Roaring twenties: Players' union faces up to revolution

With Twenty20 set to dominate the cricketing landscape, new PCA chief Sean Morris tells Stephen Brenkley why the English game must guarantee its share of the sport's new riches
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Twenty20 cricket is spreading like wildfire. It's all over the place like a cheap suit. It's the talk of the town and the next big thing. It isn't going away. Players believe they can smell the money and now they want to feel the stuff.

Four weeks ago, Sean Morris walked into this cricketing whirlwind and was enveloped by it. It has dominated much, probably most, of his waking life since.

Morris has spent two of those weeks visiting English cricketers on the eve of the new season. Little of the talk was of how MCC might line up against the champion county, Sussex, in the inaugural first-class fixture, or of the possible permutations in Division Two of the Pro40, or of the redolent smell of freshly mown grass in early summer.

Most of it was about the Indian Premier League, the all-singing, all-dancing, extremely rich new Twenty 20 tournament, what it might mean for English cricket, and how English cricketers might get their hands on some of the loot. The IPL and the possible associated spin-offs have already acted like a JCB on the game, digging up its traditional values, and when the competition actually starts anything seems possible including complete excavation.

As the new chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association – effectively their union – Morris must try to ensure that a golden opportunity is not wasted and that the conventional game is not washed away on a tide of Indian rupees. Too few people seem yet to have grasped that the future of other international forms of the game, the longer, 50-over one-day internationals and Test cricket itself are under threat. The loss of both would be sad, though to differing degrees.

Although the cast list contains a constellation of global stars, there is only one English cricketer in the IPL in its first season, Dimitri Mascarenhas, of Hampshire. He will spend only two weeks with Rajasthan Royals before resuming his county duties but he is almost certainly a pioneer, not a lone adventurer. Others will follow, others want to follow.

Morris has to ease the way for others but also try to promote the Twenty20 promise in this country. Everybody is wondering what to do next.

"It's a fantastic time," he said. "This hasn't happened for 30 years since Kerry Packer launched World Series Cricket as a breakaway tournament. That had far-reaching repercussions on the game and I would be very surprised if what's happening right now doesn't have a major impact for the next 30 years. We have just got to make sure that the players are comfortable with where they are and where we can get them to."

But it is not only the IPL that is concentrating the minds of Morris and his members. It is what might be done with Twenty20 in England. So outrageous has been its success since it was first launched here in 2003, and so encouraged have administrators been by what the Indians have done, there is now sensed a commercial opening here.

Morris fully supports a Twenty20 tournament in England to be run on similar lines to that of India. It would be run over a three- or four-week period in June and July and would be open to players from around the world, with each county being allowed to sign three from overseas.

The key advantage is that it is the only time in the year that cricket is played in only one place – England – but there would still be an appetite for it elsewhere if it had big names. It would work, as Morris envisages, only if it was sold as a television tournament to the Indian market where cricket is king.

Morris and the England and Wales Cricket Board are reading from the same page. The ECB, a tad belatedly, also sees merit and money in running a midsummer Twenty20 tournament, as equally all-singing, all-dancing as the Indian version. "The fact is that 80 per cent of revenues of cricket worldwide come from India," he said. "Emerging markets in the commercial world have been a hot topic for a long time and major businesses have put strategies in place to take advantage of emerging markets. My question is, why haven't we? We have to develop our domestic product to make it internationally sellable.

"What, in India, is the product they watch? One-day internationals and since they won the World Cup, Twenty20. It's a gilt-edged opportunity, we've actually got a chance to access the Indian market. The challenge to administrators is whether to make it or not. The window will be open for only a short time."

This prompts the question, why English administrators did not see the opportunity before. Not that they were alone. The Board of Control for Cricket in India were kick-started into life only by the formation of the Indian Cricket League, by Zee TV, which had been denied Indian cricket rights and saw it as a way of getting the sport on its station. The BCCI and all other cricket boards have spent the time since squeezing the life out of the ICL. Nor will establishing a big-money English version be straightforward. The BCCI may see an English Premier League as competition and while it has sought and obtained the approval of other nations it may not necessarily be ready to grant it readily to a rival.

