on the cricket economy, leaving less prosperous national associations on the verge of financial ruin if they don't toe the Indian board's line.

Cricket is pretty unique in that it's one sport where national recognition opens doors to financial riches. You don't need to represent the United States to land a multi-million dollar NBA or NFL deal. Lebron James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated long before he donned the Cleveland Cavaliers' vest, and his very first contract dwarfed anything that Sachin Tendulkar or MS Dhoni have signed. His shoe deal with Nike alone was worth $90 million.

In cricket, though, until the IPL came along, you were nothing without a national cap. It's possible for those playing first-class cricket in England and Australia to make a comfortable living, and the same is the case now in India with increased payments for those on the domestic circuit. But if you're an ordinary first-class pro in New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan or West Indies, chances are you won't be swanning around in a Ferrari.

Even those with a national contract are unlikely to. Consider this. A year after he took four wickets in four balls at the 2007 World Cup, Malinga was denied a national contract. He had broken down months earlier and been forced to miss tours and the inaugural IPL season. Sri Lanka Cricket's decision was as unkind as cuts go.

It wasn't as though they were short of funds. Soon after the 2008 Asia Cup win, officials helped themselves to significant pay hikes. The players had to make do with the $100,000 that they had been paid the previous year. The only sop was $25,000 paid as bonus to Kumar Sangakkara, Muttiah Muralitharan and Mahela Jayawardene for "outstanding performances". Interestingly Sanath Jayasuriya, whose century helped win the Asia Cup final, wasn't deemed outstanding enough.

A few months later Malinga was given a contract, a grade II one worth $60,000. In contrast, his first two seasons with the Mumbai Indians, who didn't give up on him despite injury concerns, netted him $700,000. When the franchise retained him before the player auction last January, they will have guaranteed him at least $500,000 a season.

The league is India's baby, backed by the biggest sponsors in the game, and any national board that takes it on is doomed to failure. Far better, instead, to listen to what your players want, and bank that 10%

"Because of the IPL, I got a chance to come back to the national team," said Malinga on Tuesday. "After the injury, nobody looked after me and I was not offered a contract. But thanks to the IPL I didn't lose anything but I improved my cricket a lot. I'm saddened the way I was treated, but not disappointed."

Money can't buy loyalty, but it does give players the security to go out and perform with minds free of worry. Contrast the attitude to Malinga with how AC Milan, Europe's second-most successful football club, treated Fernando Redondo, the talented Argentine playmaker who moved there in 2000.

Redondo played just 16 times in four seasons after injuring his knee while on the treadmill. The club kept paying him £2.74 million a year until he asked for it to be suspended. They also refused to take back the house and car that they had given him.

With state sides and counties largely depending on national boards to stay financially solvent, it's cricket's national associations that have performed the role that football clubs do. It was Sri Lanka Cricket that discovered Malinga and invested both time and money to ensure he could be a factor at the highest level. It's the national academies that tend to do for cricket what La Masia has done for Barcelona football.

In that regard, you can understand why cricket boards are angered when a player chooses the IPL over representing his country. After all, where he is today is as much a result of their work as it is a consequence of his talent. But under the present dispensation, the national boards get decent compensation, with 10% of all IPL contracts signed going into their coffers. Just for signing no-objection certificates, Sri Lanka Cricket's account is richer by nearly half a million dollars.

Is that enough? Probably not. What cricket is going through right now is a churning similar to that which football underwent in the 1950s, when the likes of Alfredo di Stefano and Omar Sivori abandoned their South American roots to make a better living in Europe's cash-rich leagues. That talent drain continues to this day. Europe's top clubs have the money and they provide a stage, the European Champions League, that's second only to the World Cup in terms of prestige. Only someone lacking ambition would pass up a chance to play there.

With the IPL, things are not so clear cut. Football, regardless of whether it's for your national team or your club, is played over 90 minutes. It could even be argued that the best club sides, with their agglomeration of talent and the chance to practise and play together 10 months a year, are superior to any national team. That certainly isn't the case with Twenty20 cricket and the IPL.

Given how the vast majority of players want to be part of the IPL, creating a window for it within the framework of the Future Tours Programme is the only way forward. The league is India's baby, backed by the biggest sponsors in the game, and any national board that takes it on is doomed to failure. Far better instead to listen to what your players want, and bank that 10%.

