For years now, the standard response from administrators asked about the way forward for 50-over cricket has been: “Only you journalists worry about such things, because the crowds continue to pack the stands”. Maybe Kevin Pietersen’s decision to quit all forms of international limited-overs cricket may convince those entrusted with the game’s future that it’s not pen-pushers and keyboard-bashers alone that have a problem with the way that cricket is structured. Pietersen’s choice isn’t just an alarm bell. It’s a shot across the bows. And if not heeded, it will have huge ramifications for the game as we know it.
Administrators love the 50-over game because it offers the greatest money-making potential – seven hours of action with plenty of time for ad breaks. The crowds usually love it too, if the response to the 2011 World Cup was any guide. It’s not the format per se that has problems. It’s the fact that teams play too much of it. If Pietersen hadn’t quit when he did, he would have spent the English summer playing as many as 14 one-day games.
Several comparisons have been made between Pietersen’s stance and the one taken by Chris Gayle last year after he fell out with the West Indies Cricket Board. Those are fundamentally flawed because Gayle was never on a lucrative retainer with his board. Pietersen wanted to keep playing Twenty20 for England – they start their defence of the world title in Sri Lanka this September – while stepping off the 50-over treadmill. The English board refused to view the two limited-overs forms as separate entities and insisted that it was all or nothing.
Of course, the real issue here is not central contracts or board intransigence. It’s the mushrooming of lucrative Twenty20 leagues around the world. After his exile from the Caribbean, Gayle went and played in Zimbabwe, Australia and Bangladesh before turning up to once again demolish scoring records in the Indian Premier League. Kieron Pollard and Dwayne Bravo are two others that have followed nearly the same path.
Right now, there’s no sort of regulation of Twenty20 leagues. A player can participate in as many as he wants and, in theory, be eligible to play for all of them at the Champions League Twenty20. That’s a patently ludicrous situation, but one that no governing body has moved to address. And as long as that free-for-all atmosphere prevails, there will be players to take advantage.
For now, Pakistan doesn’t have a Twenty20 league that can offer the rewards that the IPL or the Big Bash do. But it may only be a matter of time before it happens. You could also see leagues crop up in the United Arab Emirates or North America, where there are enough expatriates to support such an enterprise. It doesn’t need an Einstein to imagine how these additional tournaments will impact an already crowded calendar.
Blaming the players is the easy way out. But unless you play for Australia or England – and even their players grumble – the central contract is nowhere near lucrative enough to turn down Twenty20 riches. In India, MS Dhoni’s takings from representing the national side are a minor fraction of what he gets for leading the Chennai Super Kings. And this is with the richest board in the world.
What Pietersen has done is ask administrators the question: What are we going to do about these joke itineraries? What purpose do 30 or 40 random one-day internationals a year serve? Why should any player choose such matches, devoid of context, instead of a big payday elsewhere?
Don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer.
Dileep Premachandran is editor-in-chief of Wisden India.