Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Club it; nations be damned!

(Written for Sahara Time)

I’m fairly sure a lot of you are going to hate me by the end of this article, but I’ll take the risk anyway.

Yes, records and patriotism can take a backseat. The future of world cricket is with the clubs – for starters with the IPL, soon, with similar leagues in the rest of the world. Today’s villains will be tomorrow’s pioneers, and we will stop hating Chris Gayle and Lasith Malinga and Shaun Tait and the rest of his ilk soon. Because they will become the they must.

At the time of writing this, now, today, cricket remains the only sport I can think of off-hand that survives on bilateral and triangular series, made up of contests spanning three formats. How sustainable is that? It doesn’t take an Einstein to tell you that it’s not. Limiting cricket to six competent nations and a handful of teams that really shouldn’t be competing with the top six is not the way to structure a sport. Unfortunately, nothing suggests that this will change in a hurry. It won’t.
And you know what, the ultimate sport, the sport of the world – football – is no different.

Think about it. If it had to survive on bilateral and triangular tournaments, only tournaments between Brazil, Italy, Germany, Argentina, England, Holland, Spain and France would make for compelling viewing. Just eight nations. Out of over 150 that actually play the sport very seriously. If football had been structured like cricket, we would never have seen George Best or Didier Drogba or Ryan Giggs or Cristiano Ronaldo or George Weah or Emmanuel Adebayor or Diego Forlan or another one thousand mindblowing footballers. In fact, that list could go on forever and we’d still manage to think up a few new names.

That’s where club football comes in. And that’s where club cricket comes in. A format where cricketers from all nations clash in either a T20 format or an ODI format.

In case of the IPL, it’s played in India over just under two months at the moment. Tomorrow, you could either have one of two options. First, a series of T20 leagues like the IPL in, say, Australia, West Indies, South Africa and England. That’s a total of five leagues of 50 days each. Players can sign up for a club in either of these countries and play in all of them. Or, the second option, where the leagues take place over a whole year like in football, and you have a Champions League-like face-off at the end of it. Then, every two years, you can have a T20 World Cup...and because the cricket fraternity is sentimental, an ODI World Cup every four years.

And what happens to Test cricket? Well, much as I portray myself as a purist and a fan of Test cricket, I honestly don’t see it fitting in. Simply because the ICC hasn’t managed to put together a proper Test World Championship. If they had, we could have fitted it in somewhere.

Which brings us zooming back to the biggest debate in world cricket today: club or country? Should the players’ allegiance be towards the club that pays him so much money, or should his country’s cricket team take precedence? Well, I think there is no reason to treat sports any differently from other professions here.

Yes, you might not like it, but picture this: a 25-year-old executive works in Company A. Company B offers him more money and/or a senior designation. Wouldn’t he go to Company B? Of course he would. A cricketer needs not do anything different then.

You are Manpreet Singh Gony or Paul Valthaty (just as examples). You know you will play in the Ranji Trophy for many years, not get paid too much, and then hope to make it to the national team, where you may or may not be a success. Is that tempting enough when you can earn loads of money by playing the IPL instead? And away from India, say you are a cricketer from New Zealand or West Indies or Bangladesh. Say you are Daniel Vettori or Chris Gayle or Shakib-al-Hasan. You know that despite your best efforts, your team is likely to lose against the bigger teams. And you’re not getting paid much either.

What, then, are you playing for?

The answer is: nothing. Years of the hard grind, at the end of which you get very little unless you are Brian Lara or a top Indian cricketer. In the good old pre-IPL days, no one had the option. Today, the option is there. And under the circumstances, Gayle and Malinga and Tait are only the frontrunners to the future international cricketer. A man who will go where he is respected more and paid more. Country? Sure, it can be fitted in. Like it is in the case of Lionel Messi or Wayne Rooney or Kaka. They are not gods because of their exploits with Argentina or England or Brazil. It’s what they do for Barcelona and Manchester United and Real Madrid that makes them who they are.

Then why is a cricketer a misguided traitor if he wants the same?