By Zaheer E. Clarke
Published January 9, 2017, in the Western Mirror.
Sportsmen and sportswomen are often conflicted with the option of playing sports for financial security or for pride and country. For many, the choice is simple.
Over the Christmas holidays, I was engrossed with a book, which described the ‘good old days’ of West Indies cricket. The award-winning book, “Fire in Babylon: How the West Indies Cricket Team Brought a People to Its Feet” – written by Simon Lister – contained incalculable stories of how the West Indies cricket team, birthed from the ashes, rose to prominence in world cricket. The book was refreshing, captivating and illuminating. And as the winter nights during the Christmas holidays grew cold, Lister’s book provided much-needed warmth to my shivering heart.
On the contrary, South Africa’s warm summer of content, which saw them capture Test match series victories over Australia and Sri Lanka respectively, turned frigidly cold last week with the news that two of their players, Kyle Abbott and Rilee Rossouw, will be quitting international cricket to commence Kolpak deals to play county cricket in England. West Indies is not new to Kolpak or other such deals, which have seen players choose between playing for groceries or country.
As I read Lister’s book, a fearsome cricketer from the glory days of West Indies cricket, who will remain nameless, remarked that he watched other West Indian players play for their countries and the West Indies team and “got nothing out of it, absolutely nothing.”
The player continued to speak of a time in West Indies’ history when playing and paying opportunities became less and less – due to the legion of talent, then, in West Indies cricket. And how the financial insecurity led players to embrace secure and more lucrative contracts elsewhere in order to provide for their families.
Enticingly, he asked some pertinent questions in relation to this time in West Indies history, when players were asked, by the then-board, to reject certain external contracts for political or financial reasons.
He remarked, “You don’t provide anything else for him, so what is he supposed to do? How is he supposed to feed his kids? Is he supposed to go to the grocer and say, ‘My name is (so and so); I played for the West Indies. I need two baskets full of groceries.’ It doesn’t work that way.” His words are the firm reality of the truth.
I recalled little over two years ago, in October 2014, when West Indian cricketer Kieron Pollard made similar comments about ‘groceries’ in a tweet. At the middle of the impasse that rocked West Indies cricket and which saw players walking off the Indian tour due to new wage agreements and cuts, Pollard tweeted, “Went to the grocery, told the cashier, I have LOVE, PRIDE and PASSION, still didn’t get the pampers!” Compared to the payment structure of the old days to now, this comment is tongue in cheek, but I understand his broad point, and it is a valid one.
Strikingly, Kyle Abbott, one of the South African players, who has entered into a Kolpak deal with county side Hampshire, made similar comments about “groceries” like the two West Indian players aforementioned. Abbott declared in a news conference last week, “I need to pay bills, I need to buy groceries.” Interestingly, when one reporter questioned Abbott’s reasons for walking away from the South African team, Abbott asked the reporter if he plans to, “buy him groceries for the next ten years.” The reporter’s reply was not noted.
Obviously, groceries are important to players, past and present. If groceries are important to you and me, then I can clearly understand how groceries, or the means by which professional sportsmen and sportswomen can buy them, are important to them too. In today’s world, being a sportsman or sportswoman is less of a hobby and more of a profession. Like any profession, one is expected to be able to use it to provide for their spouse, children, and oftentimes, even their extended family.
Chapter five of Lister’s book, fascinatingly, borrows its title, “My tradition is all cricket, no pay” from the song, “Kerry Packer”, done by the calypsonian, the Might Sparrow, which speaks to the traditions of the ‘good old days’ in West Indies and world cricket.
“Sobers, Worrell and Learie get title.
But money, we give them very little.
When they dead write a book say how good they used to play
My tradition is all cricket, no pay”
Those were profound words and lyrics from the Mighty Sparrow, which are still relevant today.
More players of today’s dispensation are being paid, and paid handsomely to play cricket, and sports in general, when compared to the past. However, since the lifetime of sportsman or sportswoman is short, players seek contracts, which contains numerous guarantees and which allow them to cash in now.
With the racial quota system in South Africa, Abbott and others have fewer opportunities to earn on the international level, due to the abundance of talent, currently, in the South African ranks. With the likes of Dale Steyn, Vernon Philander, Morne Morkel, Kagiso Rabada, and others, who are all ahead of Abbott in the pecking order, Abbott has all right to seek and secure financial security for him and his family.
He articulated, “It’s four years of security, and playing cricket is an incredibly insecure environment for anyone. Knowing that I’ve got income for the next four years – it will take me to nearly 34 – that’s quite reassuring.
“I hope if I show them (Hampshire) commitment over the next four years, it will help me with setting up a life after cricket also.” This is another important factor for the modern day sportsman and woman: life after the sport.
If West Indies had more quality players now like in the good old days of West Indies, county sides would be plucking them up via Kolpak deals before Brexit takes full effect and ends this Kolpak loophole. To be fair, the West Indies cricket board has provided more of the regional players with financial security with that restructuring exercise in October 2014, which saw more guaranteed contracts for more regional cricketers.
Nevertheless, fringe players or players from markets with low revenue streams like New Zealand, West Indies, and South Africa – unlike those from India, Australia and England – ultimately, will be driven to decide if they play for groceries or country. That is the choice, and for countless of them, the choice is evident.
Until next time…
© Zaheer Clarke
Zaheer E. Clarke is a multi-award-winning freelance sportswriter, whose monthly decision is either buying gasoline to go to work or buying groceries to eat. The choice is always to sleep.
Zaheer’s articles have been published by ESPN Cricinfo, The Western Mirror, The Jamaica Observer, Trinidad Express, Essentially Sports and many others.
This blog article was also published in the Western Mirror on January 9, 2017.