Beyond national boundaries

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Future not tense: Kyle Abbott dropped the Kolpak bombshell on his teammates recently. Image source: 1.

“I need to pay bills, I need to buy groceries”.

Even though the South African team won the New Year test at Cape Town quite comfortably, all was not well in the Proteas camp. The afterglow of the victory had been eclipsed by the story that had broken a couple of days earlier. Kyle Abbott, South Africa’s nearly man for four years, had decided enough was enough. He had picked county cricket over national duty in order to stock up his refrigerator.

The player had done the math; there was no way he was going to get selected ahead of Steyn, Philander and Morkel. He had only made the eleven as Steyn had a fracture. The blossoming of Rabada into a big, strapping, exciting tearaway must have been the proverbial last straw that broke the camel’s back. Besides, the dark clouds of an alleged quota system in selection had loomed large on the horizon on that fateful World Cup semifinal game against New Zealand.

With all this going on, he knew that he would once again be consigned to being a bridesmaid any time three of them were fit, leave alone four. A man who had averaged 22.71 with the ball in eleven tests spread over four years retired from national duty. Several Indians must have read the news that day with expressions of envy at South Africa’s first world problems.

While the rest of the world is trying to wrap their head around the various nuances of the Kolpak deal and its ramifications for South African cricket, it is worth examining the fundamental reason why something like this happened. Yes, the depreciating Rand was a major factor. The quota system was another. No, there was no effigy burning for his supposed dereliction of national duty. When asked about his motives for leaving the squad, he asked the reporters if someone would buy them groceries for the next ten years.

That word groceries, again.

South Africa must have felt like the hapless “good boy” who bought groceries while staying in a hostel—having invested in, nurtured Kyle Abbott for so long—only for an irksome roommate to swoop in on the finished product.

Kyle Abbott is not the first cricket (and certainly won’t be the last) to make this choice. Two years ago in the World cup, Zimbabwe’s Brendan Taylor scored a magnificent century against India, in his last game for Zimbabwe. He too chose the Kolpak route, opting for a life of (relative) financial security. It must be remembered that these two are from teams with some history of playing the game.

What can we make of the smaller teams? Further down the road, and firmly in uncertain territory, the Associates are particularly susceptible. The ICC might have some glib phrases about providing a world class environment, and targetted support to its members in its mission statement; but its actions of cutting down the playing field of the ODI world cup has revealed its true intentions. While the FIFA has agreed to expand its flagship tournament to 48 teams recently, cricket has made its marquee event more exclusive by limiting it to 10.

Understandably, the Associate teams are the worst hit by ICC’s step-motherly treatment. The Dutch captain, Peter Borren, made a fervent plea to the rain gods via twitter as his team’s first match was rain-affected. When that match—which was 10% of their 2016 match count—too was rained out, and Netherlands were out of the tournament in farcical circumstances, he made a plea for more cricket.

Similarly, Preston Mommsen, the Scottish captain, rued the lack of opportunities and exposure against the top teams. Having played only 1 match in over a year following the pity mandatory matches of the 2015 World cup, he regretted the lack of opportunities to better his skills and progress in his game in the international arena. Fast forward to eight months later, he retired at the age of 29. The unforgiving, brutal, win-at-all-costs world of Associate cricket had consumed its most charismatic, vocal advocate.

While it may be convenient to blame everyone’s favourite bogeyman—the BCCI—for the institutional malaise, the earlier superpowers didn’t exactly cover themselves in glory either; case in point being, when England sent in their touring delegation to India in 1964, stars such as Trueman, Statham, Illingworth, Dexter and Graveney gave the series a miss—this was for a team which had a test history of 32 years.

Denied of the vital oxygen of fixtures at their infancy, can an associate team hope to compete? Or exist?

Should cricket move on then, like Kyle Abbott, to a club-based structure?

Cricket is one of the last few bastions of organized sport where the top level of the game is an international contest. Sure, the structure might bring in new, partisan fans; it can bring in governmental funding for creating sporting infrastructure. But can it accommodate two fantastic wicket keepers in the team? Can it nurture a player on the margins of the game, and improve his/her skills by providing a hierarchical structure and commensurate competitive and financial incentives at each stage? Simply put, the existing nation-based cricketing structure presents no opportunity for an underdog to easily progress in the game to a high level.

The solution to this quandary would involve pivoting the highest form of the game to a club-based structure. A club-based structure for 3 format cricket would find a place for multiple talented wicket keepers from the same nations; talented players from the outposts would also find a way to improve their game by playing against good players, rather than unrealistically hope for a critical mass of good players to magically appear in their nation.

The benefits of playing regularly against standard opposition is there for everyone to see: West Indies, having played only 8 matches (only ahead of PNG) between the 2014 and 2016 T20 World cup, ended up winning the tournament last year. Where did they draw their experience from? West Indies players being in demand from various professional T20 leagues around the world.

Perhaps cricket can draw its inspiration from how the Belgium football team rose to World number 1 just 14 years after not qualifying for the knock-out rounds in World Cup 1998 and Euro 2000. A team with only 34 clubs over 2 divisions had managed to reach the summit by revamping their junior structure, and more importantly, getting valuable exposure across the top leagues of Europe. In a world where the UEFA Champions league boasts of the best football, and the Grand slam is valued higher than the Davis Cup, cricket should soon look to follow suit.

Disclaimer: The image used in the article is not property of this blog. The copyright, if any, rests with the respective owners.

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