“Broken Sports” – Free-for-all privilege hurts player incentives – LSB

Garima
9 Min Read


You are a T20 cricketer who has spent the last three weeks in the franchise playing for a team that has performed below expectations. Your final group match is approaching, and only a win will be enough to take you to next week’s knockout stages – but you face a dilemma.

Your agent was on the phone and told you that a team in another league is looking for a replacement for a player who has left for international duty. You’re their first choice, but the deal could fall through unless you’re available next week. How does this knowledge affect your mindset before a must-win team match?

Similar scenarios played out on a daily basis this month: whenever a team was eliminated from the SA20, their foreign stars would take flights to Dubai or Dhaka to play in the ILT20 or BPL. More than a dozen players – including Sam Curran, Liam Livingstone and Jimmy Neesham – took part in more than one league this month.

For the economically rational cricketer, the financial incentives are clear: early elimination from one league is likely to open up an extra week of availability for another league, increasing overall profit opportunities. Any situation in which it would be in the players’ interest for their team to lose should raise concern; One franchise official calls it “a sign of a broken sport.”

There is no suggestion that any player has deliberately performed poorly in one league in order to ensure availability for another league. But, as one client said: “It’s a weird thing to have in the back of your mind.” The blame lies not with the players, who are making the most of the T20 cricket boom, but with the officials who have allowed the unregulated market to transform.

The status quo doesn’t work for fans, regardless of their preferences. Purists lament the demise of international cricket’s two-legged status, but even younger fans who have grown up with the leagues are not well served. Is there any feasible way you can follow – let alone support – a team whose team changes every day, often without any public announcement?

The main problem is that the five leagues – BBL, SA20, ILT20, BPL and PSL – organize at least part of their season between late January and late February. The problem was exacerbated during this cycle by the World Cup, which ran until November 19, but will be held again in the 2024-25 season, with the Champions Cup scheduled to start in early February. Everyone wants a window, but there isn’t room for them all.

There are some attempts to find a solution. FICA, the International Federation of Cricketers’ Associations, will invite players to attend a global scheduling seminar in the second half of this year. “The collective views of current players are very important,” FICA chief executive Tom Moffat told ESPNcricinfo. “They are at the forefront, and they need to be at the center of these conversations.

“This is ultimately a matter of scheduling… The same national governing bodies that control international cricket scheduling also own most of the domestic leagues. As difficult as this may be to achieve, if global scheduling were built around clearer scheduling windows for international cricket, and therefore leagues, it would provide more “Clarity, being able to strike the right balance, and of course the leagues line up more consistently.”

The solution must include cooperation – exemplified by the Caribbean Premier League’s success in avoiding a clash with the 100 in the 2024 window – as well as long-term thinking. It is curious that league periods are often obscured until weeks before their start, and are omitted from the Future Tours Program (FTP) despite so much else being dictated.

But the men’s international schedule is effectively locked until March 2027 via FTP, and cricket officials cannot afford to wait that long to address the perverse incentives created by the leagues. Instead, boards must find collective regulatory solutions to these problems which can then be submitted for approval at the ICC level. These may include:

1. Restructuring contracts
Most leagues operate on a contractual system that involves players receiving the majority of their salaries through retainers, with match fees and win bonuses accounting for only a small proportion. Changing the balance may avoid some situations where players benefit financially from early liquidation.

2. Mandatory “cooling off periods”.
Franchise league contracts and No Objection Certificates (NOCs) are being rewritten to stipulate that players must declare themselves ready for the knockout stages of the tournament when they enter a draft or sign a contract. If they are declared available for the knockout stages, they must become unavailable for any further domestic cricket until the day after the final, regardless of their team’s progress.

3. Standardization of the “Bravo rule” for explosion

England’s T20 Blast has long stipulated that, for knockout matches, counties can only field players who have been in the matchday squad for at least one group match, a rule introduced in response to Essex signing Dwayne Bravo specifically for finals day in 2010 should follow suit, prompting teams to use home-grown talent in their squad. It is strange that the European Central Bank introduced the same regulation for the second season of the 100 series, and then removed it during the third season.

4. Limits of NOCs for centrally contracted players
Boards could consider following the lead of the Pakistan Cricket Board and implement a limit on the number of NOCs they grant to their players during a given period, making very short spells less attractive to those who intend to spend a significant proportion of the year playing in the leagues.

The fourth proposal was championed by Ricky Ponting last week, but the context of his comments – he was speaking during the unveiling of his new coach for Washington Freedom, as well as his roles with the Delhi Capitals and Hobart Hurricanes – illustrates the scale of the challenge. Change will require managerial leadership in a sport where that leadership has been minimal.

Cricket has long surrendered itself to the free market, and its governance now relies on an uneasy truce between self-interested actors. Players – and their agents – have more power than ever, and they want to make hay while the sun shines. Boards want to keep their players, but also keep them happy. Leagues want to attract fans, but also make a profit. The only interest not represented is that of the sport itself, with no central authority with sufficient power to keep these players in check.

Franchisees want to grow their profile, but also win. Here lies an important question: How do SA20 owners feel about the idea that their early exclusion could open up an additional week of earning opportunities for their players elsewhere? This irony will not be lost on anyone if private investors end up lobbying for regulation.

Matt Roller is an associate editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98

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