Why the cult of T20 freelancers is constantly rising
There used to be a time when donning national colours and scoring big hundreds used to be a cricketer's biggest priority. It was a time when failing at the international level marked the end of a cricketer's career. But with the advent of T20 cricket, the desire to play for the national side seems to have taken a backseat.
Today, even if you are not a top cricketer with piles of runs behind your back, you can still make it big and earn a living by making your presence felt in franchise-based T20 leagues around the world. The thrills and spills of the Indian Premier League, the BBL (Australia), the Vitality Blast (UK), and the CPL (West Indies) offer cricketers with lots of opportunities to showcase their talent and earn big.
Back in August 2017, New Zealand fast bowler Mitchell McClenaghan declined a national contract so that he could participate in international T20 leagues. With 82 wickets in 48 ODIs, McClenaghan stood a chance of becoming the fastest to 100 ODI scalps in Zealand's cricketing history. But he decided to ditch the national contract and turn into a T20 pro.
Although the 33-year-old is eligible for national selection whenever available, with a multitude of T20 leagues coming into the picture every now and then, McClenaghan might never get a chance to play international cricket again.
McCleneghan's case is one of the countless examples of players declining national duties and contracts to ply their trade in overseas leagues and county cricket. In January 2017, the likes of Rilee Rossouw and Kyle Abbott (both from South Africa) declined national contracts to ply their trade in county cricket.
Both Rossouw and Abbott joined Hampshire as Kolpak cricketers in search of new opportunities and more money.
With talented international cricketers being lost to T20 leagues and the rise of ''Kolpakism'', the future of international cricket looks bleak. The question needs to be asked: why are cricketers so inclined to choose T20 league cricket over national duty?
Money, money, more money
It goes without saying that participating in franchise-based T20 leagues helps cricketers earn large sums of money. Many prominent names around the globe are turning into freelance cricketers in order to make big bucks.
National loyalties are vanishing at the rate of knots simply because of the money power. In an era where financial security and monetary gains are a cricketer's priority, these cash-rich leagues offer players a great opportunity to earn a good amount of fortune.
For instance, the swashbuckling Indian all-rounder Yuvraj Singh was bought by the Delhi Daredevils (2015) for a whopping sum of INR 16 crore. That's a LOT of money.
In a survey conducted by FICA (2016), more than 50% of the cricketers from the West Indies, New Zealand, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka said that they would prefer declining national contracts to play in overseas cricket leagues if they were paid more. Looking at the current scenario, it certainly won't be an overstatement to say that money is the biggest driving force behind a cricketer's fast-shifting loyalties.
Cricketers plying their trade in overseas T20 leagues often become household names. Spectators flock the stadiums to watch their heroes swinging the willow in T20 leagues, which acts as motivation for the players.
The explosive Jamaican opener Chris Gayle has developed an incredible fan following throughout the globe after he began participating in the IPL. His popularity swelled by leaps and bounds while he was a part of the Karnataka franchise Royal Challengers Bangalore. His exceptional batting displays earned him a place in the hearts of many.
Before his retirement, star England batter Kevin Pietersen began playing across the globe as a freelancer after his relations with the ECB began souring. He was signed as an overseas player by the Melbourne Stars in the BBL where his exploits with the bat coupled with his on-field aura made him a fan favourite.
Spectators want big names to play in their city's team. But the demands of the spectator don't end there. They want international cricketers to return every season, and T20 leagues are making that happen.
Pressures of the international game
The fact that international cricket is demanding is no hyperbole. Almost all players, no matter how good they are, face a lean patch in their career. A string of low scores, and a cricketer's place in the national side is most likely to be questioned. (Remember Yuvraj Singh's 21-ball 11 in the final of the World T20 in 2014?).
At a time when even a single bad performance ends up casting a shroud of uncertainty over a cricketer's international career, the best way to play is to become a ''gun for hire''. The pressure is low, the duration of involvement in the game is smaller, and the money involved is incredibly high. All of these factors are enough to lure a player to participate in overseas T20 leagues.
With the T20 market booming, it is just a matter of time before T20 cricket becomes the undisputed driving force of the game. With a large number of cricketers facing uncertain futures, the best way to earn a living certainly lies in playing franchise-based T20 leagues.