Recent developments clearly indicate a shift in cricket ecosystem frominternational-dominated to league-friendly

Just recently, without any fanfare or publicity, Dewald Brevis, the young South African batsman known as Baby AB, turned out in a match against an English county second XI.

He was not with a South African A team, he was not part of a South African unit preparing for a full series in England, rather, he was playing for a Mumbai Indians development XI. If you thought that players were loyal to their franchise for the duration of the Indian Premier League, and then went back to living their regular lives wherever they came from, think again. On paper, there exists a window of what used to be two months, and is now two and a half months for the IPL.

When the IPL expands from its current 10 teams to a planned 12, this window will have to increase to three months. This meant that no other international cricket would be played in that period. While there was opposition to this — and even recently the Pakistan Cricket Board took issue with the expansion — there is also the understanding that literally no player in the world is going to choose something over the IPL. The debate of club versus country, of being loyal to the system that gave you the chances to grow, is now long gone.

If anything, the size of the IPL beast has been underestimated. India has been able to protect its international game for a variety of reasons. Firstly, the IPL is the foremost Twenty20 league in the world, and the richest by some way. Secondly, playing for India still pays exceptionally well, even if you can’t secure an IPL contract, although that situation is rare.

Most importantly, however, the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) does not allow its players to take part in any other leagues. This means that India’s players are answerable to the BCCI, to whom they are primarily contracted, at all times other than the IPL. When this changes, and there are indications that the BCCI is looking at allowing non-contracted Indian players time off to play in other leagues, the end of bilateral cricket will be much closer than anticipated.

You can be sure that the six IPL franchises who have bought teams in South Africa’s newest T20 league, will be lobbying the BCCI hard to allow some participation of Indian players. It might be too soon for India internationals or centrally contracted players to be allowed outside the fold, but there are plenty of Indians in the IPL who are not contracted by the BCCI or state associations. Perhaps these players will be given time off to venture overseas? When that happens, the power between national board and franchise will shift decisively.

Effectively, a player could be contracted by Mumbai Indians or Chennai Super Kings for multiple months in the year in different windows. While the South African T20 league is not necessarily an attempt to have a second IPL in the year — the beneficiaries are completely different — it is a decisive movement towards football’s system. The time is not far away when the player will be contracted primarily to a company or organisation that owns teams in multiple T20 leagues around the world, and will only be released to play for his country when it suits the mother organisation.

The clearest indication of the shift was South Africa’s withdrawal from their threeODI series against Australia, scheduled to be played in January, 2023. This puts South Africa’s direct qualification for next year’s 50-over World Cup in jeopardy, but the problem was that the dates clashed with their own T20 competition. You might think Cricket South Africa were greedy, but, in truth, this was more need based. Cricket South Africa have flirted with bankruptcy more than once in the last few years and this T20 league is perhaps their last attempt to secure a future for cricket in the country.

What sort of future that will be, where World Cups are no longer the first priority and a format itself is at risk of going extinct is another matter entirely. Cricket also tends to think that certain problems exist only in other parts of the world. When players from the West Indies openly gave up playing for their team to become T20 franchise specialists, they were initially called mercenaries.

Today, cricketers around the world are giving up one format or the other to do so. Quinton de Kock gave up Test cricket, Ben Stokes won’t play ODIs any longer. How long before one Indian player bucks the BCCI and takes the plunge? That’s when the floodgates open.

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