Talk to the likes of Sangakkara and Daniel Vettori and they will tell you that this isn't about club or country. It's about players finally being able to take home money commensurate with their ability. When you can make as much from six weeks of IPL as you would from a few years of playing for the national side, why would you not throw your cap into the ring? And if your team owners look after you better than your board does, why would you not be loyal to them? Why should Gayle not, like you and me, honour those who honour him and disdain those who despise him, to quote the Bible?

There will always be a group of people who insist that "muddied oafs and flannelled fools" are paid too much. But unlike many administrators, bankers or politicians who rob us blind, most sportsmen leave something tangible behind. Michael Jordan, who helped take athletes' salaries into the stratosphere, once said: "Obstacles don't have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don't turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it." Malinga, for one, has done that, and instead of grudging him the rewards, we should be happy for a man who'll probably need a walking stick to get around by the time he's 50.

Dileep Premachandran is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Dummy4 on May 1, 2011, 0:46 GMT

    Once money creeps into sports it ceases to be sport. It is business. In the good old days English Cricket Captains were amateurs the first Professional Captain was Len Hutton.

    It is true that most of the Cricketers would be doing odd jobs if they wee not supported by their own countries. They should be grateful to thert countries. Who is faithful now a days?

  • Dummy4 on April 30, 2011, 19:55 GMT

    this is one of the best articles i have evr read !!! brilliant !!!..

  • darius on April 30, 2011, 3:13 GMT

    @skn005 ur statement goes to trash can.its a useless debate i mean anytime u shud play for ur country.these days now every board is pouring money to its players.wat if the board disqualifies u to participate in any such tournament.anyways ur jobless.i wonder wat wud happen wen it comes.but if u talk bout the current scenario its killing cricket severely n seriously

  • Dummy4 on April 29, 2011, 23:35 GMT

    Good work. At least the players have some people who back them. And if the WiI board continue to muck around with their players, I see no reason why anyone should complain about Gayle and Jerome Taylor being at the IPL. Sure it's not all about money-but come on these are professionals. Not slaves.

  • siva on April 29, 2011, 22:46 GMT

    Well - for the people who are saying India Cricket Players leaving and playing for Oz or any other teams in the world, for sake of money, it is perfectly fine if they decided to play for other countries as there are 1.2 B people and there is no dearth for talent in India. What we want is to provide some kind of guidance to new players in their remaining 9 months free time.

  • Dummy4 on April 29, 2011, 21:36 GMT

    There will always be people who put money first before anything else, I'm not one of them and would always put my Country before money! we aren't talking about being poor if they only play for their Country especially in India, they are still set up for life either way! it just shows the lack of character in players.

  • A on April 29, 2011, 21:04 GMT

    GREAT ARTCLE DILEEP!!! As they say "Reality Bites" or "Truth Hurts" but let's face it anybody and I mean almost anybody and everybody would choose an lucartive multinational job over low earning Govt job. In this case Malinga was right in securring his future.

  • Hemanth on April 29, 2011, 19:29 GMT

    @enigma77543-- You are absolutely right...if the IPL or any other league was based in wherever you are from..you would be defending it left right and center and bashing the people who would speak against it.. call it human psyche..The players are mature enough individuals to understand what is good for them and what they need to do.. We can keep arguing about it and that would not make an iota of difference to the people who want to play or watch the IPL...IPL is here to stay no matter what anybody thinks...you like it or don't...

  • sachin on April 29, 2011, 18:26 GMT

    All the IPL-backing Indians specialising in "financial security" so conveniently forget how BCCI stopped Indian players from playing in County-Cricket in the years gone by, would these fans have supported Indian players to play county-cricket while India's matches were going on or would they've responded favourably had Indian players asked for scheduling of FTP in a manner that allows them to play maximum amout of county-cricket? If IPL-like cash-cow of a tournament was born somewhere other than in India & if best Indian players were prefering IPL over the Indian-team then I'm sure all of these defenders of IPL would've been all up in arms but because it is situated in India, they're making up all sorts of excuses.

  • sandeep on April 29, 2011, 18:21 GMT

    for all the IPL haters, consider a situation where you get a job in a govt office which pays peanuts and a job from a private company which pays 10 times the govt pay....what would you choose???.......... i rest my case...!!!

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