Cutting back appearances as the years advance has always been part of the arc of any sporting career. The inevitable toll of years of training and physicality spares no one and managing that decline is often the difference between maximising potential and wondering what could have been.
The last decade has seen a shift in the way most elite cricket players view the twilight years of their careers, with opportunities for players in their mid-thirties having increased exponentially since the explosion of the global T20 game. Now players can earn millions as freelance cricketers, travelling the world one tournament franchise at a time, cashing in on their box office status and specialist skills. The choice is no longer whether to focus on red or white ball international cricket in the latter years, but whether to play any international cricket at all.
With every year that the IPL and Big Bash grow the carrot dangled in front of players facing this decision gets ever more enticing. New franchise tournaments springing up in Pakistan and the Caribbean, as well as the planned additions in South Africa and England, mean that very soon there will be a full years schedule for the T20 nomad to play in.
Cricket is becoming like football in this regard. In football, players have been taking lucrative final contracts abroad since the 1970’s. Back then it was the draw of the NASL (now the MLS) and now it is Chinese Super League that is stuffing the pockets of today’s stars. Call it ‘growing the game’, ‘experiencing a new culture’, or whatever you want; these moves come down to money. Why be the ageing hero with younger, faster players taking your starting place when you can triple your salary abroad?
The purists will say that giving up test cricket to play franchise T20 is also a step down, but test match attendance stats would suggest otherwise. If you’re a 35 year old who’s famous for boundary-clearing shots, your view of the pinnacle of the game might not be as clear-cut as it was ten years ago.
So surely you can have your cake and eat it? After 15+ years of representing their country surely any player would have earned the right to enjoy the fruits of what the game has to offer in international retirement. I’m sure no one would begrudge them that. A sportsman’s career is finite and they need to provide for their families.
The lines become blurred when the age of retirement starts to slide back towards the early thirties in order to leave plenty of years to cash in on the riches of the T20 circus. This can be expedited by scheduling or wage disagreements between boards and centrally contracted players, and represents potentially serious problems for the governing bodies of the game around the world. The trials and tribulations of the West Indian national team is a testament to this. Even the ECB’s stance on releasing players seems inconsistent and inevitably combustible. When players get a taste for the big T20 tournaments, and all the riches that come with them, it makes the option to retire early that much easier.
We’ll put freelance T20 poster boy Kevin Pietersen to one side as his international ‘retirement’ was enforced, but the likes of Brendon McCullum and AB De Villiers have both turned their backs on test match cricket. McCullum was 34 when he played his last test match, in which he scored a scintillating hundred. In fact he scored 6 centuries in his last 22 test matches (the same he scored in his first 79), including two double centuries and a triple century. This was not a player in his declining years. De Villiers, 33, hasn’t officially retired from test cricket. However, he hasn’t played a test since January 2016 and has ruled himself out until March 2018 at least. The prospects of seeing AB in the test match whites for South Africa are not promising. It is a crying shame that players like these are not playing test match cricket but they cannot rely on the comfortable central contracts that English players enjoy.
However, the choice isn’t without risk. This is no longer a sporting retirement home; it’s a high stakes battleground. For all but the very biggest names, earning a place and riches that come with it relies on performing consistently at the top level. There was a time when former glories would guarantee you a spot and a fat pay check but these days the teams are so competitive that it requires match winning performances to keep your name at the top of the list. What was once a small pond with some big fish has become a full on international aquarium.
To quote former England international Owais Shah, from Tim Wigmore’s excellent Cricinfo article ‘The dark side of the T20 freelance life’, “If you’re not playing international cricket alongside being a freelance T20 cricketer then you have to perform in every tournament. The pressure is on you, because if you don’t perform the they’ll look elsewhere the following year”. This is the stark reality behind the glitz and glamour; you are responsible for yourself and your future depends on your next few performances. Injuries can be so damaging, both in terms of pay and retention prospects, without a team of doctors and coaches to nurse you back to full match fitness. For those journeymen who don’t have the box office credit that the big names possess, it can be a harsh environment.
Still, those who have risen to the top of the game will have no problems backing themselves to step up when it matters.
As time goes on it may be that cricket’s governing bodies are forced to be more flexible about allowing senior players to split their time between international duty and the various franchise tournaments on offer. It would set a precedent that would be hard to go back from, but surely being able to keep someone with the experience and talent of Brendon McCullum and AB De Villiers around the international set up is worth that flexibility. If it remains a straight choice, then the governing bodies will be watching the growth in power and prestige of the world’s leading T20 tournaments with some trepidation. I think, for the good of the game in all formats, we should let these icons have their cake and eat it. They have earned that right.