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Cricket news - The T20 Revolution - The Freelancers

A gamble no more? More cricketers are taking a brave plunge into the autonomous world of cricket freelance

During the IPL's 12th edition, Cricbuzz is publishing a five-part series looking at the broader picture of how Twenty20 is shaping cricket's future. The first instalment, which you can read here, showed how broadcast money is flowing away from international cricket and towards domestic leagues.

"At 30, you feel like the grandfather of the team. That's sort of Australian cricket's landscape at the moment." Ben Cutting says this with little or no spite in his voice. He in fact reveals the somewhat ageist selection policy of late around Australian cricket with a chuckle.

It's a Monday evening and the 32-year-old is out walking Sicari - the Siberian husky that he and his partner Erin Holland adopted a few years back. Not too far away, in another part of Brisbane, his former Queensland teammates are cooling down after a tough day out at the Gabba. They're up against New South Wales and the Dukes ball in a closely-contested Sheffield Shield encounter. But Cutting doesn't sound too fussed about not being there. It's after all just over 12 months since he took the call not to be with them anymore and instead go it alone. It's after all just over a year since he decided to become his own boss.

Just over three weeks remain for the start of IPL12. Cutting is yet to finalise his ticket to Mumbai. He could have been at the Pakistan Super League (PSL) by now, but decided to withdraw his name from the draft at the last stage. "I probably felt that there's going to be too much cricket, and you need to give your mind and body some time off to get through the other months of hard grind," he tells Cricbuzz.

It's one of the many autonomous calls that Cutting has had to take ever since he took the plunge last March. To go or not to go, to play or not to play, to train or not to train, to give up or hang on just that bit longer. Like Cutting puts it, "You are responsible for everything. And there's no-one to tell you what to do and what to fall back on." He isn't the only one burdened with making these choices these days. The rise of T20 cricket leagues, not to forget the rising T10 format, has seen a number of seasoned cricketers around the world pulling the plug on their domestic careers prematurely and instead diving into what was till now was perceived as the gamble of going freelance.

Cutting's decision to give up on the steady income of an annual state contract came on the back of a number of reasons. The changing outlook in Australia towards players on the wrong side of 30 was only one of them.

"The bug started to wear off when I wasn't getting picked consistently for the first-class team. At that stage, if two players were doing the same thing, they generally went with the younger bloke. That left me sitting around and twiddling my thumbs whereas I could have been playing a lot more cricket than I was," he says. Cutting also admits that while the coaches at Queensland "had no idea it was coming", the state selectors had "pushed" him to make a decision that he was "going to anyway".

It's a predicament that rings true in the case of Cameron Delport too, except that he didn't jump so much as he was pushed out by the Dolphins, his franchise in South Africa. He last played a full first-class season for them in 2015-16, averaging 26 when still only 26. He wasn't contracted the following season with Cricket South Africa (CSA) cutting the number of senior contracted players in each franchise from 18 to 16, and of course the quotas. He asked around the other franchises but they had no room for him either.

The one great positive from the rapid spread of T20 cricket around the world has been the globalisation of the job market for cricketers. Though abandoned in his home country, Delport had by then played a season for Sydney Thunder in the Big Bash League (BBL), earned some renown as a T20 basher and impressed his coach Andrew McDonald. There was also the highest-ever List A opening partnership of 367 that he'd put on with Morne van Wyk in 2014 to back him up. McDonald helped Delport sign up for Leicestershire for the T20 Blast. It did also help that the South African could qualify as a non-overseas player in England owing to an ancestral visa. He did decently well for his county team, averaging 29.66, and from there the freelance gigs started rolling in.

"I had nothing when I lost my contract with the Dolphins except a white-ball deal for Leicestershire. There was no cricket for me early in the year and later on in the year. I had a reputation in South Africa but I hadn't played international cricket so I didn't have a reputation elsewhere," he recalls to Cricbuzz.

