As part of a new series with Sport Industry Awards , we’re casting a spotlight on player welfare in cricket - a sport that has seen rapid global expansion in the last decade, giving greater global mobility to players and leading to more diversity in how players are employed.
Over the last year, as players have bounced from bubble to bubble, COVID-19 has shone a light on some of the pitfalls this expansion has caused, but in truth they’ve been bubbling in the background for a lot longer.
In the first piece of the series, Miller’s Alex Mendis reflects here on the issues these players can face and calls on the good work the industry is already doing to unite, collaborate and push forward to a more sustainable future for the game.
Just before Christmas, the first ball of the 2020 edition of the Big Bash was bowled, and with that began the latest in a long line of cricket competitions last year played in bio-secure environments around the world.
From Test matches to ODIs, the IPL to the Big Bash, elite international players have bounced between expertly created COVID-secure environments for the benefit of fans and pundits, as well the national cricket boards and their broadcasters, as the sport bid for survival.
And while the entire cricketing community has been treated to a host of entertaining and inspiring cricket - and is grateful for it - it’s become increasingly easy to overlook the impact it has all had on one of the sport’s key stakeholders – the players…
It isn’t hard to see how their challenges have been highlighted in the last year; isolating away from home for months on end, flying from one quarantine to another. But when the vaccine is deployed and the bio-secure bubbles are burst, these player issues won’t subside – and together, as a cricketing industry, we need to use what we’ve learnt in 2020 to start fixing a flawed sport for player welfare.
But to do so, we need to know what we face.
As mentioned, the cricketing world is now abundant with franchise tournaments – all taking place in different corners of the globe and all looking for small windows in international/domestic schedules to allow for maximum publicity and revenue opportunities. For the elite white-ball players out there, and those who specialise in the shorter formats, a single year could see them play for their country, a T20 Blast side, an IPL franchise, a Big Bash team and a PSL squad – and in some cases more. A rich opportunity for a young player looking to make a mark or a specific-skill cricketer aiming for a freelance career, right?
Yes, but it’s not without risk. The political evolution of the modern game has meant that the rights for each tournament are handled differently by different cricket boards, with increasing private investment.
Ultimately, this means that a player who competes in five franchise tournaments, for example, is hinging their career on five different short-term employment contracts. They become self-employed freelancers, effectively, and are under greater pressure to keep playing to ensure contracts are fulfilled and repeat income is achieved. It brings greater earning potential, of course, but it also drastically reduces the year-round protection they have through one single employer, such as impact from illness or injury, at a time when they are playing more than ever.
We’ve seen players risk their long-term security with lucrative short-term franchise opportunities, and injury has left them isolated and cold. When you’ve got multiple employers in multiple countries, who is really looking out for your welfare?
With multiple teams and multiple contracts, also comes multiple locations and tournaments. It’s been said before, but the current cricket schedule is gruelling for those elite, multi-format players who are looking to play it all, and we’re only now starting active dialogue on the effects of players burning out. From Marcus Trescothick to Jonathan Trott and Steve Harmison, cricketers have long felt the anxiety that can arise from long stretches on the road, and with the rise of Twenty20 this is only growing harder as players are restricted from their continuity of support from a single employer.
As a sport, we have a duty of care to look after the mental and long-term wellbeing of these players, as well as the physical, but as the schedule deepens and more franchise opportunities have emerged, that duty grows ever fragmented.
A Growing Game
All of the above, despite creating a ‘responsibility vacuum’ for player welfare, does drive home the fact that cricket – in recent years – has grown exponentially and that franchise cricket and the success of Twenty20 (and now T10) has made the sport more accessible and more lucrative than ever. We’re seeing leagues and tournaments spring up in unlikely places, and some of the very best are approaching footballer-style salaries on multiple short-term contracts.
But enhanced earnings can bring their own pitfalls, with more pressures on employers to fulfil increasing contracts amid volatile revenue environments – particularly since the removal of fans from stadia. In 2020, according to a report by CricInfo, FICA (Federation of International Cricketers' Associations) found 34% of its members had suffered late or non-payment issues at some point in their career and that risk is only increasing within the current climate.
So, while 2020 undoubtedly highlighted some of the issues around isolation that elite cricketers face, it’s opened our collective eyes to the fragmented duty of care that exists within our sport.
There is some great work being done around the industry, including from FICA and the PCA (Professional Cricketers' Association) to guard against these, but together we now need to unite and support each other, collaborate and share to safeguard these players and ensure we can enjoy our sport’s stars for as long as possible.
Stay tuned for more on that.