NEIL MANTHORP: Young players chase the money of T20 leagues
Test cricket is no longer the aspiration for up-and-coming cricketers
The Federation of International Cricketers Associations (FICA) has just released its annual review. A closer look at the work being done by FICA at global level has good news and bad. We are witnessing a compelling Ashes series and Test cricket is alive and well in England and Australia.
FICA says most players around the world still value Test cricket and rate it as the most important format.
But career decisions by many young players in smaller countries outside England, Australia and India are driving the game increasingly in the direction of the T20 leagues. One cannot escape the fact that the players from these countries can earn much more in the leagues than they can playing international cricket for their countries.
No longer do many cricket-loving young boys grow up dreaming of playing Test cricket or wanting to learn how to bat for a day. England and Australia still have the Ashes as an incentive for young cricketers and India still have Virat Kohli as an ambassador for Test cricket, but what is happening in the rest of the world?
The dream is more and more about striking it rich with a contract in the Indian Premier League — or the Big Bash, or the Caribbean Premier League. Perhaps even the Mzansi Super League (MSL) one day.
Soon there will be England’s new competition — The Hundred —competing for the best players with its whopping month-long contracts of £125,000 for the top picks down to a “mere” £25,000 for the reserves.
Just as tens of thousands of tennis players and golfers pray for the day they win the big tournament that changes their lives, cricketers now focus their energy on doing something spectacular in the 20-over game and climbing that ladder to quick cash rather than the longer, harder first-class ladder that leads to Test cricket.
There are plenty of talent scouts around the world scouring low-key, provincial T20 tournaments and even club and school events for a potential rough diamond, but it’s a wild long-shot to be offered a professional contract. Nonetheless, there are a handful of bolters who are earning excellent money having been plucked from youthful obscurity.
If you have 10 minutes of your coffee break to spare and the inclination, have a look at what a young Zimbabwean, Ed Byrom, has done for Somerset in the Vitality Blast in 2019.
But the broader the stage the greater chance a player’s talent or potential will be spotted, and that means TV. It is a proven fact that most players’ performances are affected by cameras at the ground. More are improved, and increasingly so.
Before players can display their skills, they need first to be drafted and then selected in the side. There were disappointed players at the recently concluded MSL draft. Cobras coach Ashwell Prince described Kyle Verreynne as the best multi-format wicketkeeper/batsman in the country just last season, yet he went unsold last week. He was playing for SA A just a couple of weeks ago.
Dane Paterson and Robbie Frylinck were Proteas material just a season ago, also unsold. Not necessarily unwanted, but unsold. All nationally contracted players are guaranteed an MSL contract and, with the requirement to hire overseas players and the provision for two Kolpak players a squad, it means there are just 56 players out of 90 in the six squads eligible to play for the Proteas and not already contracted to them. That’s 56 out of a total of about 270 franchise and provincial professional male cricketers in the country.
For every action there is a reaction. For every door opened, another closes. For young players fortunate enough to be offered a contract, the benefits of playing alongside AB de Villiers, Morné Morkel, Kyle Abbott and Alex Hales will be obvious.
Other guests — Liam Livingstone, Ben Dunk and Asif Ali, perhaps — have played lots of T20 cricket in their home countries but are certainly not “box office” and might be fortunate to be included here.
In England The Hundred will comprise just eight teams, but the increasingly popular Blast will continue to be played among the 18 counties so, far from limiting opportunities, the new competition will provide more than existed before.
In SA, however, the franchise T20 tournament (formerly RamSlam) has been discarded, leaving only the abbreviated Provincial T20 tournament (formerly Africa Cup) for young players to make their mark. It will be played in October with three groups of five teams including the usual 13 provinces plus Limpopo and Mpumulanga. Most players will have just four matches to catch the eye.
Given the way young players around the world are now thinking, and the perceived lack of opportunity to participate in the MSL (what will the unlucky players do between November 8 and December 16?), the concern is that even more of the country’s best, young and ambitious cricketers will make the decision at an even younger age to try their luck elsewhere.
This is not a criticism of the MSL or its masters. This column has consistently advocated support for a domestic T20 league and urged the game’s followers to back their local team and attend games.
It would, however, appear sensible and prudent to ensure the country’s best players are involved and their places are not taken by journeymen pros from other countries.