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‘A broken sport’ – Franchise free-for-all compromises players’ incentives

You are a T20 cricketer, who has spent the last three weeks at a franchise league playing for a team which has performed below expectations. Your final group game is approaching, and only a win will be enough to take you through to next week’s knockout stages – but you have a dilemma.

Your agent has been on the phone, and tells you that a team in another league is looking for a replacement for a player who has left on international duty. You are their first choice, but the deal could fall through unless you are available next week. How does that knowledge affect your mentality heading into your must-win group game?

Similar scenarios have been cropping up on a daily basis this month: whenever a team was eliminated from the SA20, their overseas stars hopped on flights to Dubai or Dhaka to play in the ILT20 or BPL. More than a dozen players – including Sam Curran, Liam Livingstone and Jimmy Neesham – have made appearances in more than one league already this month.

For the economically rational cricketer, the financial incentives are clear: early elimination from one league is likely to open up an extra week of availability for another, maximising overall earning opportunities. Any situation where it might be in a players’ interests for their team to lose should cause alarm; an official at one franchise describes it as “the sign of a broken sport”.

There is no suggestion that any player has deliberately underperformed in one league in order to ensure their availability for another. But, as one agent puts it: “It’s a bizarre thing to have in the back of your mind.” The blame lies not with the players, who are making the most of cricket’s T20 boom, but with the administrators who have let an unregulated market mutate.

The status quo does not work for fans, regardless of their preferences. Purists lament the demise in bilateral international cricket’s status, but even younger fans who have grown up with leagues are poorly served. Is there any meaningful way in which to follow – let alone support – a franchise whose squad changes every other day, often without any public announcement?

The fundamental issue is that five leagues – the BBL, SA20, ILT20, BPL and PSL – stage at least a portion of their season between late January and late February. The problem has been exacerbated during this cycle by the World Cup, which ran until November 19, but will be again in 2024-25 with the Champions Trophy set to start in early February. Everyone wants a window, but there is not space for all of them.

There are some attempts to find a resolution. FICA, the Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations, will invite players to a global scheduling symposium in the second half of this year. “Current players’ collective views are critical,” Tom Moffat, FICA’s CEO, told ESPNcricinfo. “They are at the coalface, and should be at the centre of these conversations.

“This is ultimately a scheduling issue… the same national governing bodies who control international cricket scheduling also own most of the domestic leagues. As difficult as it is to achieve, if global scheduling was built around clearer scheduling windows for international cricket, and therefore the leagues, it would provide more clarity, enable appropriate balance, and naturally line the leagues up more symmetrically.”

The solution must involve collaboration – exemplified by the Caribbean Premier League’s successful avoidance of a clash with the Hundred in its 2024 window – as well as long-term thinking. It is a curiosity that the windows for leagues are often vague until weeks before they start, and that they are airbrushed out of the Future Tours Programme (FTP) despite dictating so much else.

But the men’s international schedule is effectively locked in until March 2027 through the FTP, and cricket’s administrators cannot wait that long to address the perverse incentives that leagues have created. Instead, boards must find collective regulatory solutions to these problems which can then be presented for approval at ICC level. These might include:

1. Restructuring of contracts
Most leagues operate with a contracting system which involves players being paid the majority of their salary via a retainer, with match fees and win bonuses representing only a small proportion. Shifting the balance might avoid some situations where players stand to benefit financially from early elimination.

2. Mandatory ‘cooling-off periods’
Franchise league contracts and No-Objection Certificates (NOCs) are rewritten to stipulate that players are required to declare their availability for the knockout stages of a tournament when they enter a draft or sign a contract. If they declare themselves available for the knockout stages, they should be rendered unavailable for any other domestic cricket until the day after the final, regardless of their own team’s progress.

3. Standardise the Blast’s ‘Bravo Rule’
England’s T20 Blast has long stipulated that, for knockout matches, counties can only field players who have been in the matchday squad for at least one group game, a rule devised in response to Essex signing Dwayne Bravo specifically for Finals Day in 2010. Other boards should follow suit, prompting teams to use the local talent in their squad. Bizarrely, the ECB introduced the same regulation for the second season of the Hundred – then removed it during the third.

4. NOC limits for centrally-contracted players
Boards could consider following the Pakistan Cricket Board’s lead and implementing a limit on the number of NOCs they grant their players within a certain window, making extremely short-term stints less appealing to those who intend to spend a significant proportion of the year playing in leagues.

The fourth suggestion was advocated by Ricky Ponting last week, but the context of his comments – he was speaking while being unveiled as Washington Freedom’s new coach, in addition to his roles with Delhi Capitals and Hobart Hurricanes – outlines the scale of the challenge. Change will require administrative leadership in a sport where that has been scant.

Cricket handed itself over to the free market long ago and its governance now relies on an uneasy truce between self-interested actors. Players – and their agents – have more power than ever before, and want to make hay while the sun shines. Boards want to keep hold of their players, but also to keep them happy. Leagues want to attract fans, but also to turn profit. The only unrepresented interest is that of the sport itself, with no central authority with sufficient power to keep these actors in check.

Franchises want to grow their profile, but also to win. Therein lies an important question: how do SA20 team owners feel about the idea that their early elimination might open up an extra week of earning opportunities for their players elsewhere? The irony would be lost on nobody if private investors end up being the parties lobbying for regulation.

Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98

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