Islands get sinking feeling

A 50% pay-cut could see more WI players turning freelancers and preferring cash-rich T20 leagues

Kieron Pollard set the freelancer blueprint, which more cricketers from the West Indies are likely to follow

Back in the day, when franchise-based T20 leagues were just sprouting around the world, Dwayne Bravo, the Trinidadian all-rounder who everyone wanted in their dugout, had quipped: “The most uncertain job is that of a West Indies cricketer.” He was reacting to the usual ‘mercenary’ slur thrown at West Indian cricketers who seemed to prefer T20 leagues over playing for their region.

Kieron Pollard drew the blueprint, and the rest followed. The exodus is expected to increase as playing for West Indies becomes even less rewarding – financially.

The 50 per cent pay-cut, announced by Cricket West Indies (CWI) on Saturday, is expected to see an upsurge in T20 freelancers from the quiet islands. The salary deduction means the highest rung of centrally contracted players — those who earn US$300000 and play two formats — will get around US$150000. It’s what Pollard or Chris Gayle snaffle in a single tournament. Even a newbie like Shimron Hetmyer pockets one million dollars a year. The opportunities and rewards are astronomical — even the low-rung T20 league in Canada can fetch around a million dollars.

The truncated figures of players with B and C contracts are US$120,000 and US$60,000 respectively. “It means the board will find it even more difficult to find players ready to turn up for the Windies,” observed an ex-cricketer.

As such, the tribe of freelancers is swelling. In a survey conducted by the Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations in 2019, nearly 50 per cent of professional cricketers said they would consider rejecting a national contract if they were paid significantly more to play as a free agent in domestic T20 leagues. As many as 78 per cent of players featuring in the domestic leagues believe there should be ‘ring-fenced’ windows around T20 leagues to allow them to play both international and domestic T20 cricket without having to choose between the two.

Now if salaries are cut, players’ loyalties would be tested even more. Pay-cuts didn’t emanate from the dark. Like with hurricanes, they came forewarned. But then with hurricanes, they were helpless. Early this year. the international players from the West Indies were made to wait three months for their salaries while the domestic players had to wait for six months. The one-day leg of the domestic cricket league had to be stopped after eight rounds due to dwindling finances. CWI CEO Colin Graves had admitted as early as March that the board was sailing through choppy waters. “We are no different from any other business or organisation and if we are not being able to play live men’s cricket, we are not going to necessarily get our revenues or contracts that we were looking to secure,” he had told a radio station.

And then brew the pandemic.

Though it was more or less controlled, the financial implications were huge. CWI’s biggest cash-raking tournament, the Caribbean Premier League, is uncertain to be scheduled this year. Last year, it made the board richer by an estimated US$25 million. The home series against South Africa and New Zealand were cancelled. Moreover, the tourism industry copped an estimated loss of 200 million dollars, which had a ripple effect on the game as most of the game’s sponsors in the islands were in the hospitality business and were cash-strapped.

The board calling off the leagues further impoverished the domestic associations. For instance, the Trinidad and Tobago Cricket Association suffered loses of around 2 million dollars after they were forced to scrap the local T20 league. “Everything we had planned is on hold and more than likely none of those things will take place for the remainder of the year. That money just went down the drain,” said board president Azim Bassarath.

On one hand, there is considerable sympathy for the new dispensation under Ricky Skerrit, though players waddle in uncertainty. “I can understand why the board took such a decision. But what would the players do? Will they have the motivation to play for the islands, or the franchises who would pay them better? Even before the announcement of the pay-cut, some of the players viewed the CWI suspiciously,” the former player said.

The CWI’s run-ins with players over payments and whimsical selection policies, especially during the Dave Cameron regime, are well storied. Their antipathy only grew after an audit this year, conducted by accounting and management consulting firm Pannell Kerr Foster (PKF), which came up with revelations of grave financial misappropriation including the vanishing of half a million dollars that the BCCI had given as bonus to CWI last year. Other damning details included the probable use of CWI as the conduit for a money-laundering transaction and a questionable loan from a major sponsor to an international business company associated with a former CWI employee.

Little wonder then that most talented new-age Caribbean cricketers put the lucre of domestic leagues over the pride of turning up for the islands. Most of the older legends, those who have presided over the halcyon days of Caribbean cricket, are critical of those they call the “mercenaries”.

Some, like Richie Richardson, are kinder. He once told this paper: “West Indies cricket should stop looking at the freelancers like villains. You can’t force players, but you can certainly cajole them. The administrators should put players first, and ensure that the best team plays in every format. Otherwise, you will see more of them playing franchise cricket. They should make them stay.”

So naturally, the talented ones land up in the multi-million leagues. “A young cricketer is naturally drawn into T20 cricket. Our idols were (Rohan) Kanhai and (Alvin) Kallicharran and (Gary) Sobers, theirs are Gayle and Bravo. So they’ll obviously grow up idolising them, wanting to be like them. It’s natural,” reckoned Richardson.

In Tim Wigmore’s seminal book, Cricket 2.0: Inside the T20 Revolution, he narrates a conversation between Pollard and a West Indies cricket board administrator that sums up the changing priorities of precociously-talented cricketers from the Caribbean islands. The administrator asked him: “Do you want to be remembered as a legend or do you want to be remembered as a mercenary?” Pollard, exuding the characteristic strut, replied: “I’ll take my chances and I’ll go around the world, I’ll back myself and I’ll back my ability.”

Then he explained the rationale: “I have three priorities. One is family. Secondly is knowing that being a sportsman, you can only play cricket for a certain amount of time. The third thing is you always want to do well and be at the top of your game.”

In times of slowdown and West Indies’ cricket economic slump, the so-called mercenaries will be the role models for the new generation of Caribbean cricketers who want to make cricket their profession.

Z24 News

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