Mumbai: Club or country? Chicken or egg? Which comes first? It's a question that has been at the forefront of cricket aficionados' thoughts over the past fortnight after the hullaballoo involving Sri Lankan players in the IPL, and Chris Gayle.
Because it's such an emotive subject, the shades of grey are seldom seen. Depending on where you stand, someone like Lasith Malinga is either an opportunistic mercenary or a young man messed about with by administrators while trying to do his best for himself and his family. The IPL is either the source of all evil or the best thing since bread came sliced.
Those who decry it ignore how it has finally given top-level cricketers some degree of control over their own destiny. Its apologists overlook the effect it has had on the cricket economy, leaving less prosperous national associations on the verge of financial ruin if they don't toe the Indian board's line.
Cricket is pretty unique in that it's one sport where national recognition opens doors to financial riches. You don't need to represent the United States to land a multi-million dollar NBA or NFL deal. Lebron James was on the cover of Sports Illustrated long before he donned the Cleveland Cavaliers' vest, and his very first contract dwarfed anything that Sachin Tendulkar or MS Dhoni have signed. His shoe deal with Nike alone was worth $90 million.
In cricket, though, until the IPL came along, you were nothing without a national cap. It's possible for those playing first-class cricket in England and Australia to make a comfortable living, and the same is the case now in India with increased payments for those on the domestic circuit. But if you're an ordinary first-class pro in New Zealand, Sri Lanka, Pakistan or West Indies, chances are you won't be swanning around in a Ferrari.
Even those with a national contract are unlikely to. Consider this. A year after he took four wickets in four balls at the 2007 World Cup, Malinga was denied a national contract. He had broken down months earlier and been forced to miss tours and the inaugural IPL season. Sri Lanka Cricket's decision was as unkind as cuts go.
It wasn't as though they were short of funds. Soon after the 2008 Asia Cup win, officials helped themselves to significant pay hikes. The players had to make do with the $100,000 that they had been paid the previous year. The only sop was $25,000 paid as bonus to Kumar Sangakkara, Muttiah Muralitharan and Mahela Jayawardene for "outstanding performances". Interestingly Sanath Jayasuriya, whose century helped win the Asia Cup final, wasn't deemed outstanding enough.
A few months later Malinga was given a contract, a grade II one worth $60,000. In contrast, his first two seasons with the Mumbai Indians, who didn't give up on him despite injury concerns, netted him $700,000. When the franchise retained him before the player auction last January, they will have guaranteed him at least $500,000 a season.
"Because of the IPL, I got a chance to come back to the national team," said Malinga on Tuesday. "After the injury, nobody looked after me and I was not offered a contract. But thanks to the IPL I didn't lose anything but I improved my cricket a lot. I'm saddened the way I was treated, but not disappointed."
Money can't buy loyalty, but it does give players the security to go out and perform with minds free of worry. Contrast the attitude to Malinga with how AC Milan, Europe's second-most successful football club, treated Fernando Redondo, the talented Argentine playmaker who moved there in 2000.
Redondo played just 16 times in four seasons after injuring his knee while on the treadmill. The club kept paying him £2.74 million a year until he asked for it to be suspended. They also refused to take back the house and car that they had given him.
With state sides and counties largely depending on national boards to stay financially solvent, it's cricket's national associations that have performed the role that football clubs do. It was Sri Lanka Cricket that discovered Malinga and invested both time and money to ensure he could be a factor at the highest level. It's the national academies that tend to do for cricket what La Masia has done for Barcelona football.
In that regard, you can understand why cricket boards are angered when a player chooses the IPL over representing his country. After all, where he is today is as much a result of their work as it is a consequence of his talent. But under the present dispensation, the national boards get decent compensation, with 10% of all IPL contracts signed going into their coffers. Just for signing no-objection certificates, Sri Lanka Cricket's account is richer by nearly half a million dollars.
Is that enough? Probably not. What cricket is going through right now is a churning similar to that which football underwent in the 1950s, when the likes of Alfredo di Stefano and Omar Sivori abandoned their South American roots to make a better living in Europe's cash-rich leagues. That talent drain continues to this day. Europe's top clubs have the money and they provide a stage, the European Champions League, that's second only to the World Cup in terms of prestige. Only someone lacking ambition would pass up a chance to play there.
With the IPL, things are not so clear cut. Football, regardless of whether it's for your national team or your club, is played over 90 minutes. It could even be argued that the best club sides, with their agglomeration of talent and the chance to practise and play together 10 months a year, are superior to any national team. That certainly isn't the case with Twenty20 cricket and the IPL.
Given how the vast majority of players want to be part of the IPL, creating a window for it within the framework of the Future Tours Programme is the only way forward. The league is India's baby, backed by the biggest sponsors in the game, and any national board that takes it on is doomed to failure. Far better instead to listen to what your players want, and bank that 10%.
Talk to the likes of Sangakkara and Daniel Vettori and they will tell you that this isn't about club or country. It's about players finally being able to take home money commensurate with their ability. When you can make as much from six weeks of IPL as you would from a few years of playing for the national side, why would you not throw your cap into the ring? And if your team owners look after you better than your board does, why would you not be loyal to them? Why should Gayle not, like you and me, honour those who honour him and disdain those who despise him, to quote the Bible?
There will always be a group of people who insist that "muddied oafs and flannelled fools" are paid too much. But unlike many administrators, bankers or politicians who rob us blind, most sportsmen leave something tangible behind. Michael Jordan, who helped take athletes' salaries into the stratosphere, once said: "Obstacles don't have to stop you. If you run into a wall, don't turn around and give up. Figure out how to climb it, go through it, or work around it." Malinga, for one, has done that, and instead of grudging him the rewards, we should be happy for a man who'll probably need a walking stick to get around by the time he's 50.