July 6, 2011

The skewed realities of the Big Bash League

Test aspirants have been left facing pay cuts, while those with prodigious Twenty20 skills look forward to getting big money for little work

The Big Bash League (BBL) is now a dramatic reality for domestic cricketers in Australia. With it has come the largest shift in the direction and landscape of the game in this country in more than 30 years, easily eclipsing the move to full-time professionalism at the domestic level in the late 1990s.

Much excellent journalism has already been devoted to how this city-based Twenty20 revolution will affect the direction of the game and the dangerous incentives it is creating for future generations of Australian cricketers. What can be explored are the implications the new competition will have on the ground - for the players affected by Cricket Australia's decisions, made in concert with the Australian Cricketers Association (ACA).

As the proletariat, who are we to tell the bourgeoisie how to run the game? We largely do as we are told, with the faith that the administrators are doing what is best for the game now, and for future generations.

While the incentives may have become a little skewed, the average three-format domestic cricketer will certainly be in a better financial position this time next year. The total player payment pool has increased, although the allocation of resources has significantly changed, and Cricket Australia and the ACA need to be commended for this. But while in theory there's little to quibble with about the change in the payment structure, in reality the mismatch between ability and pay will have some squirming in discomfort.

Consider the plight of someone like Chris Rogers - an old fashioned four-day craftsman, and the kind of player every coach dreams of having in his line-up: consistent, professional, in touch and at ease with his game. He has perhaps been the most consistent cricketer on the domestic scene for the four years before his injury last season. You would assume that with T20 falling off Victoria's contractual obligations, his ranking would increase within their playing group, and that he would receive remuneration accordingly. Sadly, for players of his kind, whose focus is primarily on first-class cricket, they will end up taking hefty pay cuts. While for others this is sweetened by the possibility of a T20 contract, it's unlikely to happen to those we should be rewarding for their single-minded focus towards Test selection.

It's those on the periphery of four-day cricket, but who have immense short-format skills, who will be the true winners of the new system. The likes of Travis Birt will be highly sought after by the Big Bash franchises, and could earn twice as much in the coming year by playing no more than 15 days of cricket. There will be a number of younger contracted players who will put an inordinate amount of effort into improving their T20 skills to maximise their income. It is hard to blame them.

If you want to apportion blame, aim it at the system. The players will no doubt say they dream of the baggy green, but with only 15 or so meaningful longer-format places to be had, there is little incentive to do so. Less effort for more money. Where do you sign?

If you want to apportion blame, aim it at the system. The players will no doubt say they dream of the baggy green, but with only 15 or so meaningful longer-format places to be had, there is little incentive to do so. Less effort for more money. Where do you sign?

Paul Marsh, the ACA chief executive, said it beautifully recently when he suggested the state associations were to blame for creating this skewed market. The same state coach who was bemoaning the new contractual process employed Chris Gayle for 15 hours' work for more than US$260,000.

Cricket Australia should be recognised for their courage in executing an exciting vision for the game. In doing so, they are creating a new revenue stream which one hopes will one day pour back into grassroots cricket and sustain the production of Test cricketers. Sadly, however, they are making it nigh impossible for the current crop of Test cricket aspirants to make a fair fist of their opportunities if they arise. With the last Test of the summer scheduled around Australia Day in late January, a situation may arise where a debutant or up-and-comer plays the biggest game of his life on the back of six weeks of crash-and-bash white-ball cricket.

From personal experience, this is easier said than done. One minute you are clearing your front leg and premeditating where you are going to try to heave it with carefree abandon; the next, forcing yourself to be selective and play the ball under your nose - skills at opposite ends of the spectrum. What hope would you have batting for time on an Adelaide turner with Harbhajan Singh fizzing them down at you if you had spent the last 60 days executing your laps and slogs? Even the greatest mental discipline will leave you short of preparation for such a battle.

From a bowling point of view, the maximum number of overs one can deliver in the T20 competition is 28 - about the equivalent of a day's work if you were to play a Test in Adelaide. We saw what happened to Doug Bollinger's Indian Test tour and home summer, after he conditioned himself with four-over stints for the Chennai Super Kings in the Champions League. Success in Test cricket is not a hit-and-hope affair, and for it to happen for some later this summer, luck might have to be their biggest ally.

One big foreseeable advantage of the BBL is that it will grant opportunities to players who would otherwise not be so fortunate. If not for last year's Big Bash, the rapidly improving impressive finger spinner Nathan Lyon would probably have been confined to the groundsman's shed at the Adelaide Oval. He is now a bolter to tour Sri Lanka in just over a month. Arguments can be made on either side of the BBL fence - expansion and new audiences against returning Australia to the top of the Test cricket tree. Sadly, these are not congruent ideals, and only time will tell which wins out.

Ed Cowan is a top-order batsman with Tasmania