x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Cricket's industrial revolution

With cricketers prioritising lucrative club deals over national teams, strike action looks like is an inevitability.

Chris Gayle, seen here during this year’s instalment of the Indian Premier League, is one of a growing trend of players prioritising lucrative club deals ahead of international commitments with the West Indies.
Chris Gayle, seen here during this year’s instalment of the Indian Premier League, is one of a growing trend of players prioritising lucrative club deals ahead of international commitments with the West Indies.

It is the season to strike. Whether it is in the sugar-rush fields and arenas of the NFL and NBA, the fading grandeur of Italy's Serie A or the upward and elegant mobility of Spain's Primera Liga, labour disputes have recently been the most popular form of sporting expression.

Cricket's rapidly morphing terrain is not immune: the West Indies Players Association has slapped its board with a US$20 million (Dh73.5m) restraint-of-trade lawsuit and smaller, individual defiances dot the landscape.

The details differ - the NFL lockout is actually over - but they all turn on one central truth: as greater riches come into professional sport, administrators and sportsmen are battling for a greater share, greater access or greater protection of those riches.

There is an inevitability to all this, certainly in the US, where 16 lockouts across the four main sports leagues (NFL, NBA, MLB and NHL) have occurred over the past 40 years. Research by the sports economist, author and academic David Berri shows that industrial action is 25 times more likely to happen in professional sport in North America than other fields.

One reason, Berri argues, is because of the basic construct of professional sport.

"Monopsony leagues are a reason, as well as monopoly players," he said, a market where there is only one buyer. "Leagues can't always easily replace players so both sides have a fair bit of bargaining power and both sides are often unwilling to back down."

That construct, with some variations, could be applied to almost all of professional sport - especially team sport - around the world. In continental football the imbalance between those running the game and those playing was long ago addressed by the Bosman ruling. Now, as in the US, disputes are mostly about degrees.

Cricket currently represents the most fascinating and complex, given its three formats, laboratory for future industrial action. Strikes are not unknown in the game, as New Zealand in 2002 and West Indies from the late 1990s forward show. But the game has been fortunate.

It has been slower than most sports to transition from amateurism to professionalism. In many ways, it still lags far behind.

"It's worse than a monopoly," said the noted cricket writer and historian Gideon Haigh. "There are no dispute mechanisms to speak of; no systems of conciliation and arbitration; no general agreement on fair pay; no minimum wage. It is a very crude and primitive industrial relations in which withdrawal of labour is often the only recourse for the disgruntled."

Also, it remains a game where representing your country is still the most coveted prize. It is, as Tim May, the head of the Federation of International Cricketers' Association (Fica), points out, another monopsony, where the country's cricket board is the sole purchaser of talent.

But not for much longer. The scene is changing. Money, and lots of it, is flooding in, unevenly and mostly to privately-owned clubs in Twenty20 leagues in different countries rather than to national boards.

Individuals, such as Andrew Symonds, Chris Gayle and Lasith Malinga, recognise the change and are beginning to prioritise lucrative club deals over national representation.

A recent Fica survey puts this trend into numbers. Nearly a third of the players questioned said they would retire from international cricket prematurely to pursue careers with club-based leagues such as the Indian Premier League (IPL); 40 per cent said that given the higher pay in such leagues they could foresee a day where obligations to leagues could take priority over obligation to national boards.

So far, these boards have tried to, in May's words, "compete with the leagues rather than co-habit with them", a clumsy club v country clash that football has overcome. Boards have refused permission to players to participate in leagues, particularly if they clash with international commitments. That kind of frisson can go a few ways, none particularly fruitful: "You're as likely to see rampant individualism as powerful collective action," Haigh said.

And what if, maybe when, these leagues do gain ascendancy? Where do players go with grievances against clubs?

Though the IPL worked with Fica to develop player contracts the first year, it has steadily squeezed out player agents and representatives since.

Ominously, Fica is already handling IPL-player disputes. Some players are still owed money (six-figure sums in some cases), and some who have not been paid the amount they signed for. The IPL is, so far, not co-operating.

Whichever way cricket goes, then, increasing tension between owners and workers seems unavoidable, and maybe growing industrial action, too.

"It is a possibility," May said.

It feels, however, queasily like an inevitability.

osamiuddin@thenational.ae