In Conversation: Insignia Sports bring a Cricketers POV to Player Welfare

21 Jan 2021

By: Sport Industry Group

As part of a new series with Sport Industry Awards partner Miller, we’re casting a spotlight on player welfare in cricket, a sport that has seen rapid global expansion in the last decade giving greater global mobility of players and led to more diversity in how players are employed.

In the second piece of the series, we sat down for an extended conversation with cricket agents Eddie Tolchard and Tom Harwood of the Insignia team – who look after the likes of Jofra Archer, Brendon McCullum and Kieron Pollard – to hear the view of the players on a year that has shone a light on longstanding strained playing conditions, isolation, and bubble lifestyles.

The first piece of the series, where Miller's Alex Mendis discusses the issue at large, can be read here.

It’s been a fairly crazy year for cricket. On the whole, how have your players dealt with the pandemic, the lockdown and the abandonment of much of the summer?

ET: The ECB was swift and decisive early on and needed to be given the start of the season was nearly upon us. We (players and agents) are also very fortunate in that the Professional Cricketers Association (PCA) plays a prominent role in championing and protecting the rights of players in the UK.

Whilst no-one truly knew what lay ahead, having the furlough scheme quickly in place and the PCA looking to ensure jobs and salaries were intact and constant dialogue happening between counties and players, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone truly complaining about their situation when there were larger things at play. I’m sure a lot of cricketers trusted in their employers, the ECB and the government to guide us through the summer.

Now, the International scene was another matter.

Counties started playing matches in August but much earlier the International players entered very different bio-secure environments and we welcomed firstly the West Indies and secondly Pakistan in the first part of the summer.

Different questions were asked of the international players but truly any effects of bubble life and periods of self-isolation weren’t to materialise until later. Before then, the IPL lay in wait and that’s a tournament not many can turn down.

The Insignia Team

Those that were able to play, how did they deal with the bio-secure bubbles? 

ET: Ahead of entering the bubbles, especially early on, there was a novelty and also an understanding that there is more at play here than the bio-secure bubbles themselves. The IPL teams also allowed families to join the players and whilst the protocols had to be adhered to, there was space and support and ultimately, I found our players to have a very professional approach, but one which supported their teammates too.

The issues start to creep in when you weigh up the period of self-isolation beforehand and any potential quarantines upon your return home, which can make a tournament unbearably long and very lonely.

Two weeks of self-isolation in a room with no window followed by a tournament for 5-6 weeks in a bubble followed by disrupted travel and permissions needed to just get home, then followed by a two-week quarantine in another hotel at home? Is this now the glamorous life of a cricketing freelancer? I’m saying this with the benefit of hindsight but for your sanity as well as bank balance and career path that tournament or trip needs to be worth it.

What was the experience like for you, advising your players, when they were embarking on the bio-secure bubbles?

TH: I think our main job was to furnish players with all the information regarding various bio-secure bubble protocols, quarantine requirements for both inbound and outbound journeys and the services on offer to them at the different competitions to assist with the process. We need to make sure players are going into such environments with their eyes completely wide open.

With bio-secure bubbles being in their infancy there was no set advice to give to individual clients – that will probably take a little time to tailor to each of your clients once they have experienced the environment and you build an understanding of what helps them through the process.

As an agency we are learning all the time and are building a particularly good knowledge base of the various protocols, not just around biosecure-bubbles, but also from a logistical standpoint. Having clients based all over the world with many involved in most COVID-19-effected tournaments/series has certainly expedited that learning process.    

ET: I agree with what Tom says here, and actually we are all learning as we go along. There is a real understanding now however that 14 days of self-isolation is brutal in many ways, and a clear reason why some players couldn’t face going to the Big Bash.

But the players vary from country to country and approach things differently sometimes. Many did – and still do – say: “Eddie, we were locked down for so long we didn’t know when we would be playing cricket and earning a living again. So I will accept that this won’t go on forever and I will accept what I need to do for now, because this is my livelihood”.

And on the flip side, despite starting out with the end in mind, we have still had to cut-away and deploy the reserve because it’s easier said than done. And in those instances, we are very grateful to the teams and boards we have to deal with because everyone is very understanding.

Let’s also not forget the support staff and management. They can be taken for granted and I am dealing with managers now who haven’t been out of a bio-secure environment for months, and they are pretty frayed around the edges.

The global cricketing schedule is already incredibly full. For those multi-format players, combining a hectic schedule with isolation away from home or family can be gruelling. What impact have you seen from this?

ET: I think this raises questions that have been around a long time anyway with the various formats, and can an increasing number of leagues co-exist with an increasing and varied International schedule? I don’t think so. The cricket world is already bursting but eventually some things just won’t be financially viable.

TH: Every client deals with situations differently and bio-secure bubbles are no different. Hopefully, they are a short-term requirement, as we have certainly found that the vast majority of players that have experienced them realise, they are not sustainable without periods of rest.

Sunil Narine is one of Insignia's most travelled clients.

Do you think the powers that be (the ICC/National Boards) are doing enough to protect players?

ET: The Boards you mention are actually fighting for survival too and finding a way to keep the game alive and flourishing in their backyard during a global pandemic.

So, I can’t and won’t criticise what the boards are doing - they aren’t being reckless. If anything, they’re seeking ways to go above and beyond but therein lies the issue. You make it ultra-safe, but the sanitised environment takes away other aspects of your life - mentally.

I do actually see players are questioning their employers more as well and that’s surely a good thing. You always need to question and be confident in what’s happening. Don’t just make assumptions and sleepwalk into something.

On that subject, do you feel like there is a responsibility vacuum, given each tournament is managed by a different Board?

ET: Again, a tough question to answer simplistically. Many players are centrally contracted to their home boards; you have freelancers emerging and a good mix of established professionals all with very different circumstances. Ultimately the primary employer you seek a release from to play in domestic tournaments will have a continuous duty of care for the cricketer at the end of the day, but in the case of the freelancers I don’t actually think they look at the Boards of the tournaments to take total responsibility for them in very short stints and why should they?

How can that ‘responsibility vacuum’ also effect players contractually/their earning potential? With contracts fragmented across multiple competitions, how much pressure do you feel players put on themselves to make sure they perform?

ET: You’re assuming there is a ‘responsibility vacuum’. And that is the key word – responsibility. A lot of our players take responsibility for themselves and don’t take certain things for granted. You hear it all the time – top end sport is cutthroat, a business and if you have a sense of entitlement it can come back to bite you.

But I have players at the start of their careers wanting to take opportunities and maximise them, and actually there can be periods of what can be perceived as failure but ultimately count them in good stead and be part of their education.

Combining all of the above, where do you think cricket ranks in looking after its players, compared to other sports?

TH: I think the seasonal/short-term nature of the game/competitions makes it hard for employers to have complete control over their employees and whilst I think the vast majority do endeavour to really look after their players, there are always going to be times where the players need to be responsible. On top of this, the work of various player associations cannot be understated. Organisations like the PCA contribute hugely on the player welfare front.

What changes would you like to see come in? 

ET: FICA (Federation of International Cricketers’ Associations) are always battling to have the ICC implement basic standard contractual rights in all player contracts in the tournaments it ultimately approves worldwide (via full members or associates).

That should be a given: players aren’t protected enough in some places when they get injured and some payment issues in some tournaments have been horrific.

I want a ‘circuit’ or ‘calendar’ to be introduced for premier domestic T20 tournaments which allows the best players from that domestic country to always play and which co-exists more peacefully with International schedules.

Can that happen? Now, that may be the million-dollar question and if we had 730 days in a year then perhaps, but where there is a will there is a way.