Young players are increasingly drawn towards becoming free agents, floating from one T20 league to another, and shunning traditional paths in order to play in international cricket. That is the headline conclusion of the first global employment report on men's professional cricketers, released by the Federation of International Cricketers Association (FICA) last week.
The report, titled 'Shifting Landscape', is based on responses from 300 cricketers across the world (but not from India or Pakistan, where there are no player associations). These are the key findings.
Traditional employment under "significant threat"
The money and exposure on offer in T20 leagues mean players are no longer beholden to national contracts, an umbilical cord, which about a decade ago many found hard to cut. As players have evolved their game, a consequence of playing in different T20 leagues, the report states the "traditional model is under significant threat from alternative employment" options available in the "new market".
"We are seeing the beginnings of a trend in which annual contracts across all formats of the game, are being declined by players at both domestic and international level worldwide. This 'flight of talent' from the traditional 'vertical' pathway with players moving to where they are increasingly valued, and can build more lucrative careers has the potential to undermine both the quality and value of international cricket, which already sees many top players in the world not playing for their national teams on a regular basis, or at all."
"Sideways" route to free agency
FICA finds that more young players are now taking a "horizontal pathway" - where they travel the world year-round playing various domestic T20 leagues like the IPL and the Big Bash (the two most popular voted by the players). That offers them greater financial security and better work-life balance in the absence of a coherent international cricket structure, and is a break from the traditional "vertical pathway" in which a player graduates through a domestic system to international cricket.
A growing number of players have recently opted out of national and domestic contracts. West Indian T20 stars like Sunil Narine, Kieron Pollard and Andre Russell have led the way, declining national contracts. Last year Mitchell McCleneghan also opted to not take up a retainer offered by New Zealand Cricket. Recently the England pair of Adil Rashid and Alex Hales signed white-ball only county contracts.
This exodus of players is steadily "creeping" up.
"We are seeing younger players and those who would be in the middle of their traditional international or domestic careers choosing to leave the vertical pathway and move sideways to the free agency route. Where over recent years, the horizontal free agency market has had its most significant impact on taking players out of the traditional employment market in the less wealthy cricketing nations, where T20 league earnings comfortably surpass national contract earnings, we are now seeing the gradual creep of this pathway into all areas of the game in almost all countries."
In the last decade a "hybrid" pathway has also opened. In this, the player has a national contract, but can enhance his earnings significantly by playing in leagues where the money on offer, the report says, "can be life-changing."
According to the report, the most disgruntled players come from financially-challenged cricketing nations, which offer annual contracts that can't compare to massive deals franchises can provide.
Up to 55% percent of players felt insecure or very insecure in their current employment; 64% of the players surveyed had only one contract for one year; and 88% percent wanted a long-term secure contract instead of freedom of movement.
The report found that players felt they did not have a say in the way the game is being run. "Corruption, scheduling and player workload are seen by players as the main issues facing the game," the report said. About 91% polled cited inconsistent scheduling as a major hurdle facing the game, and 81% said workload was also a major issue.
Tony Irish, FICA's executive chairman, described the situation as tense. National boards are feeling the heat as they argue they have invested heavily in the development of the player and should have a bigger say in their career options. Traditionally boards have exercised their authority by granting no-objection certificates to allow players to play in leagues. Consequently the players are vulnerable to restraint of trade in such a scenario.
"In this current structure, where vertical and horizontal compete, and in the face of time-limited professional careers, players are faced with a conflict of choice in career direction," Irish noted. "Equally, country boards are faced with the potential flight of talent in which they claim an investment. The tension is already palpable in several countries, but will be increasingly felt by all."