Colombo: At the World Twenty20 in Sri Lanka, Indian Premier League millionaires will rub shoulders with struggling part-timers, illustrating the wealth gap opened up by cricket's most content_cnious format.
On one hand will be wealthy Twenty20 stars such as India's Mahendra Singh Dhoni and Gautam Gambhir, and West Indian Chris Gayle, who have amassed considerable personal fortunes in the glitzy IPL.
At the other end of the scale are part-time players from Ireland and the Netherlands, Zimbabwe and especially Afghanistan, whose captain Nawroz Mangal learned the game in a refugee camp.
India's first match, against Afghanistan in Colombo on Wednesday, raises the prospect of an idolised, multi-millionaire team sharing facilities with players who grew up using home-made bats and balls.
It's only nine years since 20-over cricket was first introduced in England, in a bid to attract more fans. The innovation was initially frowned upon by most countries, including the game's economic powerhouse, India. But India's unexpected victory in the inaugural World Twenty20 in South Africa in 2007 ushered in a sea-change that saw the launch of the flashy IPL a year later.
The IPL, where the world's top players turn out for franchises owned by rich businessmen and Bollywood actors, transformed Twenty20 cricket into a widely watched, and lucrative, spectacle. Leading players have cashed in - but the runaway success of the IPL and copy-cat Twenty20 leagues has also raised fears over the primacy of international cricket, especially the five-day Test matches.
Unlike football, where FIFA designates international breaks to allow players to take leave of their clubs and represent their countries, cricketers are faced with a dilemma. Indian stars such as Sachin Tendulkar and Dhoni are spared the choice since the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) does not schedule internationals during the IPL.
But players from other countries, such as out-of-favour England batsman Kevin Pietersen, Man of the Tournament at the last World Twenty20, do not have the same luxury.
Pietersen had problems with the England cricket board when he tried to bargain to be allowed to play a full IPL season instead of returning home early for international duties. "I think it's fair to say that his issues over being available for the entire IPL have changed his attitude," said coach Andy Flower of Pietersen, who is out of the England squad after repeated run-ins with management.
Explosive opener Chris Gayle missed an entire year for the West Indies due to a conflict with his home board, but continued to rake in millions from the IPL and similar leagues.
Some boards such as New Zealand, Sri Lanka and the West Indies, unable to pay their players top dollar, have tried to restrict international commitments during the IPL. The International Cricket Council argues that if it provided a window for the IPL, it would have to accommodate other domestic leagues as well.
For elite cricketers such as India's Gambhir, there's no question that international competition comes first. The opener justified his $2.4 million a year price tag for the Kolkata Knight Riders by leading the franchise to its maiden IPL title this season. But the left-hander's most cherished memories remain his two major triumphs for India: the 2007 World Twenty20 and the 50-over World Cup in 2011.
"Playing and doing well for your country is the ultimate high," said Gambhir. "It will be hard to think of anything bigger than the world cup wins." Gambhir said he was unconcerned that while his IPL winning team earned $2 million for its efforts, the World Twenty20 champions in Sri Lanka will get half that amount. "You can earn all the money you want, but the thrill and passion of winning for India can never be replicated," he said.
Club loyalties will also take a back seat during the 12-team, three-week tournament, which starts in Colombo on Tuesday. Sri Lanka captain Mahela Jayawardene, who plays for the IPL's Delhi Daredevils with India's Virender Sehwag, said competition will be intense if they meet in the World Twenty20. "One does not think of the IPL when playing for the country and I am sure Viru (Sehwag) also feels the same way," said Jaywardene. "A nation v nation contest is on a different level altogether."