Wednesday, 24 April 2013

High pay in the Indian Premier League: could Test cricket fight back?

For a teenage fan the arrival of Kerry Packer’s World Series Cricket in the 1970s was crushing.  The England team’s heart and my Kent favourites, Knott, Underwood and Woolmer, suddenly disappeared and the subsequent big Ashes wins against a second string Australian team were devalued.  Back then I didn’t understand that Test players were poorly paid and faced awkward financial choices for their families. Ultimately, the lasting legacy of this painful episode was a huge increase in players’ pay: Packer had identified an economic gap and helped to correct it.

35 years on, we again see leading cricketers being tempted away from Test cricket, this time towards the Indian Premier League.  In 2012 the West Indies touring team lacked Chris Gayle, and the May Test series in England will always be threatened by the diary clash with the IPL. 

Given this, it’s interesting to look at the financial decisions faced by the players.  The highest profile contract dispute of 2012 was Kevin Pietersen’s.  Undoubtedly there were many factors involved, but consider the following: KP earns around £500,000 a year on a central contract with the England and Wales Cricket Board but £1.3m in a few weeks with the IPL.  If KP chose he could play T20 competitions around the world and easily amass £2m a year.

Yes, we’d all love to play for England, we’d all do it for free…  but that’s easy to say if you have another career.  To put it another way, would you pay £1.5m (KP’s forgone income) to play for England?  Maybe for a few years, but surely not as you approach retirement. 

It is probably unnecessary and undesirable that England players earn enough to banish all thoughts of the IPL, but the gap could be narrowed for the benefit of the game.  According to the 2011 annual report the ECB had income of £146m, up sharply due to better commercial and TV deals.  The England cricketers paid by the ECB received £6.3m.  This is an average of £225,000 for each of the 28 players – you can see the Packer legacy there.  But at less than 5% of the ECB’s revenue, it hardly seems equitable given the spectator and commercial pulling power of leading cricketers.

Indeed the ECB is in fine financial health having made a £15m profit in 2011.   It is to be congratulated on that and plays a critical role in building the fabric of cricket in England and Wales, supporting the counties, women’s cricket and disability sport in a way few national bodies could match.  I for one would not want to see these areas undermined, and shudder at the thought of a game where players get 50% of revenue, a figure commonly exceeded in football.  However using half the profits to boost senior player pay would more than double their earnings: the gap with the IPL would be narrowed, players no longer asked to sacrifice family security to represent England, and the latest Packer style economic gap would be closed.

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