As the fixing-scandal ridden sixth season of the Indian Premier League ended on Sunday, I thought it might be time to revisit the opening section of my concluding chapter in Brave New Pitch: The Evolution of Modern Cricket, where I had attempted to assess where the world of cricket might be headed in response to the presence of the Twenty20 franchise:
Cricket’s future need not be a zero-sum game, where every gain for the world’s growing Twenty20 leagues can only be paid for by a loss to Test cricket. And grow these leagues will, for given the presence of the IPL and the BBL—whose members are likely to form international partnerships once Indian investors begin to participate, and where the BBL might even conceivably consider inviting an IPL franchise to participate—it will not be too long before England and South Africa consider leagues similar in structure, organization and possibly pay scales. These Twenty20 franchise-based leagues will offer many more cricketers a chance to make a living from playing the game and could even point the way to a possible judicious reconciliation of the now-competing—and possibly cannibalizing—situation of multiple formats and club–country conflict.
One possible trajectory of cricket’s future path could see cricket emulating football’s current arrangements. Professional cricketers could play franchise cricket in Twenty20 and one-day formats all year long, in domestic, quasi-international leagues, with non-overlapping windows to maximize movements between labour markets, and then be called on at specific times of the year for a small number of international Twenty20 and one-day encounters, which serve as qualifying matches for quadrennial World Cups. Hopefully, clearly specified union-and-labour lawyer-vetted contracts signed by franchises and national boards will safeguard interests all around. Test cricket’s place within this scenario will be a function of player and fan interest alike. It might be that only some countries will show the desire and the wherewithal to field Test teams. In this scenario, arbitrarily arranged bilateral encounters would be sharply limited, as will triangular one-day tournaments.
Cricket should be prepared for some seminal legal disputes if clubs and countries are unable to resolve their disputes via co-operation. In particular, player–board conflicts like those of Shahid Afridi and the PCB in 2011 will bear close scrutiny. Much like Grieg vs Insole did, future club–country–player clashes in court will clarify many power relationships and establish important legal precedents. Much lucrative employment awaits sports and employment lawyers as cricketers in India and elsewhere seek professional representation in dealing with franchises and in clarifying the nature of their contracts so that they can artfully juggle club–country commitments. And if the power of the franchise grows, players will need legal representation in dealing with their new paymasters and in evolving a wholly new set of labour relations. The need for a players’ union will not diminish; it will only grow as the game moves on to the next level of professionalization.
Given the importance and continued growth of Twenty20 leagues, franchises might come to be entrusted with domestic scenes in each of the cricket-playing countries. Co-operation between national boards and the new franchises could be enhanced in a manner similar to that suggested for the domestic scene in India, where franchises could revitalize domestic cricket by demanding the availability of international players for their competitions, and seek representation on joint administrative councils with national boards.
The most extravagant possibility of the franchise-based world, that national boards will be replaced by franchises who might go on to stage Super Tests similar to those of the WSC, played between either multinational collections or even national outfits, needs to be seriously entertained, especially if fans make clear that they are only interested in watching the highest quality Test cricket. From the current ten Test sides playing today, it would be possible to put together fewer high quality sides that could play at a higher skill and competence level.
Some Test sides might have more players in their ranks than can be accommodated into their national teams; they could find employment in the new franchise system when not confined by national boundaries. Some countries might not have eleven genuine Test-class players to field a national eleven but they might be able to offer at least a couple of quality players to one of the Test-playing franchises. These players could serve as an inspiration for others in their local systems and thus boost its development. If plans for a Test championship—staged amongst franchises’ or nations’ teams—come to fruition, cricket would offer three world championships of interest to two non-disjoint fan demographics.
The primary worry for Test cricket will remain the interest of players themselves in the longer forms of the game. If the desertion by players of Tests turns from a trickle into a flood, the game might well and truly be over. But if cricketers still find the legend of Test cricket an inspiration and consider their performances in it a true test of themselves, especially against top-class opposition, then Test cricket will prosper. But it will still need careful stewarding and the possibility of subsidizing attendance at Tests, and the willingness to incur losses subsidized by other formats should be seriously considered. The primacy of the television rights deal makes these loss-leader solutions possible, and it would be a shame to ignore them.
Nothing will improve cricket’s lot more than the professionalization of its management, whether by changing the personnel of national boards, or by introducing new administrative bodies. If franchises are able to both provide better remuneration and more professional management to cricketers, the contrast with national boards will be a pleasant one, lessening any desire a cricketer might have for dealing with their vagaries.