The beginning of the end

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RIP Test cricket, crushed by a huge pile of money

“There have been a few rumours floating around,” said AB de Villiers.

The nation relaxed. At last the awful speculation would end, and in a second we would hear the good news. The rumours were media speculation. The rumours were a dressing-room joke misheard by a journalist. The rumours were mind games cooked up by touring English. All was well.

And then he finished his sentence.

“…and in most rumours there is always a little bit of truth.”

Say what now? Had AB de Villiers, national treasure, really just admitted that he had been considering retiring from international cricket? It was like phoning your mum to say hi and her mentioning that the cat had run away again, oh, and she and your dad were planning to emigrate.

A choked, childlike “Why?” hung over South African cricket for a moment. De Villiers went on. There were “big tournaments going on around the world”, he told the press conference, and some of them couldn’t be ignored “because financially they make a huge difference in our lives, and obviously you’ve got to look after that side of it as well.”

Obviously. The word was faintly shocking. We expect footballers to talk about grubby things like money and to take that subtly exasperated tone that rich people use when they talk about trying to get richer (“I mean, I got kids to feed, you know?”); but cricketers? Don’t proper chaps play solely for the love of the game and to earn the respect of other chaps?

Surprise soon eased into denial. There had to be more to the story than met the eye. Had to be. When De Villiers was given the captaincy, we nodded and said, Yep, that was it: his statement had been a cunning power play. Give me the top job or I walk. Well played, AB.

We calmed down. We told ourselves that De Villiers was going nowhere. We explained to each other that incredible hitters don’t just walk away from international cricket.

But nobody believed it. Not deep down. Because, of course, it’s already happened.

I’ve never been a fan of Chris Gayle. I can see the superficial appeal of his destructive batting, but I’ve always found it cynical; a performance he chooses to turn on or not, depending on his mood. Certainly, too many of his big Test scores were made against weak attacks or on flat tracks. But I concede that Gayle has one gift almost unmatched in modern cricket.

Viv Richards could read flight. Brian Lara could read length. But nobody has read the writing on the wall quite as early as Gayle. If Gayle has ever shown a flash of genius, it was surely the moment he understood – before most of the other players of his day – that the future of cricket was in franchises rather than countries.

Gayle is by no means the first Test star to be lured into luminous pyjamas by huge amounts of cash. Forty years ago the cricket establishment was stamping on its top hat in frustrated rage, glaring at upstart Australian Kerry Packer and his World Series. The parallels with today are striking: top players choosing cash over country; cricket marketed as an evening of glitzy entertainment rather than an austere, five-day Victorian ritual; despair over the inevitable death of Test cricket.

But Gayle, the Indian Premier League and Australia’s Big Bash League are different to World Series cricket in one fundamental respect.

For Packer, the World Series was never the end goal. Today we remember it as a revolutionary event in the sport’s history, but we forget that it only happened because Packer couldn’t get what he really wanted: broadcasting rights to Australian Test cricket. World Series Cricket might have invented day-night cricket and dragged players into the professional era, but it was ultimately a petulant “up yours” to the big boys; a rich kid picking up his ball and going home because nobody wanted to play with him.

Two years later Packer finally won his precious rights, and promptly pulled the plug on World Series. What Australians wanted when they switched on the telly was white flannel and red ball; and Packer wanted to give them exactly what they loved.

It was the players who kept that love alive in Australia: the last greats of the 1970s; the strugglers of the 1980s; the new titans of the 1990s. For all their toughness and sledging, every one of them was entranced by the romance of the five-day game.

But Gayle is different. He is the prototype of a new breed of player, one who apparently feels very little for Test cricket; who is not an Australian or South African or Indian but simply a performer who knows his worth; who understands that he has only a few years in which to make his millions; and who plans to wring every dollar out of the game he has mastered.

Indeed, it’s not surprising that cricket’s first true mercenary is a West Indian. The West Indies are not a national team. At their most cohesive, in the 1980, they were the embodiment of a regional ideology. At their worst, in the 2000s, they were a confederation of malcontents. Without a shared nationhood to bind them together, and with a losing culture sapping all the pleasure out of the game, it was inevitable that the bonds of nationalistic zeal – of patriotism – would fray first.

On the face of it, these observations should comfort Proteas fans. De Villiers is not only a South African, and therefore still steeped in old world notions of patriotism, duty and gees, but he is a famously dedicated team player, and, as of January, the captain. He seems to be the antitheses of Gayle; the last man you’d expect to play for pay rather than pride.

The trouble is, pride only takes you so far.

