The birth of freelancing in the cricketing arena dates back to the 70’s when the Australian media mogul Kerry Packer started the World Series Cricket (WSC) with rebel teams from Australia, West Indies and another from the Rest of the World.
Although Packer referred to his efforts as ‘half-philanthropic’, the WSC came as a brainchild of Packer only when he was declined the rights of broadcasting and thus financial interests can be held as the chief motive behind the spearheading of WSC.
Nevertheless the ‘Supertests’ and the ‘International Cup’ organized by WSC had a huge impact on modern cricket with the advent of protective gears, especially the helmet,not to mention the efficient hosting of the day-night matches.
The freelancers known as ‘Packer’s rebels’, though initially frowned upon by the respective cricket boards, were later included in the teams when Packer and the boards (mainly ACB) called a truce.
While test cricket held its crown among the puritans in terms of prestige and challenge, ODI cricket started gaining popularity, with the World Cups seeing competition at the highest level. This was to continue for two decades until T-20 cricket started offering some serious competition, if not eclipsing the 50-over format.
The T-20 domestic leagues mushrooming in all the test-playing countries are mere consequences of the growing acceptance of the shortest version, while the longer ones have seen waning crowds.
These leagues were primarily supposed to be a platform for promotion of young talents offering them a chance to exhibit their skills in the highest level directly. It also provides a few retired cricketers a steady earning even when their sinews fail to do their bidding in the longer format. Thus we have Shane Warne playing for the Sydney Sixers and Rajasthan Royals even at the age of 42. Marcus Trescothick who failed to continue international cricket due to stress related reasons found solace in performing for Somerset. Muttiah Murlitharan, long past his prime is playing for Royal Challengers Bangalore in the IPL, Melbourne Renegades in KFC Big Bash and Jamaica Tallwahs in the CPL.
The retired cricket personnel are truly freelancers and pose no problem because of their little or no interaction with the international cricket. The problem however pops up in case of a vast majority of players who are in legal contracts with their national boards aside from the domestic T-20 leagues. The hectic schedule and constant demand to perform often tell upon their physical and mental health and they compromise with their responsibility when called up to perform under the national hood. When faced with choice, the financial aspect often lures them towards the more profitable option.
This has given birth to a new breed of frequent fliers who ply their trade in a number of domestic T-20 leagues throughout the year, either because they are out of the national team’s rosters or the temptation of short-lived glory beckons them more than their national duty.
We have seen Chris Gayle opting out of the Caribbean side due to conflict with his national board regarding payment issues. England had her prodigal son in the form of Kevin Pietersen, declaring himself as a freelancer after his long spat with the England Cricket Board.
However, we also have to ponder upon the issue from a professional cricketer’s perspective. While the game has almost reached the status of a religion in this country, the players of the remaining countries are not so lucky as they are often paid only a meagre amount that make them look out for pastures anew.
In countries like Sri Lanka and West Indies, this has always been a major issue with the boards rarely looking concerned about the pay-cheques of the players and seldom being able to rope in lucrative sponsorship deals. The clamour about representing one’s nation notwithstanding, the cricketers are right to look out for jobs that offer better pay-slips.
Sunil Narine had to negotiate with his board regarding his absence from practice to participate in the final of 2014 IPL. England cricketers have recently sought a pay rise to compete with their Australian counterparts as they are deprived of the lucrative international deals that the Australians enjoy by playing in IPL and KFC Big Bash.
Also, this gives an opportunity to the players of the associate members of the ICC to play with or against the players of the test-playing nations, something that they don’t earn often.
While the inception and growth of the T-20 leagues must not overshadow the classic flavour of the international competitions, it is well-nigh impossible for the national cricket boards to compete with the privately sponsored cricket tournament.
The freelancers have given the governing bodies some food for thought and it remains to be seen whether the procrastination from the boards to ensure better rewards for the professional servants of the game results in a permanent change of balance in the player -country – franchise relationship.