This is the story of a former Ashes hero, a high-flying South African businessman and former head of the men’s professional tennis tour, Kevin Pietersen and the England management, and the Indian Premier League. And a situation that, like a train smash that everyone can see coming but no-one can do anything about, has run out of control with the result that, unless ground is given, nobody wins.
To the former Ashes hero, first: whenever the talk is of central contracts and, given the recent developments with Pietersen, the possible return of an era of the freelance cricketer, my mind returns to a story in a national newspaper earlier this year of Chris Old, formerly of Yorkshire and England, now stacking shelves in a supermarket.
You’ll get no sneering here at manual labour and honest work, but it would be fair to say that the job is one of necessity rather than love, financial necessity that is for a cricketer fallen on tough times at the end of his career.
There are other reasons, apart from financial, why Old’s career is a perfect illustration of the benefits of central contracts. Old was a gifted cricketer who played in one of the greatest Tests of all time in 1981 at Headingley, but he was injury prone and, statistically on a win-loss basis, the 1980s were the most unsuccessful decade of English cricket apart from the 1870s. It was a decade defined by an amateur outlook in an increasingly professional game, something that did not change until the introduction of central contracts at the start of the millennium.
More than any individual, central contracts have been the driving force behind England’s rise to the top of the rankings, and the team’s consistent run of success over the last ten years. They have allowed those who run English cricket to institute a world-class outlook, through greater funding, increased control over players’ fitness, eating habits, and technical development. The benefits of better funding and commitment to world-class habits are obvious when seen in the context of the Team GB and the current Olympic games.
They have helped to create a togetherness not known before, when England players were county players first and foremost and only popped in for England duty before returning to the county grind again. When Jimmy Anderson held his 30th birthday party in Manchester before the Headingley Test, the England players were guests. They are mates as well as work colleagues.
Central contracts have been good for players too: their wives and kids looked after like kings and queens on tour; pay has risen exponentially over the last fifteen years; pension arrangements mean that they will not have to worry about finances at the end of their careers; injuries are properly managed and treated, so that fewer end up on the physical scrapheap. It has revolutionised English cricket and it is obvious that there should be no turning back.
This is where Etienne de Villiers comes in, a friend of Pietersen’s, a highly successful businessman, a sports nut and a former head of the ATP, the men’s professional tennis tour. Some time ago, de Villiers could see the situation that was developing between Pietersen and the ECB. Using his experience of the men’s tennis tour, where he negotiated the battles between the stars who, physically, emotionally and financially, did not want to commit to every tour event, and those ATP events who felt short-changed without them.
His view was that it was better to have Roger Federer and Andre Agassi playing some of the tournaments than none at all. So whilst all tennis players had a mandated commitment to 8 ATP 1000 tournaments and 18 in all, including Grand Slams, under de Villiers’ plans that was adjusted according to seniority. A player who had played more than 600 matches was required to play one fewer tournament; 10 years’ service gave them another ‘credit’, and those who were over 30 years of age got another ‘credit’ and so on. So whilst towards the end of their careers, Federer and Agassi focussed on Grand Slams to the annoyance of the other events, de Villiers felt that the tennis tour was enriched despite the grievances.
It is this approach that de Villiers took when he was brought into the conversations between Pietersen and the ECB. Contrary to reports, these conversations were not demanding on Pietersen’s part, rather they took the form of sensible negotiation. De Villiers asked himself, and the ECB: how can we get to a point- that would obviously benefit Pietersen- between principle and pragmatism that would give both parties a satisfactory outcome and allows for a system that retains credibility and does not set unhealthy precedents. De Villiers proposed something based on his experiences in tennis, something the Professional Cricketers Association is now using as the basis for their negotiations into the next set of central contracts.
But tennis is an individual sport. Sampras and Agassi are beholden to no-one but themselves. Andy Flower, as England Team Director, has a much more complex job than anyone in tennis, because he has a responsibility, as he has said, not just to ‘English cricket in its entirety’ but to the other England players in that dressing room, too.
It seems obvious that allowing a player to cherry pick his Test matches- Ashes fine, Bangladesh not so- is going to irritate other players. (There may be legal ramifications with sponsors and broadcasters, too, with whom the ECB has an agreement to send out their strongest teams.) If a player gets injured, but is outside of Flower’s control, who is responsible for his recovery and the management of that recovery? If Flower decides that a trip abroad is necessary before the Ashes, but a player has a sponsor’s commitment and refuses to comply, what power does Flower have?
Sir Alex Ferguson would baulk at a situation where he is not in control of a Manchester United player. Flower feels exactly the same way. It would not be fair to him, since when things go wrong he takes the flak.
What Flower will not do, is allow Pietersen to play the whole of the IPL at the expense of Tests for England, and here, when you remove the personalities form the equation, is the real nub of the issue. Pietersen, like so many players, wants to play the IPL in its entirety, not just for financial gain- although that is a key consideration- but because he genuinely loves the buzz of the tournament.
Unless something is done about the IPL and its relationship to the international game, Pietersen will not be the last cricketer in this situation. When the IPL got up and running ( de Villiers, by the way, is close to Lalit Modi, played a key role in the IPL moving to South Africa but is no supporter of the BCCI or an extended IPL) administrators the world over walked blindly into it, oblivious to the dangers.
In giving their players away for nothing, they should at that point have demanded certain restrictions, namely that the IPL could go on for no more than a month, at which point a window could have been created, allowing all players a free run. Now, with franchises in debt, with television companies having spent hundreds of millions on rights and needing to recoup their investment, the tournament has become bloated, two months long, in order to pay its way. So unless the IPL situation is addressed, the problems will not go away. That, ultimately, is a bigger and more fundamental problem than Pietersen and the ECB.
This is not an insurmountable situation. Pietersen needs to put his faith in Flower who is an eminently reasonable man. He needs to eat a little humble pie, apologise for his comments in the aftermath of the Headingley game, and then make himself available for all forms of cricket for England. Flower, in turn, will take the u-turn in good grace, and look after Pietersen to the best of his ability, as indeed he planned to do during the middle summer months.
Pietersen, then, needs to get tough with the Delhi Daredevils and demand his fee no matter how much he plays. There is far less sympathy towards an IPL franchise than the England cricket team, and he is in a strong position. Crucially, when the next round of television negotiations take place for the IPL, the ICC needs to get involved. The IPL needs to cut its cloth according to the new financial realities and return to a five-week programme with fewer franchises and then the administrators must allow a window for players to take part in a reduced IPL programme.
Will it happen? My guess is that there are too many decent people around the ECB and Pietersen to allow the train smash to happen. As for the IPL: don’t hold your breath.