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Bangladesh tour of SA – Money matters

If we didn’t know it before South Africa’s Test squad to play Bangladesh was announced, we know it now. In the battle between the IPL and national duty, there is only one winner. At least when it comes to a country like South Africa.

All five players – Kagiso Rabada, Lungi Ngidi, Marco Jansen, Aiden Markram and Rassie van der Dussen – who were certainties in the Test squad have chosen to go to the IPL instead of playing in the two-match series against Bangladesh. Anrich Nortje, if fit, would have done the same. ESPNcricinfo understands that the players made the decision jointly, even though some of them were considering delaying their trips to India to play in the first Test.

But, are you surprised? Then you must be a cricket fan from before 2008, a time when playing international cricket was as good as it got, both in terms of honours and in terms of money.

Did you expect this? Then you understand that in the new economics of cricket – the IPLonomics, if you will – for some cricketers from some countries, the choice is a no-brainer. You understand that it’s about the money, and there are (valid) reasons for that.

We have to start with the disclaimer that no professional cricketer in South Africa can plead poverty, especially not by the standards of wealth and inequality in this country. A centrally contracted player, who typically earns between R1.1 million and R3 million a year (US$75,000 and 200,000 a year), falls into the richest 2% of earners in South Africa, but they’re still earning in Rands. So it stands to reason that they could earn many more Rands if they were earning money in dollars or pounds. The same reasoning does not apply to players from England or Australia.

You need approximately 15 Rands for one US dollar, but only 80 British pence and 1.35 Australian dollars to get one US dollar. So when Jason Roy or Alex Hales pulls out of the IPL, or when Pat Cummins and the Australian crew arrive late to the tournament, they’re losing money but not as much as someone like Rabada does if he was to do the same thing. This makes it more difficult for a South African player to turn down the IPL, and more understandable why they don’t.

Of course, there’s a separate argument that South African players probably also spend less because the cost of living in South Africa is much lower than what it is in the Antipodes or Great Britain, but that only takes into account needs, not wants. And what most people want, is to make as much money as they can, while they can.

A current South African player in the IPL will earn more from the tournament this season than if he spent 13 years as a nationally contracted player. That is staggering even without going as far as analysing how many players stay nationally contracted for more than a decade

We know that professional sporting careers are short and unpredictable. One injury (Mark Boucher’s eye in 2012, for example) can change everything. That means that players have less time than the average worker to maximise their earnings, so when an opportunity presents itself to make big money quickly, they take it.

ESPNcricinfo understands that a current South African player in the IPL will earn more from the tournament this season than if he spent 13 years as a nationally contracted player. That is staggering even without going as far as analysing how many players stay nationally contracted for more than a decade (and realising it’s only a very few). This explains why even those who have only just broken into the Test team, like Jansen, and those whose Tests careers are in the balance, like Markram and van der Dussen, have opted for the IPL instead of the chance to make a case for longer-term international roles. It just makes more financial sense to them.

But if you’re Dean Elgar, who is trying to rebuild a Test team and is just starting to get it right and you’re about to lose your entire frontline pace pack to the IPL, you would rightly try everything to change that, as Elgar did. He called it a test of loyalty when CSA decided to give players the choice of whether to go to the IPL or stay home and play against Bangladesh. He may well feel betrayed. We may sympathise with his position, but we will find it difficult to do much more than that, as will CSA.

That’s because ultimately this is not about allegiances, even if it seems that way. CSA already made the choice for the players when they agreed, as part of their Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the South African Cricketers’ Association (SACA), to release players for the IPL on an annual basis. The MOU governs the contractual relationships between CSA and the players and is redone every four years. The IPL is the only league which CSA has committed to providing NOCs for, irrespective of clashing international fixtures, because they recognise its worth to the players. They do not have the same agreement for the PSL and players were denied NOCs this year. It’s just the simple economics of the situation.

“There’s many leagues around the world which have complicated the bilateral programs of many countries. Our current MOU with SACA is that we cannot refuse players going to the IPL. The amount of money they make at the IPL is quite good for their post-cricket careers. We have to find a balance between players’ livelihoods and responsibility for the country,” Pholetsi Moseki, CSA’s newly confirmed CEO said a day before the Test squad was announced.

The problem is that when the MOU was signed, the IPL was an eight-team tournament that ran from the first week of April to the end of May and there was no pandemic. Now, the IPL has ten teams and will be played from the end of March to the end of May, at a time when International boards are trying to make up for fixtures missed because of Covid-19. Add on the three-day quarantine and the time players need to train with their franchises and you’ve put an extra two weeks on top of it. Two weeks could easily equal two Test matches and it won’t stop there.

The IPL is an expanding product and may only get longer and more demanding on players. Cricket Australia (CA) and the ECB may have the funds to persuade the players not to participate in it in its entirety, but CSA does not. Instead, they will have to find workarounds.

There’s already talk of international cricket being played as early as July and August on the Highveld to try to carve out time for the national team, or slotting in lower-profile fixtures (arguably, and with no disrespect, the Bangladesh Tests fall into that category) in the late summer window when the IPL players won’t feature and a different team is fielded. One insider told ESPNcricinfo that CSA would look to play “matches against the likes of Ireland and Netherlands in April, if needs be.”

If South Africa go that way, it won’t be an exception – countries like England and India have fielded two different teams in two formats at the same time – but it will need to be carefully communicated. White-ball captain Temba Bavuma would have preferred that from the get-go and expressed his disappointment that there wasn’t more clarity over the selection of the Test squad, earlier.

“From the point of view of a player who’s not affected by the IPL, we would have liked this decision to have been dealt with a lot earlier and with a lot more urgency,” he said. “On the eve of a one-day series, and with a Test squad due to be announced, we’re still not sure what is happening. We could have learnt from previous years.”

The main lesson to learn is that South African players will likely always choose the IPL, and South Africans have to accept that, even if it makes them angry. Even if it makes them feel as though their economy is inadequate (spoiler alert: it is). Those players are not traitors, which is a word of much greater consequence that should not even be used in sport and Moseki reiterated that. “If a player chooses to go to the IPL it doesn’t mean they think less of the country or they are less patriotic.”

If you really think about it, you may even argue that they are more patriotic when they choose the IPL. CSA gets 10% of the contract fee for IPL players and the tax man takes his share. The cricketers are in South Africa’s highest tax-paying band, 45%, and 45% of a million US dollars is a lot more than 45% of a million Rand. So if money is what matters, then it all adds up.

Firdose Moonda is ESPNcricinfo’s South Africa correspondent

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