x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Yesterday's cricketers would not begrudge IPL stars earning their due

Before you denegrate the commercialism and money in today's cricket, remember that star's from the sport's past often died in poverty.

Most of the conversations in cricket these days seem to focus on the game's insatiable demagogues and mushrooming millionaires, but last week there was a sobering reminder of a bygone era in an England newspaper.

The Independent featured a forgotten England Ashes hero, Frank Foster, who lit up the cricket world with his all-round skills in the early 1910s. He is ranked among the sport's finest, but he died penniless in a psychiatric hospital.

It was a glum reminder of a time when cricket was a feudal cartel, that the ills of today's crass capitalism are far better than those gloomy days. Foster was among the brave to meet his natural end, but cricket's history has many names who took their own lives due to isolation and financial ruin.

The cricket historian, David Frith, has listed many of them in his book, Silence of the Heart. Among them are 20 Test cricketers, including some of the greatest names in the history of the game, such as Andrew Stoddart and Arthur Shrewsbury, both England captains, Australia's Sid Barnes, and South African Aubrey Faulkner.

Poverty and post-retirement depression were the primary reasons for most of these suicides. Yet, we constantly hear these grumbles about the "silly" money being paid to present and former cricketers in the Indian Premier League (IPL), and the corporate nature of the game.

There may be some genuine concerns, but given Firth's assessment, the IPL and any event like it should be welcomed. It is possibly the largest gathering of cricketers - the players, coaches and commentators - in a stress-free environment, an opportunity to socialise with former teammates and opponents, and earn a few dollars doing that.

You have to be a Mohammed Yousuf to understand the lure of a few million from the rebel Indian Cricket League. His father was a sweeper at Lahore railway station who had no money to buy a cricket bat.

Ask a Paul Valthaty or a Kamran Khan about the blessings of the IPL. Khan's father was a taxi driver in a small north Indian city and his mother rolled bidis (a form of cigarette) to supplement the income. Both of them died due to a lack of money for proper medical treatment, before Khan was spotted by the Rajasthan Royals director of coaching.

There are many such tales in the annals of Indian cricket. Legends such as CK Nayudu and Vijay Hazare died in near penury. Mushtaq Ali was in a no better financial state. Dattaram Hindlekar died in poverty without proper treatment, while Janardan Navle, India's first wicketkeeper, died begging on the Bombay-Poona highway. The likes of Bishen Singh Bedi and Sunil Gavaskar battled with the board on numerous occasions to get their dues, which were usually laughably low amounts.

You can only imagine their wages in India in those days, if you look at figures from prosperous cricketing nations like England. Most of the money went to the coffers of the board. For example, England made a profit of £130,000 (Dh773,000) from Australia's tour of 1953, but only £6,000 was paid to the cricketers as fees and expenses.

Playing for five months in the English County Championship during the 1970s, the average professional could earn no more than £2,500. "You would be far better off staying down the mine," David Lloyd said at the time.

Cricket was ripe for a revolution then. It started with the Packer series and events like the IPL are carrying it forward. Of course, this revolution is not socialist in leaning as some would like. Karl Marx lived and died in penury, but he chose that life for himself. Why should a cricketer be expected to follow suit?