The services of South African cricketer Chris Morris were recently secured for R32.8 million at the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2021 player auction. To put that into perspective, Cricket South Africa (CSA) would have made around R40 million in revenue from Australia’s postponed Test tour to South Africa.
In less than two months, Morris can earn almost as much as his former employers would have made hosting and broadcasting a high-profile series against one of the best teams in the world. A highly rated allrounder in the shortest format of the game, Morris dropped his name in the hat to see what might happen.
“It was a very big surprise,” he said. “I would have been happy just to get a gig.”
He got infinitely more than a gig. He was the headline act, gazumping even English star Ben Stokes in the auction stakes. Stokes and Morris are both headed to the Rajasthan Royals, along with England’s Jos Buttler and Jofra Archer, Australia’s Andrew Tye and fellow South African David Miller as the team’s overseas players.
The money splashed out at the auction was incredible, and illustrated once again the truly unstoppable nature of the Indian juggernaut. While many other sporting codes are downsizing and seeking new income streams, the IPL is decorating the skyscraper it already is in lavish fashion.
“I don’t think anyone in cricket ever thought it would get to where it is,” Morris said of the money now in the IPL.
Former Natal rugby and cricket pro Errol Stewart, who went on to enjoy a successful corporate career and a stint as a national cricket selector, said the money in the game should be embraced. “It’s fantastic. When we played, we would get an envelope with R200 in it. That was essentially your match fees and dinner allowance for that weekend,” Stewart recalled of the early 1990s.
Rugby has always been ahead of cricket, he pointed out. Until the IPL came along. “I stopped playing rugby for the Sharks in 1997. At that time, I was on a C-level contract. I carried on playing for the Dolphins until 2003-2004, and my A+ contract at that time just matched what I had been paid monthly by the Sharks seven years prior.”
The history of underpaid cricketers
Previously, South African cricketers toiled for a franchise contract. It represented stability. Progress beyond that meant a national contract, which meant earnings over the R1 million mark. A comfortable existence, it still did not guarantee a financially stress-free future.
Morris relayed how his father Willie played for Northerns in first-class cricket, the pinnacle of “professional cricket” then. But the pittance he earned meant he had to have a day job, too.
The Banana Boys that were the Sharks of the 1990s were full of poster boys, but their pockets were hardly lined with the kind of lucre Handré Pollard earns these days. Stewart also had to pursue a career outside of rugby, racing through traffic from work meetings to make Friday night flights with his team.
Ironically, CSA’s move to abandon the franchise system and have 15 provincial teams from next season may see Stewart’s job-juggling act come back into play. The idea behind two divisions of seven and eight teams is to widen the talent pool, but it will reduce the value of the contracts that have allowed many franchise players to live comfortably on their earnings.
Pay was minimal as recently as 2006, when the South African Airways Associates competition started for the amateur teams that fed into the franchise system. A handful of players earned a humble salary while the rest of the squad looked forward to away trips and the accompanying envelope containing around R500.
“You are suddenly going to have around 300 players in the new system, all hoping for a job playing cricket. That is a serious financial challenge,” said Stewart.
The move to the provincial system is supposedly also being put in place to challenge teams to be more financially independent and commercially progressive. The Sharks have an equity deal in place and this is likely where cricket bosses hope teams will eventually get.
MVM Holdings bought a 51% stake in the Durban franchise, bringing with it significant financial muscle, the commercial pull of management company Roc Nation Sports and expertise in the globalisation of a brand. The Sharks saw the opportunity to expand into other markets, took the risk and have boosted their coffers, showing their hand as innovators.
You would anticipate the Titans – who will become Northerns – taking the commercial lead in domestic cricket. They have the players, the vision and the success on the field to be an intriguing option. It’s the other teams that are a concern.
Too many unions have depended solely on CSA handouts in the past two decades. Administrative departments became lazy, knowing that parachute payment was on its way. It’s no surprise that when it came to voting for a revamp, the loudest voices in the room were those of the unions whose expenditure has been most reckless.
The new system places far greater scrutiny on self-serving individuals. And the cost-cutting measures being put in place are because South Africa’s cricket stocks are particularly low.
What Australia’s snub says about SA
The executive leadership shenanigans that once threatened international expulsion from the game have seen the Proteas slip down the list of priorities for opposing teams.
Australia didn’t come to South Africa because they didn’t feel obliged to, despite the shameful 2018 tour during which they brought the game into disrepute and ruined what had been building into one of the most iconic series of the modern era. Poised tantalisingly at 1-1 with the third Test coming up at Newlands, the world was watching two heavyweight teams going at it hammer and tongs.
AB de Villiers versus Pat Cummins.
Kagiso Rabada versus Steve Smith.
Quinton de Kock versus David Warner.
It was spiteful, but sensational. It was Test cricket on the edge. Broadcasters leaned in to take a closer look at the compelling script unfolding before their eyes. And then sandpaper scratched the veneer off the contest and Australia’s cheating deflated the dramatic balloon.
That they now chose to turn their noses up at their South African obligation speaks volumes about their priorities.
“They really have let us down, and I will not let this go,” a seething Graeme Smith has said repeatedly.
The former Proteas captain and now CSA director of cricket called on the Department of Health and the Department of Sports, Arts and Culture as well as taking advice from the tourism sector while spending considerable funds to ensure that all of Australia’s demands were met.
CSA even recalled the Proteas from their Test series in Pakistan and sent a different Twenty20 side to complete those fixtures, to meet the Covid-19 isolation period that Australia demanded for the Test squad.
“We bent over backwards. We kept them in the loop with everything and we provided the safest environment possible for them to come. I feel extremely let down,” Smith snarled.
Australia’s integrity in the matter is questionable, but their snub reiterates South Africa’s brittle position. Boardroom aside, the Proteas are not playing particularly good cricket.
“We need to start winning again,” Smith agreed. “We just have to.”
For commercial reasons, broadcast clout, patriotism and their own peace of mind, South Africa needs to start regularly winning cricket matches again. Opposition teams and broadcasters come to the negotiation table if you are one of the best teams in the world. South Africa ended the Test Championship in seventh place. Their 2019 ICC World Cup failure remains fresh in the memory.
They need new heroes and to raise their international profile once more.
The Proteas’ former reputation for winning consistently opened commercial doors for CSA, and IPL deals for players like Morris. Ironically, he might be the most high-profile South African allrounder in the IPL but has seldom enjoyed this position in the national team. This allowed him to prioritise his T20 game, with the Titans and the IPL.
Morris was asked if he felt any guilt at the size of his pay package, given how much that money could do for others less fortunate.
“It is supply and demand, so that is not a question for Morris to answer,” said Stewart. “Someone feels he is worth that much, so all you can say is good luck to him. It’s fantastic money and he won’t need to work a day in his life again if he doesn’t want to.”
Morris shrugged off the question. The truth is no cricketer would turn down an earning opportunity like this.
Although he was preparing for the CSA T20 Challenge while billionaires were jostling for his signature, just a few weeks ago Morris didn’t even have a deal to play for the Titans. His teammates are no doubt seeing him in a new light now.
His base price ahead of the IPL auction was around $100 000. He fetched more than 20 times that.