New Zealand captain Brendon McCullum’s decision to retire, announced in the dying weeks of 2015, caught the cricket world by surprise. He will play in the home series against Australia coming up in February, he said, and then call it quits.

McCullum had just led his team to an emphatic Test series win over Sri Lanka, and if his form in the five-day format seemed modest, he was at his flamboyant best in the One Day Internationals (ODIs), smashing runs at supersonic speed at the top of the order.

Sadly, McCullum has decided he will not play in the World Twenty20 (T20) championships in March in India. This erodes New Zealand’s chances of winning the trophy considerably, for without his derring-do as batsman and captain, the team could well flounder. Pleas from his country’s administrators and fans have failed to change McCullum’s mind. He says he wants to devote time and attention to his young family.

As batsman and captain, McCullum has been a towering influence in reshaping his country’s fortunes in the past couple of years since he took charge in fairly controversial circumstances, when the selectors decided to remove Ross Taylor from the helm. It appeared then that McCullum may not have the support of the players, but he won them over quickly and gave the team new ambition, self-belief and thrust. The “total attack" approach that he propagated made New Zealand arguably the most dangerous team in the world, the high point being a place in the final of the World Cup earlier this year.

A sense of déjà vu was inevitable when McCullum made his decision to retire known. Almost a year earlier to the day, M.S. Dhoni had quit Test cricket suddenly in the middle of the series against Australia. McCullum’s decision was less melodramatic, but in many ways it was a bigger blow; for unlike Dhoni, who still plays the shorter formats, McCullum has turned his back on international cricket completely. That is two superb cricketers lost to the five-day format in a little over a year, which is a serious loss. And both are just about nudging the mid-30s, which is hardly old by today’s standards in the sport.

The issue got compounded when reports emerged from South Africa before the Boxing Day Test against England that A.B. de Villiers is considering retiring from Test cricket too. De Villiers denied the report, but what was confirmed subsequently was that he would review the workload on him with the South African cricket authorities some time next year.

That de Villiers has been keeping wickets in Tests in recent times kind of binds him with Dhoni and McCullum where the “workload" factor is concerned. The physical burden on those who play all three formats is enormous, and it’s compounded if they also have to keep wickets.

But there is another dimension to premature retirements, of lucrative options available these days through T20 leagues, which should compel the attention of the game’s administrators. The retirement decisions of Dhoni and McCullum, and possibly de Villiers, could suggest a trend where high-performing players opt out of the excruciating demands of international cricket and settle for the relatively easier and no less financially rewarding leagues.

It is instructive that McCullum will play in the Indian Premier League (IPL), having been hired by the Rajkot franchise in the recent auctions for season 2016. Dhoni remains integral to the IPL and de Villiers has not hinted that this league in any way adds to his workload.

In the past few years, star players from the West Indies like Chris Gayle, Dwayne Bravo, Kieron Pollard and Andre Russell have made their livelihood from playing in T20 leagues across the world, sacrificing their Test and/or international careers.

Much of this had to do with the turmoil in West Indies cricket, but even so, the demand for them has shown the route to every other high-calibre player that it is possible to survive, indeed thrive, in the sport without wearing the country’s colours.

I am not arguing against T20 leagues: They are making the sport even more popular and providing livelihood to scores of players who otherwise don’t make the cut at the international level. But if they become inducements for the major players to retire from international cricket prematurely, then it does affect the health of the sport. This is where the administrators and selectors must step in to establish a balance.

Players must be spared overkill, without quashing their prospects of earning money from leagues. This is their fundamental right, and past disputes in this matter have seen authorities on the backfoot.

What this means is that administrators must acknowledge new realities, discuss the issue with players and reach a settlement that does not affect their rights to play and earn money and, at the same time, does not diminish the sport.

The fact that almost every player (so far) puts playing for the country above all else is a boon. And a great starting point for negotiations.

Ayaz Memon is a senior columnist who writes on sports and other matters.

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