Boult's choice a landmark moment in cricket's fast-evolving landscape

Neither the boards nor the ICC might want to say it, but cricket is rushing towards a tipping point

Sidharth Monga
Sidharth Monga
Trent Boult is 33 years old. He has played 78 Tests, 93 ODIs and 44 T20Is. He is a World Test Championship winner and a World Cup runner-up in the other two formats. In another era, or maybe even two-three years ago, it would have been reasonable to think he would have tried his utmost to play for another three years to give himself a shot at playing 100 Tests, and wins in the ODI and T20 World Cups. If he stays good enough to play another 22 Tests - his last 22 have taken three-and-a-half years despite the pandemic break - he will in all likelihood end up with more than 400 wickets in the format, something only Richard Hadlee has done so far from New Zealand.
But, in this era, with two new T20 leagues waiting in the wings, one of them game-changingly allowed to field nine non-local (UAE) players in each XI, it comes as no shock that Boult has opted out of the central contract with New Zealand Cricket. He is well aware that this could mean an end to his New Zealand career. As NZC chief executive David White said, those with central or domestic contracts will be prioritised when it comes to selection.
This, by no means, is an attempt to invalidate Boult's wish to spend more time with his young family. He has been taking breaks to be with his family and also fighting injuries for a while now. But he is able to make such a move because he has the financial security of the T20 leagues.
And more power to him for that.
This is a significant moment in the rapid process of normalising not sacrificing it all for an international career. A realisation that what once used to be the ultimate dream - a central contract, 100 Tests, 400 wickets, world titles, the satisfaction of winning an away Test series - can seem like shackles to some. And that it is okay to break those shackles. To Boult, this realisation has dawned at a point where he is already a superstar of the game; to some others, it might come sooner.
If the ILT20 - the UAE league - carries on in its current format, it will need at least 54 players from outside the UAE every year. Plus, there will be the concurrent league in South Africa, which will need at least 24 non-South Africans. Add to it reserve players. With common owners in as many as four leagues, there could be package contracts for players. These leagues will invariably clash with some international cricket or the other. A Tim David or an Azam Khan might need persuading to play for their national sides. Some might need persuading to just aim to play for their country.
Amid all this, uneasily sits the ICC with its stated aim of spreading the game as equitably as possible, but with its hands tied by the decision-making member boards who want to make the most out of the sport
The choice is becoming easier by the year. A league is played over a month or two, you have a home base, it is easier to travel with your family, and you make more money in that period than what your central contract is worth. And it's not just the money. It is the high regard that the players and fans hold these leagues in. The IPL is more difficult to win than a limited-overs World Cup, and is watched by more people. Bilateral international tours, on the other hand, are bloated, involve a lot of travel, can lack context, and, in the case of certain teams, come with ugly jingoism from fans when they lose.
The BCCI can control and rotate its players, the ECB's contracts are lucrative, CA is able to counter aggressively and retain David Warner for the BBL, but other national boards simply don't have the financial might. NZC has acted practically and graciously: an unhappy Boult is no good for the team, nor is his early international retirement. A hit on the money it made by making Boult available for the IPL is something it must live with. CWI has lived with this tussle for longer than any other board, with the Caribbean players mastering the format before others. The West Indies players are owed an apology for the "mercenary" pejorative casually thrown at them.
On the surface, it is not an awful news for cricket. More cricketers, more money for those cricketers, more cricket for the fans. Unlike football, though, these leagues are merely consumers of talent; they don't contribute to developing them. They should pay - as they do in the IPL - a certain percentage of the player fee to the boards that developed the players whether they are contracted or not.
Nor is the drain evenly spread. New Zealand, West Indies and Pakistan will lose more players to the leagues than the big three. It all contributes to serving the self-fulfilling prophecy that Test cricket will become an elitist, exclusivist sport. It is not too far-fetched to imagine a not-too-distant future in which the best athletes and the most gifted cricketers prioritise T20 cricket from a young age at the expense of first-class cricket.
Amid all this, uneasily sits the ICC with its stated aim of spreading the game as equitably as possible, but with its hands tied by the decision-making member boards who want to make the most out of the sport. For the moment, it has squeezed in a world event every year to both ensure a significant revenue and to keep smaller teams in the fray.
Neither the boards nor the ICC might want to say it, but the cricket calendar is rushing towards a breaking point.

Sidharth Monga is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo