Several major T20 leagues running concurrently have not only triggered a tug-of-war between franchises attempting to secure players but have started to threaten the quality of the bilateral engagements that are part of the ICC's Future Tours Programme. The T20 leagues, though, enhance players' financial security as well as provide the option of maintaining a better work-life balance.
While players have started opting out of national retainers, boards, such as the England and Wales Cricket Board in the UK recently, have started redesigning contracts by offering more lucrative, long-term deals to secure their best players across the three formats.
Former New Zealand batter David White, who served as New Zealand Cricket chief executive for more than a decade, is now the CEO of the ILT20, which recently became first Associate-run T20 league to be given the List A status by the ICC. White, thus, understands the predicament cricket boards are confronted with. In a chat with ESPNcricinfo this week, White talks about the progress the ILT20 has made in its second season, including the success of UAE players, how the tournament is looking at all options for a window to maximise player availability, and whether bilateral cricket is actually being threatened by leagues.
As a former CEO at New Zealand Cricket, you faced the challenge of T20 leagues pulling in international players. Now that you are on the other side, how do you look at the situation: is there friction between countries and T20 leagues?
I wouldn't call it friction as such. Cricket is clearly going through a bit of a change at the moment. I think the positive thing is that we have got three formats of the game internationally very competitive and doing very well. It's great to see the [ODI] World Cup do so well in India. Test cricket is going through a bit of a revival at the moment, which is fantastic. And of course, T20 has been the financial lifeblood - let's not hide behind the fact that it comes from Indian broadcast money, principally the T20 revolution.
But now you have got a situation where you have got some [T20] leagues. I wouldn't call it friction because all the leagues are actually - bar the ILT20 and MLC - Full-Member leagues, so they're from within the system.
We are unique in that we are an Associate that doesn't play [much] international cricket. There's a bit of a misconception that these leagues are competing with international cricket when the majority of them are actually based in Full-Member countries. I don't think you can call them competition as such within the Full-Member countries.
"I wouldn't call it friction because all the leagues are actually - bar the ILT20 and MLC - Full-Member leagues, so they're from within the system. We are unique in that we are an Associate that doesn't play [much] international cricket"
White on T20 leagues vs international cricket
The positive thing for me now working in a T20 league is that I see a real opportunity for not just the full-time international cricketers to earn a good living, but now you have got a lot of cricketers around the world who are plying that trade playing T20 cricket, and they generally play first-class cricket as well. So for them to have the opportunity to make a good living playing cricket around the world, it's got to be a positive for cricket. If you think of the years gone by when first-class cricketers - and I was one many, many years ago - in the off-season struggled to get remuneration, or a job. So now you have got first-class cricketers who are plying their trade and making a good living. I have calculated that there are probably 150-200 players around the world who are playing in leagues.
You say that, but SA20 is running parallel to South Africa's Test series in New Zealand currently. Luckily, you are not the NZC CEO, else you might have wondered about the second-string South African Test squad. Similar debates surrounded the quality of the West Indies squad during their two-match Test series in Australia. The players will make the choice, but in the long run, will international cricket, especially Test cricket, take the hit? Will that need to be accepted?
I will answer it a different way. Firstly, the situation I was in within New Zealand Cricket, we always took a very pragmatic approach to our players playing in leagues. We were very keen to protect our domestic season, but then outside of the domestic season, we were very open to players playing in the IPL, CPL, the Hundred, PSL, BPL as long as they didn't clash with the New Zealand window. But now what you are saying is that there are more opportunities for players.
Ultimately, the market will determine where it goes. But from a New Zealand cricket point of view, when I was CEO there - and I can't talk for them now - we always protected the Test window and the players did too.
Recently Trent [Boult] decided to play T20 leagues, fully supported by New Zealand Cricket. He has been a great ambassador and world-class performer and played for many years, so he went with our full support. But over the next two to three, four years, it's going to be interesting how Full-Member boards manage their contracting process to ensure that Test cricket does stay strong, yet they do give players the opportunity to earn revenue outside of the international game.
Trent Boult opted out of the central contract with New Zealand Cricket in 2022•ICC via Getty Images
We have to treat this, in a way, as a business. If a player decides to play for the league, do you think it's the responsibility of the league to pay the home board a certain amount?
