Forty percent of the world's top T20 men's players are operating as free agents as they shun national contracts to move around the world plying their trade in lucrative domestic T20 leagues. Another 42% are operating in a hybrid model combining a national and domestic contract along with playing in at least one overseas T20 league.
That means 82% of the top-100 T20 players don't want to be shackled solely to a national contract, once the only route of sustenance and security for players. These are the core findings of the 2022 Men's Global Employment Report conducted by the Federation of International Cricketers' Association (FICA).
FICA's report was unveiled on Tuesday, its findings derived from the Global Player Survey conducted earlier this year. The responses come from 400 players across 11 countries, the majority of them international cricketers. The survey does not feature players from India and Pakistan as neither country has a players' association that is affiliated with FICA.
This is the third edition of the FICA report, which was conducted for the first time in 2018 and then in 2020. In its inaugural survey four years ago, FICA had warned of a flight of talent from the "vertical pathway" (graduating from domestic to international cricket) to the "horizontal pathway" (dominated by overseas T20 franchise leagues).
Such a threat now is a stark reality with domestic T20 leagues (including T10 tournaments) pinned across cricket's global landscape and dominating even the international calendar. An already crowded T20 leagues roster will see the arrival from 2023 of two new competitions: the ILT20 and the SA20, both of which start in January.
Such a wider choice, FICA says, is behind the "growing trend" of players moving towards the hybrid or free agent route "with 82% of the top 100 players from the T20 Player Index" now in this category. The report does point out currently most of those free agents are players from the "smaller cricketing economies" who are making use of the "volume of opportunities" on offer.
"Some of the individuals playing for 3 teams or more represent a potential new category of free-agent player 'The league specialists' - many of whom have limited international careers, including playing very little Test cricket, with their primary focus being in the Domestic Leagues landscape," the report said.
Part of this band are the likes of Tim David who featured in seven T20 leagues in 2021 along with Afghanistan trio of Rashid Khan, Mohammad Nabi and Mujeeb Ur Rahman each of whom played in half a dozen T20 leagues in the same year.
The remaining 18%, the report pointed out, is the group of players on a more traditional employment pathway, and almost exclusively Indian players "highlighting the restraints placed" by BCCI which has barred them from featuring in overseas domestic T20 leagues. The findings also point out "40% of the top T20 players in the world" don't have a central contract "with a top nine cricket country" (not including Zimbabwe, Ireland, Afghanistan in the 12 Full Member countries).
While it admitted that "using only the T20 format as a snapshot skews the data" FICA pointed out that the shortest format was "increasingly relevant indicator as the vast majority of the best players in the world play the format."
How much is too much?
To illustrate how far the landscape of international cricket has changed, FICA compared the number of ODIs/T20s across random years between 2003 and 2021. In 2003 there was no international T20 cricket, but out of 196 international matches played, 71% (152) were ODIs along with 44 Test matches. In 2021, 485 international matches were played across three formats with the break-up being: 346 T20Is (71%), 46 Tests (9%) and 93 ODIs (19%) - the vast increase in T20Is is also because of a widening of the classification in 2019 to include all such matches played between Associates.
The chief catalyst behind players going solo is the lucrative remuneration on offer in these leagues, and the FICA report echoed that point. "Professional cricket is increasingly a multi-contract, multi-employer system," the report said. "The gap between domestic earnings and international earnings has increased further since FICA's last report and exceeds international earnings in all bar two countries."
Another major reason players, including high profile names, are redrawing their futures is the relentless international schedule which has forced a massive workload upon them. That is not going to reduce with increasing frequency of ICC tournaments in the next FTP: there are 20 global tournaments in 2024-31 FTP compared to 14 in the previous eight-year cycle (2015-23).
Ben Stokes sounded an alarm bell when he retired from ODIs this year. Quinton de Kock has retired from Test cricket at the age of 29. Trent Boult also gave up a central contract and decided to become a free agent, joining several other New Zealand players who have rejected a national contract.
Such a trend, FICA report said, was not just limited to high profile players and would continue especially in the wake of new T20 leagues and the spread of IPL owners "horizontally" into other overseas leagues. Multiple employers and contracts would only increase the "tension" between players and their national boards, the report pointed out.
"When combined with an increasingly crowded global playing schedule, and scheduling overlap between domestic leagues and international cricket, tension is created with many of the best players in the world incentivised to prioritise domestic leagues and forgo international fixtures and/or central contracts. This is further amplified by the workload of domestic leagues being generally half that of international cricket on a time / wage basis - i.e. 'twice the pay for half the work'. Whilst this trend is not limited to 'profile players' some pertinent recent examples include Trent Boult rejecting a NZC central contract, Ben Stokes retiring from ODIs and Quinton de Kock retiring from Test cricket at the age of 29. This trend looks set to continue with the creation of more domestic leagues, and IPL media rights reportedly selling for over 6 billion USD for the next 5 years."
Of those who participated in the FICA survey, 49% said they would "consider rejecting a central contract if they were paid more to play in domestic leagues", but 74% (dropping from 82% in 2018 report) still value Test cricket as the summit in the game. Seventy-nine percent wanted a threshold number for minimum and maximum number of international matches annually while 63% wanted franchises leagues "ring fenced" to have more clarity and allow domestic and international cricket to "co-exist".
Tom Moffat, the FICA CEO, said a balanced global structure was a must for the health of the game and its players and a "clear framework around bilateral international cricket scheduling" was necessary. "The majority of the value in each of the three major, revenue generating cricket landscapes, is generated through a small number of players, and those players can only be in so many places at once."