Michael Atherton, in September 2011, referring to the West Indian squad visiting England for two T 20 Matches
When is an international not an international? This space offered the opinion last week that the one-day international in Dublin pushed the definition very close. With two players who had played for both teams, and one side putting out a second-string team, those who had been parted from their hard-earned well in advance of the selection of the England team were entitled to ask the question. It is one that may well crop up again at the fag end of the summer when a team going by the name of West Indies arrive here for two Twenty20 internationals. “Going by” is a suitable description in this instance, because they will be shorn of many of the names by which West Indies is associated in the minds of most cricket supporters.
Seven leading players, all of whom would be guaranteed a place in normal circumstances, have been omitted because of their commitments to the Champions League that takes place in India concurrent with those Twenty20 matches. So there will be no Chris Gayle, Darren Bravo, Dwayne Bravo, Kieron Pollard, Lendl Simmons, Adrian Barath and Ravi Rampaul.It has been one of the accepted principles of cricket during the past few decades that the international game takes precedence over club or domestic cricket. This principle has not been challenged primarily because the rewards in the international game have been far and away more lucrative than anything on offer elsewhere.
Go back long enough and there have been plenty of examples of cricketers who have bypassed first-class cricket to take up lucrative club contracts — Sydney Barnes, the great English bowler at the turn of the 20th century, being perhaps the most famous example — but of late clubs such as Rishton, where Barnes was the professional for many years, have not been able to compete with terms offered by international teams. Those looking for the action will know that following the money is a simple rule in sport as well as life.
How far the primacy of international cricket will be challenged in the near future could rest in no small part on a court case being brought by the West Indies Players Association (WIPA) against the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB). On August 16, WIPA filed an action against WICB in the High Court of Trinidad and Tobago for $20 million (about £12.2 million), for itself and its players based upon the principle of restraint of trade because WICB failed to grant the likes of Gayle an unconditional No Objection Certificate (NOC).
The semantics here are important. As we have seen from the team selected to come to England this month, WICB has granted NOCs liberally to those players, such as Gayle and Pollard, who would play in the Champions League (or Indian Premier League or KFC Big Bash) instead of for their country. What WIPA wants is an unconditional NOC, which would allow players to pick and choose their tournaments without the agreement of their country’s board while maintaining their availability for international cricket whenever they want to play.
For these players, retiring from international cricket, as numerous other big-name players have done (Adam Gilchrist and Matthew Hayden, for example), is not a smart option. The ICC’s global events, such as the World Cup in both formats and the Champions Trophy, remain prestigious, high-profile and money-spinning competitions. Gayle, for example, would love to be able to ply his trade around the world in domestic Twenty20 competitions and still be able to pop in for a World Cup every couple of years.
That this is a test case is clear enough. Some may argue that it will not affect England and to some extent that is true. The rewards for playing for England are immense (greater than playing for West Indies, for example) and there is enough talent in this country for the selectors to ignore any player who tries to have his cake and eat it. The balance of power here still lies with the selectors. Eoin Morgan, Craig Kieswetter and Jos Buttler, for example, will be playing for England against West Indies this month instead of in the Champions League.
But those who say that this test case does not affect England should look at the wider implications, and in particular the Twenty20 internationals at the end of the season. If WIPA wins the case, then it is carte blanche for every cricketer from what we could call the smaller, less financially powerful countries (such as West Indies and New Zealand) to hold their boards to ransom, playing only when it is financially rewarding enough to do so, or when there is a gap in their calendars.
At the moment, the only countries with enough financial clout and depth of talent to ensure that there is powerful competition for places are England, Australia and India. As well as going a long way towards bankrupting the WICB, a defeat in its legal action against WIPA would ensure that any international that clashes with a lucrative domestic Twenty20 competition would be of secondary importance.
If England supporters hope to see proper international competition, rather than pale imitations in Dublin and at the end of the season against West Indies, they should hope that WIPA’s action is run out of court.