More than a decade ago, when South Africa toured India, one of the players would borrow sporting biographies from me. The Garrincha tome, with its vivid first-page description of fornication with a goat, led to a conversation on the nature of genius and the flaws that can derail the greatest careers.
Two years later, during an aborted triangular series in Sri Lanka – a bomb went off close to the team hotel – more friendships were formed. This time, no books were exchanged, but stories were, over meals and games of pool. Those were more innocent times, before Twitter and Instagram.
We talked about many things back then – the magic and cruelty of sport, travelling to different parts of the world, food, loneliness and, of course, women. What we never spoke about was money. I knew they weren’t making anything like the money that elite athletes did elsewhere, but I didn’t hear anyone whine about it either.
By then, with TV channels having already started ridiculous shows like Match ka Mujrim, Indian players had begun to distance themselves from the media. It was a pleasant surprise then to interact with those that didn’t necessarily regard you as the scum of the Earth.
That started to change in 2008. South Africa and India were playing a Test match at the dilapidated Green Park Stadium in Kanpur a week before the inaugural Indian Premier League season. After play one evening, I was working in a South African friend’s room when his phone rang. It was a player agent, calling from the Cape of Good Hope, wondering if my friend would be interested in ghosting the player’s biography.
I didn’t listen to the conversation, but it was repeated to me with considerable distaste. The references to a yacht on the waterfront in Cape Town, buckets filled with champagne, the six-figure deal his client had managed at the IPL auction in February…it sounded like a bad, sad parody of Jerry Maguire.
Less than a year on, I was in Goa for the second IPL auction, with the English newspapers I then reported for agog with excitement over the multi-million-dollar deals that Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen were likely to land. I had to write a preview for the auction soon after I touched down in Goa. But the first thing I noticed when I logged in was an email from a lady I had never heard from before.
Enough Australian cricketers have mentioned in their books and on-air interviews about the impact that the first IPL auction had on the dressing room. And this was Australia, where the cricket board looked after the players very well, as they did in England.
It was short and to the point, stressing her husband’s cricketing credentials, and how much he merited a lucrative IPL deal. I closed it and started on the preview, but midway through, I went to the stats engines to check up on his recent performances. They were impressive enough for me to mention him as a decent wildcard option in one of the preview stories I filed that day.
The auction was only at 10 the next morning, and the time difference meant that I would have plenty of time to file my copy. So that night, a friend and I went to a beach-side shack and made a night of it.
The next morning, my phone started ringing. As I picked up, I noticed that the bedside clock said 6.30am. It was a South African cricketer I had become friendly with during the Caribbean World Cup in 2007. “Put in a good word for me, bro?” he asked. “Er, what?” I replied, definitely the worse for wear. “You know, at the auction. If you see any of the coaches before it starts, mention my name?” I mumbled something, and disconnected.
Clearly, he had little idea how the auction worked. Although some teams still approached it in amateurish fashion, others had come armed with months of data, and in-depth analysis of that information. There wasn’t a coach there likely to take advice from a bleary-eyed journalist at breakfast.
My acquaintance didn’t get picked, but the other South African bloke did, for an eye-watering amount. Within a couple of hours, there was another mail in my inbox, this time thanking me for my article, and mentioning how the contract would ‘set them up for life’. I was too stunned to tell her that the franchise had probably been scouting her partner for months, rather than waiting for me to file a column.
Enough Australian cricketers have mentioned in their books and on-air interviews about the impact that the first IPL auction had on the dressing room. And this was Australia, where the cricket board looked after the players very well, as they did in England. You can imagine what the conversations must have been like in South Africa, where match fees for national duty and provincial deals represented what a player might make bowling one over in the IPL – Ishant Sharma, for example, made $3,755 for every ball he bowled in 2008.
As the years passed, I began to ignore the friends I’d made earlier in the decade, because I knew that every text or email would inevitably lead to one topic, an IPL contract. When I read about the scandal now shaking the foundations of South African cricket, I wasn’t surprised. It’s been eight years in the making.
It would surprise me even less if the leading names implicated are players of colour. I can recall enough conversations about their insecurity, the sense that they were judged differently, and how they were always beyond the fringes of the ruling clique.
The IPL has been wonderful for players in India, especially those that never got an extended run in the national team. But for others, it’s been a Pandora’s box. I doubt if the Mohammads, Amir and Asif, would have contemplated flagrant no-balls had they been in possession of lucrative IPL contracts. And given that bowlers vastly inferior to them were on six-figure deals, it’s not a stretch to imagine them thinking: “Who’s getting my share?”
‘Every Bodi is a Suspect’ said the Daily Voice’s headline, the day after Cricket South Africa had confirmed that Gulam Bodi was the ‘intermediary’ they were investigating. Bodi was the quintessential nearly man. Just 22 when named as a replacement for Nicky Boje in a one-day series in the Caribbean, he broke his finger playing league cricket before he could even get on the plane.
Six years later, he was part of South Africa’s squad for the first World Twenty20. He didn’t get a game. And when he did finally land an IPL deal, at the age of 33, he spent the season riding the pine. It made you wonder about the extent of frustration that lay behind that ever-smiling face.
There will be much hand wringing and moralising in the days ahead, with sportsmen skewered for offences that are relatively minor compared to those committed by some of the titans of banking and industry not so long ago. But amid all the noise and blaring headlines, we’d do well not to ignore a simple fact: With the exception of those centrally contracted in England and Australia, every other player in world cricket is dependent on the IPL to provide him with the riches available to his peers in other popular sports.
Chris Gayle and other freelancers may have played Twenty20 all over the world, but there’s only one contract they really covet. That was apparent during the days of the now-defunct Champions League Twenty20, when player after player would put their IPL franchise ahead of the ‘home’ team.
Money talks. For those on the fringes, it can be the sirens’ music.