Last week was a pretty decent one for English cricket: The disappointment of the Champions Trophy semi-final exit was softened by another wave of dynamic young tyros defeating South Africa in a T20 series; A new, gargantuan TV deal was secured, which includes cricket returning to free-to-air TV for the first time since 2005; and the first ever round of pink-ball day-night County Championship matches have at least filled the timelines of breathless Twitter users if not quite as many seats at the grounds as hoped.
With apologies to fresh-faced Hamidullah Qadri, perhaps the standout moment of these First-Class matches was when South African Simon Harmer took the final wicket of a 9 for 95 haul as his side Essex snatched victory over reigning champions Middlesex. This not only kept alive his county’s hopes of an unlikely championship title but, as the ECB’s now commendably savvy social media team put it, induced #scenes.
There were, though, also a few sighs of regret. On Thursday, England host South Africa in the First Test at Lord’s, but Harmer will not be participating. His international record is perfectly decent, but his absence is nothing to do with his past Proteas performances. Instead it’s the fact he plays for Essex as a ‘Kolpak’, placing him outside the county’s quota of overseas players. This exemption arises because South Africa has an association agreement with the EU, requiring that its nationals who provide a trade or service in an EU nation — which Britain for the time being still is — be treated the same as an EU worker. If he were to play for his international team, this “non-overseas” status would be voided. So for him, and others in their prime like Kyle Abbott and Zimbabwe’s Brendan Taylor, a choice has to be made between county cash and national caps.
On the other side of the globe, Australia’s international players are now faced with a similar Kolpakesque choice by an unresolved pay dispute. Talks and arbitration have failed and some 200 centrally-contracted international and state cricketers — both male and female — whose contracts ran out on Saturday, now find themselves without a new one and are thus unemployed at the moment. It remains to be seen how soon a solution can be found, and many may understandably be tempted just to take off for the first overseas franchise or team who’ll fill the space in their bank accounts and diaries. But this could in turn see them ostracised from Australian domestic tournaments and national team, as participation in events abroad require Cricket Australia’s (CA) approval. Cash or caps again.
The wrangle has been complex and prolonged, but in a gold-plated nutshell, Australian cricket has oddly fallen prey to its own financial success. Under the existing financial model, players salaries are based on a fixed percentage of CA revenue. With the extraordinary success of the Big Bash League (BBL), CA’s income, and thus the actual dollar value of this percentage is rocketing, meaning that under the present system, leading players would in the future receive salaries which the board deem excessive, money which they suggest could instead be diverted into other areas of the game.
A new pay structure was therefore put forward, offering salary increases but not on a par with those which would accrue under the existing model, but it has been refused by the players and their representative body, the Australian Cricketers Association (ACA). Stars of the men’s team, led most vocally by David Warner, say they have done this, like Spartacus’s comrades, in solidarity with their less well paid women’s and state counterparts. Their comments have appeared genuine and so to many this stance is honourable. The other point of view is that, due to the fact these elite male players would receive a salary rise substantially reduced under a fixed-pay structure rather than the present percentage-based one, they are just being greedy and their supposed workers solidarity merely a pretence.
Whoever is correct, the situation is an untimely mess. While seeing their oldest enemy in such a state does provide open goals for English schadenfreude, no genuine cricket fan would be happy if Warner’s prediction “Australia might not have a team for the Ashes” actually came true. It is, of course, ironic that such an acrimonious dispute has arisen exactly 40 years after the Packer revolution, when some Australian Test players forewent their national side to play in the media mogul’s far more lucrative 'World Series'. A year after this alleged “circus” began, Australia’s depleted side lost the 1978-79 home Ashes 5-1, despite having a far bigger and more talented pool of players to choose from than the current selectors will if the present dispute is not resolved.
Mike Brearley led England on that tour and his achievement in winning on Australian soil often goes overlooked due to both this below-strength home line-up and his iconic, Ian Botham-inspired triumph back in England in 1981. This series was perhaps nevertheless instructive in the present day as many in the upper echelons of Australian cricket continued to believe that Packer’s World Series, with its glitz, girls and gimmicks, was just a flash in the pan and that the players would come crawling back cap in hand. They didn’t and Brearley recalls in his tour diary being told that when an England defeat in Sydney looked likely, a jubilant member of the then Australian Board of Control said, “That is the final nail in Mr Packer’s coffin.”
It turned out that England actually managed to win the Test and series, but Brearley was scathing about the board’s belief that Packer and the player power that fueled it were about to be run into the ground. “The temporary surge of support for the official Test team that would have accompanied another win for Australia would have been only a minor irritant, a gadfly on the pachyderm’s back,” he wrote. Hardly a ringing endorsement of Packer himself but certainly a healthy scepticism of the home board’s assumption the public would side wholly with them over the rebel players who had left to join the World Series. Similarly, if the Ashes doesn't go ahead, CA certainly cannot be sure that in the eyes of the public Warner and the other players will be the ones held responsible.
CA might also look to the more recent experience of the West Indies. It is probably a trifle unfair to put the Australian board in the same bracket as the often hard-to-fathom one which rules the Caribbean. But the West Indies’ aborted tour of India in 2014 and the fact that so many of their star names have turned their backs on representing their country (or countries in this case) to freelance in T20s shows that players are more than prepared to walk away, albeit too readily for some people’s liking, from international honours if they feel they are not being treated fairly or fairly remunerated.
The second great irony of Australia being in such a pickle is that it is the nation English cricket has modeled itself on in its attempts to recapture crowds and get an ambivalent youth demographic engaged, and those sceptical of the ECB’s antipodean obsession might be smiling wryly at current events down under. Earlier this year, the ECB forced through changes to introduce a new franchise T20 tournament. They did so with rather a classic English fudge, leaving the existing county-based Blast tournament in place as a sop to those opposed to the existence of just a city-based event, but the intent was clear enough: English cricket wants to get its hands on the sort of money generated by Australia’s Big Bash. Although cricketers’ pay in England is not as centrally tethered as in Australia, the ECB perhaps still need to be better prepared for players eyeing up their slice of a potentially much bigger pie than CA have apparently been.
Harmer and Abbott’s actual predicament and Australian cricketers’ potential one stem from very different legal and financial situations, but they are connected by a similar thread. Namely that across the globe, talented cricketers are increasingly making or are being forced to make a choice between the ultimate honour of representing their country and the rather more mundane matter of making money. This dichotomy, regardless of whose side you take in these disputes, is undoubtedly leading to the international game facing a talent drain and one which could soon be increased dramatically given the situation in Australia.
The mess is too complex to just blame on administrators. The Kolpak situation in First-Class cricket is an unfortunate legal catch-22 not the ECB or Cricket South Africa (CSA) being overly intransigent, but in general the rise of T20 events does present something of an imbalance. On the one hand boards across the globe are increasingly delighted to use T20 tournaments packed with international talent to increase their revenue, not least from TV deals, but those same boards can be quick to revoke the rights of their own players if they independently want to enjoy the same fruits abroad. Or even revoke rights as a punishment sanction, as we may see from CA in the next few months, with players who play in, for example, the Caribbean Premier League (CPL) possibly met with domestic and international bans.
It might be hard for many to accept Warner as a modern day Spartacus. But with T20 changing cricket’s finances so dramatically, those who sit on cricket’s international boards perhaps themselves need to be a little less gladiatorial.