Andrew Flintoff may have unwittingly incited the break-up of international cricket. In the wake of his audacious decision to refuse an England contract and become a freelance player roaming the world in search of a game, it began to seem certain yesterday that other players would soon follow.
This will cause the dilution of Test and one-day cricket between countries if top players are unavailable, which would in turn lead to a slow, lingering but inevitable death as fans and sponsors turn away. The grim scenario has suddenly heightened the significance of two conferences in Johannesburg later this month – one for players, the others for administrators – and there will be serious talking which needs to yield swift verdicts on how cricket and its leading players are to be run.
Flintoff himself issued assurances that his rejection of an England increment contract, a second tier deal offered to him because of his retirement from Test cricket, did not lessen his commitment to England. The all-rounder, who is Dubai undergoing rehabilitation after knee surgery, made it clear that he has no intention of missing any England games should they clash with matches in the various Twenty20 franchise competitions he also hopes to be part of.
Although Flintoff has put all negotiations on hold while he recovers he is known to have been in preliminary talks with teams in Australia, where their revamped Twenty20 competition is to be called the Big Bash and South Africa, where the Pro20 is easily the most popular professional cricket in the country.
Sean Morris, the chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association, said yesterday that other players would join Flintoff in rejecting national deals and that there may be a rash of early retirements from international cricket. "I think there will be a lot of serious discussion in Johannesburg later this month among the parties and between the parties," he said. "I can't overestimate its importance. In the space of a few weeks we have had two leading players withdrawing from components of the international game, Andrew Flintoff from Tests and Ricky Ponting, from Twenty20 internationals.
"I think other players will, like Flintoff, reject contracts from their boards, not necessarily from England but from New Zealand, Sri Lanka and West Indies where the rewards are not nearly so great. If that happens then the teams they put out will not be representative. This can be overcome if windows are made for franchise Twenty20 competitions. We're only surprised that it has not been done before now and if it doesn't get done then the consequences down the line will be huge."
The International Cricket Council have paid occasional lip service to the idea of a window for domestic franchise T20 tournaments, especially the cash cow that is the Indian Premier League. But it has also resolutely insisted that they are domestic tournaments over which it has no control.
Flintoff's move may stimulate more than debate. England captain Andrew Strauss was mildly surprised by the decision. "I'm not going to sit in judgement of him because we don't know the reasons," he said. "We need to sit down and speak to him about why he's done this and we'll then make an informed decision about what that means to his availability for England."
Flintoff seems to be a special case and Morris said he was in an elite group of players. The trouble is that it will not be long before there are other special cases.
England meanwhile have a one-day international to play tonight, their sixth of seven against Australia. The tourists lead 5-0. All-rounder Luke Wright has been withdrawn from the final two matches because of the gash he sustained on a big toe while facing a bowling machine in the nets on Monday. He is also now extremely doubtful for the Champions Trophy next week.