It is not a cast-iron certainty that the world market could sustain two major Twenty20 leagues in one season, even given how besotted most of the Indian population are. Having witnessed the world's best players ply their trade for a variety of Indian franchise teams in March, April or May (the latter two months this year), would they really be prepared to watch them playing, in different combinations, for English teams, based on counties, a matter of weeks later?

Television rights holders might have something to say about the rearrangement of international schedules. Test cricket has started ending by the second week in August, as opposed to the first or second week in September, because the start of the football season dominates the sporting landscape and at present both sports are to be found on the same network.

For the presence of the big-name players to be guaranteed so would the money. That would depend pretty much on a deal with an Indian television station. The spectacularly lucrative nature of the IPL is based only partly on its TV deal ($1bn over 10 years with Sony) and as much on the money paid to own the franchises. To sell the franchises of cricket teams in England would not be viable.

Oh the irony if Zee TV bid for and won the rights.

There is also the matter of how many teams would be involved. It would be stretching it a bit to think that all 18 counties could take part in a proper tournament lasting a mere three weeks. So, it would need to be worked out how, say, eight teams could take part and which they would be.

Two other major issues arise from this that Morris will have to confront: the future of Test cricket and player burn-out. Of course, if Test cricket is ended by the advent of Twenty20, player burn-out would cease – but that is not the intention.

Preserving the iconic status of Test cricket will become more and more difficult, a point that Giles Clarke, the chairman of the ECB, made the other day. In England it may still be prospering but everywhere else, including large tracts of India and Australia, it is in decline as a spectator sport.

Morris said: "I think there will be pressure on 50-over cricket but as for Test cricket, you only have to go back for a couple of years to the Ashes which provided probably the most exciting cricket people have ever seen. That brought in new audiences. The issue is the youngest fans. If they are brought up and fed only Twenty20 then you run the danger of them not understanding the greater skills within the game. I don't see Test cricket dying because players learn their skills in the longer game which they then bring to Twenty20. I am not saying Test cricket has the same marketability as Twenty20 because that is a product that has been developed based on research, on targeting new markets, on TV and guess what, it works. If Test cricket were not to develop that way then it may need to work out how it fits in with these new market forces."

But if Tests are to survive and Twenty20 is the new king, when will it all be played? How can the players do it? Morris recognises the quandary and that player fatigue is a big issue supported by the grim injury statistics, not least to England players.

"We have to ask if we're playing too much over too long a time," he said. "And if you can condense a short-form tournament into three weeks in which, as a bowler, you're on the field for say, 90 minutes or two hours at a time, you're physically better off participating in that.

"If you ask a player whether he'd like to go and play cricket for 10 months a year which will include three tours and being away from home for more than 200 days and be well paid, or be paid five times as much by playing in India for five weeks, you might choose that. It puts us as the PCA in a difficult position because you don't want to lose good quality players. You've got to find a balance and there's no doubt that the Future Tours Programme puts a lot of pressure on international players."

Which reintroduces the whole issue of the future of Tests. Morris realises one other thing: he had better fasten his seat belt because he's in for a bumpy ride.

The shop steward from Formula One

Sean Morris was educated at Stowe School and Durham University, where he graduated in sociology as well as being captain of the cricket and hockey teams.

He played 37 first-class matches for Hampshire and scored 1830 runs, including three hundreds, at an average of 29.04. Morris is one of the few batsmen whose final first-class innings – in his case against Cambridge University – was a century.

While playing, he often said that his career outside cricket was beach bumming. However, upon retiring as a professional cricketer he went to work for Slazenger where he was instrumental in enhancing their links with cricket.

He moved from there into marketing with Formula One and four years ago established his own events agency. When the PCA chief executive's job came up and he applied he said it took a nanosecond for him to accept.