The destructive market delusion
Russell Degnan

By and large, the absence of tv coverage means I am completely ignoring the IPL this year, but a piece by Suresh Menon caught my eye, and is worth commenting on. Unlike most woe-betid-test-cricket pieces, Menon actually works through the mechanism for IPL's increasing influence. The problem is that mechanism, once laid out, is rather underwhelming as a force for change. At least if anyone in influence wanted to prevent that change.

The essential argument runs as follows: players earn more in the IPL and other T20 leagues; if push came to shove cricket boards will lose a legal battle over where players can play; financially weak cricket boards (such as the West Indies or Pakistan) will no longer able to pay market rates for their players' services; players aspire to greater financial rewards over playing test cricket. Therefore, the preservation of test cricket requires greater financial rewards in test cricket.

There are a number of problems with the argument though, starting, most importantly, with the conclusion. Increasing the financial rewards for test cricket to the same level as T20 leagues would require a complete overhaul of cricket as we know it. Boards, small boards, get their money from tours; redistribution occurs via the ICC via major event money. But even with a substantial subsidy, the smaller test boards - the associates are a whole different problem, and an increasingly urgent one - cannot match the salaries of T20 leagues. Paying Gayle, Afridi and so on to pay tests means not only matching the salary of T20 international players, but massive redistribution of tv rights deals currently captured by the host nation. That probably should happen, at least at some level, most likely through the expansion of ICC tournaments, but it isn't going to happen soon, or to a sufficient degree. If test cricket actually depended on equality of incomes, then it would really be doomed. Fortunately it doesn't.

There are two other fundamental problems with the argument being put forward that makes it flawed. The first is this:

"The odd player might still talk about batting (or bowling) for the country and the joys of patriotism, but what really drives the professional sportsman seems to be money, and lots of it for a short period of work."

I've watched a lot of professional sportsmen discuss what motivates them across a wide variety of sports, many very well paid. To the extent that money is a motivating factor it is two-fold: as professional sportsmen, they only have a small window to take advantage of their talent; but as importantly, players are driven by status, they want to be paid what they believe they are worth, relative to other players.

If there was a relatively free market for labour, players would get paid roughly what they are worth by whoever employed them. The IPL is far from a free market, given how the rules favour the acquisition of second rate Indian talent over a broader pool of internationals, but it does allow players to pursue the dual status markers of professional sportsmen. One of those is the biggest contract. The other, just as important, is star status and trophies against the world's elite.

As I've discussed before, test cricket fails badly in this respect. Even were the players in question not being offered contracts ten or even a hundred times bigger for playing T20, the non-monetary rewards for playing test cricket for the West Indies or Pakistan are pathetic. A two-test tour against a major side resting their best players in the tail-end (or start) of a season watched by sparse crowds compares poorly to the IPL no matter what you think of T20.

To reiterate. Players are driven by status, money is only one aspect of status. The others are the importance and context of a competition, the quality of the opposition, and the historical relevance of the contest. Test cricket is failing most of the world's players on those factors, and the focus on money as if the market for labour was the only determining factor in a player's choice is hiding some really important non-market issues of governance and competition.

The second fundamental flaw in the argument rests on the nature of opportunity. Once again, in a free market, players would have a wide choice of possible playing destinations, and possible employers, with various leagues competing for their services. But that is not the case. Every T20 league is organised by an ICC affiliated board; the only T20 league that wasn't, the ICL, was ruthlessly out-competed. Almost every test series is part of the future tours program, which the boards all agreed to. Players have managed to escape the employment monopoly of their own cricket board, but they remain tied to sanctioned competitions.

The starting premise, that domestic T20 and test cricket are necessarily in competition is therefore also false. They are only in competition because the boards, on their own initiative and through their representations on the ICC, allow the two formats to compete. If a window for playing each format was enacted, then players would only be able to choose no cricket at all, over test cricket; and vice versa.

To construct an argument that test cricketers need better pay in order for the longer form to "compete" is a failure of scheduling. Other sports do not offer their stars a choice between international and domestic duties. Domestic competitions - which pay the bulk of their wages - are suspended for international competition. Test (and first class) cricket doesn't need better pay, or even necessarily a better income stream. What they need is space to operate without market competition; the art-house film role to T20 blockbuster. Because, players almost certainly do want the plaudits and status of test cricket success; and it is entirely a failure of administration to force them to choose between that financial security.

Idle Summers 29th April, 2012 00:51:53   [#] 

Comments

Free Market
It would be almost impossible to arrange schedule 'rosters' for test cricket and the T20 comps, though surely? The IPL might get privileged soonish with that but there are too many other competitions now to make it possible. Chris Gayle may - understandably - never play test cricket for the West Indies again as he can bounce between T20 tournaments for six months of the year then have a holiday for the rest.

Good article. I'm quite cynical about the ICC exec. I would never assume that they will do things that are in the long-term interests of the development of the sport.
Lolly  29th April, 2012 19:28:29  

The destructive market delusion
Lolly, good point, and one I skipped over. It isn't possible or desirable to have 8, 9... 12 (?) different windows for T20 cricket. Which is sort-of what we have now, and the reason we have both clashes, and players spending 6+ months per year on the T20 circuit. I'd prefer to see two fixed windows: mid-January to mid-March and mid-July to mid-September. If that meant high profile players went to the IPL instead of the BBL then so be it; at least it would give the Champions League some of the relevance it sorely lacks.
Russ  30th April, 2012 15:26:57