AUSTRALIA has been given a sobering snapshot of the looming challenge to keep its best cricketers in baggy greens, with one in five of the nation's star players revealing they would consider knocking back a Cricket Australia contract to pursue a freelance career.
The alarming statistic, contained in a new survey of the country's state and international players, suggests Australia will not be immune from the trend started by star England all-rounder Andrew Flintoff, despite the Australians' status as the best-paid cricketers in the world.
The annual poll was conducted by the Australian Cricketers' Association, and although the players still regard the prestige of the baggy green as the most influential factor in making such a decision, their responses reflect the changing priorities of elite cricketers in the Twenty20 age.
About two thirds of players (67 per cent) said they could envisage an Australian player rejecting a CA contract to ply their trade in leagues such as the Indian Premier League in the short to medium term.
Asked if they would consider knocking back a CA contract to turn freelance, 22 per cent of national players and 18 per cent of state players answered ''yes''.
Flintoff this year retired from Test cricket and then rejected a contract from the English and Wales Cricket Board to maximise his earning power with the Chennai Super Kings, reducing the strain on his body and freeing up his time for other leagues. Though he still wants to play limited-overs cricket for England, the national board no longer has first call on his services.
''I think Andrew Flintoff's decision is a sign of the times and is reflective of what a number of players around the world are currently thinking,'' said ACA chief executive Paul Marsh.
''The reality is that the national boards no longer have a monopoly over the players' services. There are new, exciting and lucrative options available to players and, not surprisingly, many are giving serious consideration to their futures.
''Our players are well paid, but a competition such as the IPL in many cases provides a package of more money for less work, and therefore less time away from home. Tell me that's not a proposition any person would consider.''
Cricket Australia chief executive James Sutherland said he was not surprised that modern players were considering their options, and claimed more talented young athletes would choose cricket over the football codes as a result.
He also insisted Australia was well-placed to keep the best players signed up to national contracts. ''There is no doubt the labour market has changed in that there are broader options now than there were before,'' Sutherland told The Age.
''I am really pleased at the way in which our players continue to value the honour of representing their country and have a real focus on achieving things as an Australian cricket team.
''I guess that pride and responsibility and honour are all things Australian cricket has been built on. We don't want to move away from that.
''It's also about making sure we offer a rewarding career for Australian cricketers, whether they are representing their state and their country, and we're very proud of the fact that we're running a business that can afford to ensure Australian cricketers are the best paid cricketers in the world.
''Ultimately it is a matter of personal choice and there will be all sorts of reasons and considerations that may come up for each individual player.''
The next cricketing generation may have more options, but recalled Test batsman Phillip Hughes expressed his devotion to the baggy green before joining the Boxing Day Test squad in Melbourne.
''That is everything [representing Australia], it touches the insides,'' the 21-year-old said. ''That's something I've always wanted to do as a kid, and to get that taste of Test cricket at that level, you always want to be back there and it's just something that is always going to continue, that is where my heart is.''
The survey renews concerns about the future of 50-over cricket, with players nominating one-dayers as the form they enjoy the least.
The volume of cricket emerged as the most urgent issue facing the game. Of the two-thirds who said they would consider dropping one format in order to extend their career in another, 75 per cent said they would be most likely to quit ODIs.
Both Sutherland and Marsh have been pushing for international matches to have greater context in the next Future Tours Programmme, in the form of global championships. TheAge