De Villiers has been frank about what he wants to achieve. Years ago he declared he wanted to be the best batsman in the world. When he was appointed captain, he said it was the realization of a lifelong dream. For a driven, ambitious man like De Villiers, milestones and accolades are sustenance. They not only motivate, but they give shape to a career, turning it from an amorphous blob (“Played for South Africa from 2004 to 2019”) into a distinctive narrative with highs and lows, light and shadow.

De Villiers has just turned 32. There’s still plenty of time for him to rack up all sorts of extraordinary records. There’s no reason why he couldn’t claim the highest individual Test and ODI scores for himself. He’s also got one more shot at a World Cup win, in England in 2019.

The problem is, though, that champion cricketers don’t only want the whiz-bang records that get broken on a single day. They want the slow-burning ones too; the big, potent records that speak to endurance and consistent excellence year after year: most runs, most wickets, most wins…And unfortunately most of those records – the sort that might keep De Villiers interested – are probably already out of his reach.

It’s basic arithmetic. South Africa will simply not play enough Tests over the next half-decade to give De Villiers a shot at the endurance records. Even if he doesn’t miss a Test for the next five years, he’s likely to fall well short of Sachin Tendulkar’s 15,921 runs; and he’s taken over the reins too late (and with too weak a bowling attack) to challenge Graeme Smith’s record for most wins by a South African captain.

Given these realities, how difficult must it be to commit yourself to another five or six years of nets and shuttle runs and buses and press conferences and camps and more shuttle runs and more buses and interviews and yet more buses, knowing that you can’t end up with your name at the top of all the columns? How can you not start looking east to the IPL or the Big Bash, awash in hard currency, and wonder how much longer you’ve got? When does the window start closing? Do you push past 35 and hope your knees and eyes can still earn you a few million a year, or do you go the Gayle route, and make hay – and millions – while the sun shines? Yes, you love representing your country, but if you’re 32 you’ve only got another six or seven years in which to earn the money that’s going to see you through the next sixty. It seems a mad question but you’ve got to ask: at what point does playing Test cricket become a financial handicap?

In January it was De Villiers doing the asking, but right now dozens of Test stars are wondering the same thing. Some have already made up their minds: Brendon McCullum has retired from international cricket at 34. Many more will follow in the coming years. (For the record, my money is on De Villiers giving up Tests in 2018 and ODIs after the World Cup in 2019.)

All of which brings us, rather oddly, to the ICC World Twenty20 bash, arriving amid a school of minnows on March 8, as Zimbabwe take on Hong Kong and Scotland face up to Afghanistan.

When the tournament debuted nine years ago, most pundits viewed it with a mixture of disdain and horror. Snobbery was only partly to blame: T20 cricket, still relatively new, was largely unwatchable. Nobody knew what a good score was, and batsmen flailed at everything or got out trying. Captains set fields by guesswork. Spectators were uneasy, unsure if they were supposed to party for forty solid overs or if they were allowed to sit and focus on the strategy.

Since then the format has figured itself out, becoming if not more sophisticated then at least more formalized. It has even managed to grow something resembling a very short history: we now have a vague memory of one or two memorable innings; a couple of standout bowling spells; a thrilling finish here and there. Slowly, T20 is transforming from the shameful love-child of marketing hacks and cricketing sell-outs into a sport with its own lore, and above all, its own fans.

For traditionalists like me, that is superficially reassuring. We want the young upstart to grow up as fast as possible. We want its rough edges to be smoothed, its juvenile aggression to mellow into more mature forms of attack. We want, in short, to draw T20 into the grand traditions of cricket; to install it as a sort of naughty younger brother to Tests and ODIs – a cheeky ruffian that is good for a laugh but which ultimately defers to the more traditional formats.

Of course, that’s not going to happen. And those of us who believe in a Victorian hierarchy of cricketing virtue, with Tests at the top and T20 at the bottom, are about to be brushed aside as dismissively as Chris Gayle plonking a half-tracker into the second tier. Because we’ve badly misread the state of the game.

The World Twenty20 might have “ICC” ahead of its name and feature national teams, but what purists need to understand is that it isn’t a World Cup. It isn’t even a competition. It’s a stall set up in the middle of a marketplace, a pop-up shop where the best hitters in the world take on the best anti-hitters (because that’s what bowlers have become), and try to catch they eye of franchise money men. All vying to become like Granddaddy Gayle, the millionaire who figured it out first.

When stars like De Villiers start leaving Tests and ODIs toward the end of this decade, those formats will die astonishingly quickly. When that happens, many fans will want to blame the players and accuse them of all sorts of things. Some may even quote Kerry Packer’s crude proposition to the Australian Cricket Board back in 1976: “There’s a little bit of the whore in all of us, gentleman. What’s your price?”

But moralizing and finger pointing will be useless. Because when it comes to 20-over franchise cricket – the future – it’s really not personal. It’s just business.

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Published in Business Day Sport

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