The fact that Cutting and Delport are so comfortable referring to themselves as freelancers is in itself a sign of how far the cricket world has come. Up until a few years ago there was a stigma attached to players who chose the T20 route to success, financially and professionally. He might not be mentioned in this context too often, but former Kiwi batsman Hamish Marshall was the first amongst those in this millennium to take control of his own career and go to greener pastures when he left New Zealand for a plush deal with Gloucestershire. The T20 boom saw the rise of the West Indian brigade of freelancers, who for a long time were unfairly painted as renegades and even rebels. Some saw it as the second coming of Kerry Packer and World Series Cricket.

But Cutting insists that he never saw anything wrong with what they did even back then.

"When those guys were doing it a couple of years ago, most of us were jealous of them. They're earning amazing money and they don't have to stand in the sun on the field at 35 degrees for four days straight chasing that little red-leather thing," he says.

And though the freedom to run your life on your own terms is a significant temptation, like Cutting says, for those turning to the self-governing option, the financial rewards if you get it right are an even bigger incentive. Delport estimates that he earned "five or six times" last year what he was earning while being contracted with the Dolphins.

"Every person needs security," is how now former South African fast bowler Duanne Olivier summed up his shock decision to turn his back on an international career. Unlike Cutting and Delport, he was at the peak of his prowess, having been the breakout star for the Proteas during their Test summer. Yet he is part of the same pattern. Not only will Olivier now reportedly earn three times of what a CSA contract would have got him, he'll also be the sole authority over whichever T20 or T10 league he wants to be a part of in the future.

The world was up in arms against Olivier's decision to sign up with Yorkshire and decline a contract from CSA. Customary naysayers even ticked it off as the ominous sign of things to come when the evil world of T20 runs roughshod over every traditional aspect of cricket, swallowing every world-class cricketer along the way. It's a fear not lost on Tony Irish, executive chairman of the Federation of International Cricketers' Associations (FICA).

"As soon as a bigger slice of the financial market, which is driven by the broadcasters, moves in the direction of the leagues, the players will follow. They will follow the money. There are also partial stages of free agency where players will say, 'I'm no longer going to play Test cricket; I'm just a white ball player because that gives me a certain amount of freedom to move around these leagues," says Irish.

"If you're from the smaller countries, you can make significantly more money playing three or four of these leagues. You can play half the amount of time and earn twice as much. If it sucks all the best players out of international cricket, then what happens to Test cricket and ODI cricket?" he adds.

His point is underlined by the case of one of the world's best players: AB de Villiers. To the surprise of many, the batting sensation retired last year on the cusp of a possible World Cup exit and is presently playing for RCB and wondering why journalists, even if only as a quip, aren't asking him about not being at the World Cup. While cricketers from smaller countries are eyeing the big money on offer - as will be shown in Part Three of this series - the leagues also give an option for high-profile cricketers like de Villiers to put their families and personal lives before professional glories at international level, while still earning more than enough to sustain the good life. There is no longer a set type or pattern to being or becoming a freelance cricketer.

Unlike Delport, Cutting had been on the fringes of the Australian team for years. He played 4 ODIs and 7 T20Is for his country and came very close to playing a Test too on one occasion. It was watching Australia win the World Cup while he was busy playing a grade match, having been part of the setup less than six months earlier in Zimbabwe, that saw his hopes of an international career fade away. But he insists that on the T20 franchise circuit, you need to redefine your reputation and worth regardless of who you are. It's almost like having to rework your CV.

"The first 12 months are critical to get your foot into the door of those teams. From then on in, if you do well, you can sort of pencil in a rough 12 months ahead of you. Saying that, if you fall over and get injured, and it's a serious injury, you're missing 12 months of cricket and then you have to take another 12 months to prove yourself on the circuit," he says.

