Earning a living is no sport
On the face of it, Jason Holder and AB de Villiers would not appear to have too much in common.
Holder is the young captain of a struggling West Indies collective, recently trounced in Australia, and during that time faced with the unsavoury sight of fellow Caribbean players who had chosen the concurrent Big Bash League over Tests. At the head of a team ranked No. 8 in Tests and even lower in ODIs – West Indies will not be taking part in the next Champions Trophy as a result – Holder is a quality player, but a developing one.
By contrast, de Villiers is now the leader of the world’s top-ranked Test nation, South Africa, a lofty position they have held for most of the past decade. He is also a most outlandish talent and one of the game’s most popular figures, his achievements placing him in the very top tier of all cricketers to have played the game.
Yet the unsettling events of the past week have shown that he and Holder do indeed share more than a common interest in cricket. Each man has expressed a troubling concern about the direction of the game that betrays the fact that their lot in cricket is not being defined by their ability but by the financial status and ideology of their board.
First, Holder spoke before the SCG Test against Australia about the need for fairer Test match remuneration across all the nations who play it. He also spoke about how he loved T20 and wanted to play more of it, and said that cricket boards, whether the WICB or others, should be discussing how to allow their players room to augment their income rather than simply issuing decrees about when and where to play.
“I don’t think we should be playing hard ball and deny people from going and playing [in T20 leagues], but there has to be a situation where we make international cricket our first priority,” he said.
Interesting enough at the time, these words may now be seen in in a fuller context. Holder had reached terms with Quetta Gladiators in the nascent Pakistan Super League, and felt it reasonable to play in that tournament between the end of the Australia Tests and the World T20 in India in March. Having been the WICB’s most loyal playing lieutenant over the past two years, it seemed a reasonable request.
However Holder was knocked back under the terms of a blanket requirement by the board that all players make themselves fully available for domestic competitions when not playing for West Indies. Beneath Holder’s reserved and respectful tweet about the denial of his no-objection certificate by the WICB, there is considerable irritation, and not just from him. As one member of the team said on the issue: “Common sense is not common anymore.”
A similar note of weariness was to be struck by de Villiers this week, before his first match as Test captain. Most expected him to speak on this day, before the Johannesburg Test, with great enthusiasm for the task at hand, but instead he sounded a warning. Not only about his own future but about that of the international game itself.
“I think it is an ongoing concern for the ICC,” he said, pointing out that while Test cricket, with its tradition, is the format players want to be part of, “there are one or two areas where we can improve”. Like Holder, he spoke about T20 leagues and how they cannot be ignored because of the financial rewards on offer.
The fact is, de Villiers and Holder, for all their disparity of achievement, are paid not dissimilar amounts in terms of central contracts by their boards – something in the region of US$150,000 each. They have each looked longingly towards the bright lights, huge crowds and ample money available in the BBL, even if de Villiers is already in possession of an IPL deal worth around US$1.5 million.
What they are seeking is a change in the game that affords either a better structure of pay for international cricket or more freedom of movement between national duty and domestic T20 stints. They are not optimistic about the chances of seeing the former, and so are looking increasingly towards a future that allows for the latter.
Meanwhile, in the world of the boards, the WICB president Dave Cameron has taken issue with the contention that the West Indies players are paid a pittance in comparison to those of their most recent Test match opponents, Australia. In an interview on SportsMax Zone, Cameron objected to this article, which lined up the match fees and central contracts of Australia, West Indies and New Zealand.
“They’ve left out a lot of information,” Cameron said. “They’ve left out the fact that our players now in the CPL make between $100,000-$150,000, most of them. The Australian players don’t get an additional fee for playing in their Big Bash.”
They do, actually. Every BBL player, whether contracted by Cricket Australia or not, negotiates his own fee for joining one of the tournament’s eight teams. There have been haggles over Australian player availability ever since the BBL began in 2011-12; squabbles over the now defunct T20 Champions League often brewed in pre-seasons past. Some teams made the initial mistake of using too much of their salary cap to sign Australian cricketers only ever available for one match or two.
But the greater point for Cameron to note, as Holder and de Villiers undoubtedly have, is this: David Warner, considered by many to be the first cricketer brought to stardom by T20, has not held a BBL contract for three years. So rich are his earnings through CA – a player ranked in the top five contracts can earn around A$2 million – that he simply does not need to.
Holder and de Villiers would love to live in Warner’s world, where international cricket earns princely sums and T20 tournaments like the IPL are a bonus when time permits. But the fact of the matter is that cricket in 2016 is increasingly defined by a board’s financial strength, a fact made manifest by the machinations of the Big Three. Players are increasingly aware of this, and straining for change.
Unless they see it, de Villiers and Holder may have something else in common – an early retirement from Tests.