It's a big, big area of debate. The players are developed by their countries, not just the board, but the schools they went to, the clubs they played for, their first-class teams et cetera. There is provision in the regulations now, as I understand it, for some compensation going back to boards, but if it becomes too prohibitive, that will be a challenge. The market will determine itself over the next two or three years.
The ICC also recently decided to impose a cap on overseas players in any new T20 leagues. The ILT20 allows a maximum of nine overseas players in the XI. Is there a cut-off date worked out internally where the number of local UAE players will increase in the team?
One of the motivations for setting up the league was for the future development of the UAE cricket and to build its strength. I am delighted with the performance of a number of the players already in the league. They have really excelled. Internally, the Emirates Cricket Board would like to see more of their players playing in a very short period of time. So in the next two, three, four years, you'll see quite a few more UAE players playing in the league. There's no target date, but I know that the people at the ECB are very motivated to ensure that [number] does grow.
The other big sticking point for ILT20 is that it clashes with several major T20 leagues - the BBL, SA20, BPL and PSL. Is there a plan to create an exclusive window to avoid or minimise the clash as that would allow you player availability for a longer time?
It's a very good question, and I can tell you that this morning I was looking at the FTP, looking at all the clashes, looking at also the Champions Trophy, which starts in early February . And, of course, international teams will be looking to prepare for the Champions Trophy with white-ball cricket.
"Internally, the Emirates Cricket Board would like to see more of their players playing in a very short period of time. So in the next two, three, four years, you'll see quite a few more UAE players playing in the league"
The interesting situation for us is most of the T20 leagues are based in the southern hemisphere with the exception of the Caribbean [CPL], England [the Hundred], and India [IPL] to a degree. So they play in their summer, but with the UAE, it's still hot to play in the summer, so we play in the winter. So that kind of clashes with the southern hemisphere. So January-February next year is looking very crowded. There's no hiding from that fact.
And I am sure everyone is having a close look at that window and considering the best option going forward, including the complication of having the Champions Trophy so early in the southern hemisphere season.
Could the ILT20 then happen in another window in 2025?
No, I'm not saying that at all. What I'm saying is that we are looking at the window, we are looking at the clashes. We are currently scheduled for January-February. That's where the league has been played the last two years, and it's been a very successful window. The climate's very good, and we have had good quality players, but next year, in particular, is looming to be challenging for everyone.
So there could be another window you might be looking at in 2025 in case the player availability becomes a big challenge.
Yeah. What I can say is at the moment it's still pencilled in for the same period, but we are considering all options and just having a close look at what cricket is going to be played next year, what tours there are and the added complication of the Champions Trophy. So no decision has been made, still pencilled in the current window, but we're having a close look at it.
Shaheen Shah Afridi played for Desert Vipers this ILT20. White feels Pakistani superstars elevated the tournament•ILT20
Did you consider conducting the ILT20 in the October-November window? Or you are going to stick in the long term to January-February?
What I'm saying is it's a current window. But we are looking at options, looking at the FTP going forward, looking at the clash with the ICC events and keeping an open mind. The advantage of DP World ILT20 is that we don't have a full international calendar like the other countries. We don't play Test matches, so there is probably more flexibility than other countries, in particular the southern hemisphere countries.
The main challenge remains player availability, isn't it? Rival leagues are going to poach your players - you have already seen the example of Naveen-ul-Haq, where the ILT20 was very clear and strict about the incident by sanctioning him as you don't want to entertain such things in the future. But you can't avoid it happening again because rival leagues might want the same player.
I think so, but we do have some significant advantages. And talking to the players and coaches, they love coming here to the UAE at this time of year. The weather is beautiful, the facilities are good, they don't have to travel. It's a very family-centred environment. They bring their families, they stay in lovely hotels, and they play a very high level of cricket with nine overseas players. Players love to be competitive and the feedback we are getting is the league is very, very competitive from a player's point of view. So it is a very attractive place for players to come and spend a month.
One thing that has been really, really pleasing is the introduction of the Pakistani superstars this season. That really elevated the ILT20 and to see the interaction with the crowd and the animation of the crowd to the Pakistani players, in particular, was [amazing]. In the second week of the competition, I felt a real spike and a real momentum, which has carried on. We have had fantastic crowds: 45,000 people last weekend, and 17,000 people on Sunday at the Dubai Stadium.