Delport cracked that code perfectly within the first 12 months with back-to-back centuries - for Leicestershire in the T20 Blast and for Boost Defenders in Kabul at the Shpageeza T20 tournament - in 2017. An IPL contract with Kolkata Knight Riders followed soon after. Eventually, at a time nationally-contracted players often lament about their hectic schedules, Delport ended up circumnavigating the cricketosphere with minimal break in between. It started with the Hong Kong T20, then followed the PSL, IPL, T20 Blast, CPL, APL in Dubai, three weeks off, MSL, T10, back to MSL, and then the BPL, before going straight back to the PSL at the start of this year. And Delport reveals his own formula for staying in demand as a freelancer.

"Being consistent in franchise leagues leads to the next one. Often you do well in one league, and the auction for the next league is halfway through that season, teams see you doing well and sign you up," he says. Though he might be cooling his heels presently, having been released by KKR last season, he's not given up on an IPL slot this year. He's literally waiting by the phone now, knowing that with injuries or international players likely to get a rest pre-World Cup, there might still be an opening.

The secret Cutting believes in sustaining a freelance lifestyle though, and Irish will be relieved to hear this, is to "not chase tournaments and not chase the money". Being a freelancer brings along its own set of anxieties and insecurities. Not only are you giving up on a fixed salary but are also banking on keeping yourself fit through the year.

"I've probably got my two or three main tournaments that I really want to be a part of, the biggest and the best. The IPL and the BBL are on top of the tree. Sometimes it's better to take that backward step for longevity though," he explains. He then talks about having played 50-60 T20 and T10 games and come through them in one piece during his first year in his new avatar. Delport has now played in all of 195 T20s and is currently 37th on the FICA T20 Player Index, well ahead of the likes of Virat Kohli and de Villiers. In terms of training, he is staying fit now by surfing and going to the gym, while also hitting a few balls. He is in constant touch with Lance Klusener. They both live in Ballito, just outside of Durban, and Klusener was his coach at the Dolphins for a while. Cutting, who's 65th on that list, does have an advantage over some others in this context, having a fixed contract with Brisbane Heat still, which allows him full access to their physios and other facilities over a 12-month period.

Irish also bases his worries on the FICA employment report from 2017, which indicates that the priorities of players around the world have shifted more towards getting into the IPL and other leagues as compared to 10 years ago, when international cricket reigned supreme and unopposed.

Though Cutting believes that it's better for middle-aged cricketers (in a strictly cricketing context) with some financial backing to embrace the freelance idea, he's not surprised that the younger likes of Olivier are warming up to it too and believes more will jump on the bandwagon soon. He isn't in favour of any talk of restricting players in the future to a fixed number of leagues though, and believes it'll only hasten the exodus from international cricket.

"Restricting a player to, say, three leagues is like saying to a real estate agent, 'You can only sell three houses a year, so you need to pick which three.' That's a bit out there. If that does come in, it's really going to restrict those young guys who have got no backing to turn their backs on their countries completely," he says.

Indian cricket might be safe for now from the rise of freelance culture, considering the security that players enjoy under the BCCI's aegis. Not to forget the board's strict laws that disallows them from playing in any other T20 league and thus avoiding the dilution of the IPL. But the creation of a meaningful players' union could easily lead to those laws being dismantled.

It's not just being in control of your present that is the most enticing part of being a freelance cricketer, it is how you can in a way customise the very end. At 29, Delport is at the top of his game and is strictly focused on doing well for Essex in the T20 Blast and then "trying to get the next contract". He is also looking forward to The Hundred coming up next year, which will only throw up more opportunities for those of his ilk.

Cutting, slightly older, is looking to keep his body and game going for another five to six years, and eventually aiming for closure while being very aware of the pitfalls.

"If you have a lean year or a serious injury, it can all end pretty quickly. I was disappointed that I never got to have some kind of farewell from first-class cricket from the Queensland Bulls. So I hope I can get some closure with the Heat eventually," he says. For now, he's happy walking the dog while holding the leash on his own future.

Part Three, in which Barny Read explores the increasing opportunities for players from smaller nations, will be published next Wednesday (April 10).

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