You have to envy AB de Villiers' privileged status! He can quit a job just because he is tired. In many other professions, irrespective of whether folks are tired, fatigued, exhausted or dead beat, they have to drag themselves to work day after day and somehow find the enthusiasm and energy to slog it out for ‘one more day.’
Yet, in the world of professional cricket, a ‘strategic withdrawal’ like ABD's has gradually become an accepted norm. Consequently the number of cricketers turning their back on their national team in an effort to prolong their playing career and stay better focussed has reached disturbing proportions. It would come as no surprise if this trend eventually triggered a reaction from respective national boards; especially if it affected the supply side of the business.
The history of partial retirement could be split into pre-2008 and post-2008 eras. To the uninitiated 2008 was when the cash-rich, lucrative Indian Premier League came into existence. With the IPL came, an entire eco-system of sponsorships, endorsements and contracts. Players were also made aware of their responsibilities to franchises, sponsors and their contracts.
Initially only West Indies cricketers, notably Chris Gayle, opted not to play for their country. He and some other Caribbean players had a running feud with their national board and lucrative tournaments like IPL gave them the opportunity to turn their back on manipulative and vengeful national boards.
But in recent years, this has spawned into something else and there is a perceptible trickle of players not wanting to get bogged down with cumbersome, long-drawn international tours and series. Shane Watson, Kumar Sangakkara, Brendon McCullum. MS Dhoni, Alex Hales, Kieron Pollard, Mitchell Johnson et al either quit international cricket altogether or restricted themselves only to white ball cricket. The latest to join this list is another towering cricketing personality, De Villiers who surely has at least another two years of good cricket left in him.
Earlier, in the pre-2008 era international cricket was a lot simpler. There would be an average of 10 to 12 Tests and 25 ODIs a year. Now, because of this guilt of excessive T20 matches, either in the form of internationals or leagues like the IPL, boards are pushing for more Tests. There is also a liberal sprinkling of ODIs to go along.
Thus, while tournaments like IPL are the reason that there is a huge load on cricketers, it the mega-bucks from these leagues that encourages them to quit other forms of the game and prolong their T20 career for as long as possible.
The alternative is an injury when they are on the wrong side of 30. That is the time when they would be expected to be at the peak of their cricketing ability. They could also be expected to command top dollar for their efforts. But an injury at that age would take longer to recuperate from. It would also tell on their mental ability to engage in bruising scraps.
Already, master batsman Virat Kohli is a victim of this overload. His neck injury will take a while to heal. It would take a longer time for him to slip into his run-making habit. And irrespective of what anyone says or does, there is no denying that it is always a challenge to come back from an injury.
Traditionally India’s domestic cricket season would stretch from late October to March. The off-season, between April and September, owing to the searing heat of summer and later monsoon, would be a much looked-forward to down-time for cricketers. Occasionally there would be a series in England. This fixed calendar gave a player enough time to rest and even iron out his flaws.
Come to think of it, whoever heard of India hosting a Test match in the month of June (against Afghanistan in Bengaluru)? It is the sure-shot example of how things have changed, probably for worse and forever. The period from late March to late May which was off-season earlier, has now become the most hectic and looked-forward to season in Indian cricket — thanks to IPL. And the money to be got from it is humongous.
The South African de Villiers gets close to $2 million to turn out for RCB in those frenzied 50-odd days of all action. That sum is beyond the wildest imagination of cricketers who played during the pre-2008 era. It makes even the Kerry Packer era pay-outs seem like small change! No wonder an ABD does not want to come into an IPL season feeling tired and worn-out!
On the other hand, most Indian cricketers would love to play international cricket for as long and as often as possible. The more often they are seen on television the better for their endorsement deals. And since there are more eyeballs for white ball cricket that is where their moolah is! And don’t forget the wicket-keeper. Since he is on screen for the longest period of time his endorsement deals are the best.
Maybe these are early days for professional cricket in most countries. Maybe the system needs more time to evolve. But there is little denying that too much year-long cricket is having an adverse effect in more ways than was initially envisaged. The loss of ABD to international cricket and Kohli, Kagiso Rabada, Mitchell Starc, Pat Cummins being laid low by injury are part of a larger malaise affecting the scheduling and image of this great game.
Something has just given way now. It needs to be mended before it gets out of hand.