The footballization of cricket | The Economist

In his long and successful reign as manager of Manchester United, one of the tricks Sir Alex Ferguson deployed to give his team an edge was to keep his players out of international matches. Glenn Hoddle, who managed England in the 1990s, recalls aggressive phone calls from Sir Alex after naming United players in his squads. Sir Alex, worried about his players picking up an injury or being overworked, knew that they would not risk their status at the club to represent England in a friendly.

In cricket, the reverse is true. Australian state sides, English counties and other top-level domestic teams around the world develop players knowing that the best will graduate to the international arena. In fact, the top players are contracted to their national teams and released for state and county duty at the selectors’ whim. Since the start of 2019, Joe Root, England’s best batsman, has played 46 five-day Test matches for his country (including the one against South Africa that began in Manchester on August 25th) and just ten four-day first-class games for his domestic side, Yorkshire. But there are indications that cricket is about to become a lot more like football.

The catalyst is the growing clout and ambition of the Indian Premier League (etc). Since the wildly popular Twenty20 competition (comprising matches lasting just three hours or so) started in 2008, it has brought untold riches into cricket. It has also brought national boards and the etc‘s organizers into conflict for control of the fixture calendar. At first the boards tried to limit their players’ involvement in these tournaments. But they soon realized that if given an ultimatum, players would follow the money and head for it t20 franchises. The boards had little option but to grant the etc an exclusive window every April and May. After years of grousing, the England and Wales Cricket Board now posts supportive social-media messages when its players are in etc action.

Yet in recent weeks it has become clearer that the etcwhich is run by the Board of Control for Cricket in India (bc) but whose teams are owned by an assortment of India’s richest and most powerful business figures, has much more ambitious plans than can be fitted into a mere two months. For the 2022 season, the etc added two teams and an extra 14 fixtures. The terms of a new domestic broadcasting deal, worth $6.2bn over five seasons, assume a further 20 matches by 2027.

etc owners are also on a spending spree abroad. They have bought three of the six teams competing in the Caribbean Premier League, and all six in a forthcoming one t20 leagues in South Africa. Sides in other planned competitions in America and the United Arab Emirates have also been snapped up. Venky Mysore, the chief executive of the Kolkata Knight Riders, let slip the ultimate aim when he told the Daily Telegraph he wanted to tie his leading players down to year-round contracts, so that they can play for teams in his stable in different competitions around the world.

If Mr. Mysore gets what he wants—and the etc has overcome all resistance to its plans so far—then the implications will be huge. Players contracted it etc-owned stables will play far more matches for their franchises than for their countries. Instead of national sides releasing their stars for franchise tournaments, club sides will allow their top talent to play international matches (or perhaps persuade them not to), just as in football. Outside showpiece events, such as the t20 World Cup, international cricket will have to work a lot harder to prove its worth.

A shift to a franchise-first model is also likely to speed up the division between Test and limited-overs cricket. Since the etc began, certain players have honed skills for the shorter format of the game that are less useful for the five-day version—in particular outrageous attacking shots that offer high rewards but increase a batter’s chance of getting out. Batting in Test matches, in contrast, tends to be more risk averse, because teams have such a long time to accumulate high scores.

Such specialization means it has become more difficult for players to succeed in both formats. Of the 22 cricketers playing in the current Test between England and South Africa, only seven are regulars in their international t20 teams. Higher wages and greater visibility for t20 will pull in more emerging players to the shorter form, further shrinking Test cricket’s talent pool. Apart from matches involving Australia, England and India—cricket’s “Big Three”—Test cricket has long struggled to attract large crowds and broadcasting deals. This will only become more difficult if the world’s most marketable players are engaged in what is, in essence, an entirely different sport, often being played on the other side of the world.

The single best indicator that the balance of power between international and franchise cricket has changed will come when the bc decides to allow Indian players to compete in foreign countries t20 leagues. So far, it has tried to protect the etc by ensuring that it is the only place to watch India’s finest cricketers. The policy has also worked to diminish the power of rivals not open to investment from etc owners, such as Australia’s Big Bash League or The Hundred in England. But with a new broadcasting deal in place—and with its franchise-owners eager to promote their networks of overseas teams—it may decide that its market position is safe enough. The arrival of stars like Virat Kohli, Rishabh Pant and Jasprit Bumrah on the global franchise circuit would be a big step. Cricket would then look more like football than ever before.

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