Indian Cricket League June 2, 2009

Will the ICL survive?

After 79 ICL players decided to withdraw, it has become obvious that the league, in its original avatar, is no more

It is a question that has been snapping at their heels ever since the momentous launch in Mumbai two years ago. And now, it's a question they can no longer run away from. Will the ICL survive? Tony Greig, the face and voice of the private venture, says the battle is not over; Himanshu Mody, the brain behind it, says the league will emerge stronger. But after 79 of its Indian cricketers decided over the last month that they don't want to be tagged as rebels any longer, it has become obvious that the Indian Cricket League, in its original avatar, is no more.

Of course, cricket might still spring back to life under the ICL banner, possibly this October. But that would, at best, be a diluted version of what was once hailed as a revolution in world cricket. For now though, it looks like it will be a long haul back, if at all.

What are the options?
ICL officials say that the current exodus of players is part of a larger plan where they will first trim the losses - running costs, including a wage bill that runs into millions of rupees - and then start with a clean slate. They say that they still have around 40-odd players on the rolls and can recruit new talent whenever they need to. In the meantime, they are hoping that the economic recession will let up, and that they will also succeed in getting the courts in London to force the ICC into granting the ICL recognition, citing restrictive-trade-practice clauses, as it happened in the famous Kerry Packer-versus-the-establishment tussle in the 1970s. Such an outcome, they claim, will lead to two things: sponsors will be back with money, and the players will only be happy to sign up for the official version.

But for now this is just a scenario. The reality is that the official IPL, and the BCCI's sponsors, are mopping up whatever money is left in the market; and the players are now wary of signing up for a league that will shut them out of all official cricket, thanks to the BCCI's all-pervading ban. In fact, in the middle of the last ICL season, a senior player revealed the trauma and frustration he was going through, after even his local college refused to let him use net facilities. As for the players who are still with the ICL, only a handful are Indian; the rest are foreign players, most of whom, as Greig admitted, have retired from international cricket and so are driven by a "different motivation".

What went wrong?
The ICL claimed that their mission was to promote domestic Indian talent, and they did succeed to an extent, at least in shining the spotlight on talented players like like R Sathish, G Vignesh and Alfred Absolem, who may have slipped under the radar otherwise. But overall, the league's cricket was inconsistent, and the foreign players failed to sparkle - Brian Lara, their biggest signing, failed to even turn up after a season. They were unable to sustain the initial buzz, having struggled with sparse crowds in the first season, and found comfort later only in Ahmedabad, a cricket-crazy city that was kept out of the IPL loop. Besides, the league, which was launched with a projected three-year budget of Rs 100 crore (US$ 21 million approximately), struggled to evolve a profit-making model.

Then again, within months of the ICL's launch, the IPL swept through cricket, with the full backing of the powerful BCCI and their sponsors, drowning whatever hopes the ICL may have had of carving a niche for itself in the business of Twenty20 cricket. More than anything else, it was the vindictive attitude of the BCCI that finally broke the ICL's back. Players were banned, and the dues they were officially entitled to from the BCCI were kept on hold; sponsors were aggressively persuaded to stay away; and the ICC network was used to ensure that other national boards shut their doors on their ICL players. Not only did the Indian board ignore worldwide protests against their aggressive and monopolistic crackdown, they also pushed the ICC's board to refuse recognition to the ICL, leaving the world body vulnerable to a legal challenge.

The BCCI even led David Morgan, the ICC president, to believe that the issue could be sorted out amicably but ended up having two "compromise meetings" with the ICL that yielded nothing. The BCCI's offer? Shut down the ICL and take up an IPL franchise instead, or similar variations, including a suggestion that the ICL operate as a veterans' league. The ICL, not surprisingly, rejected these offers.

What does this mean for the players?
Some of the ex-ICL players that Cricinfo spoke to were confident that they would be selected to play for their states again. This could be true for established players like Bengal's Deep Dasgupta and Abhishek Jhunjhunwala, Hyderabad's Ambati Rayudu and Uttar Pradesh's Shalabh Srivastava. But it may not be such an easy road for others. Some state officials are still seething at the way these players walked out on them two years ago - the Hyderabad Ranji team was almost wiped out. Return tickets, obviously, will be at a premium. Besides, as one state association official asked: what will they do with the players who stepped up to fill the breach two years ago?

Then there's the IPL. The BCCI initially said that those who returned from the ICL would be eligible to play domestic cricket immediately (the IPL is a domestic event), but seems to have developed second thoughts since. They have clarified that the norms for IPL eligibility will be revealed later, and suggested that they may apply a year's cooling-off period on these players before they are let into the official league. But according to some ICL players who have returned, the event that they are really hoping to be a part of is the BCCI's soon-to-be-launched inter-corporate tournament, to be conducted in 50-over and Twenty20 formats - the winners will take home Rs 1 crore (US$ 213,000 approximately), and the runners-up half that amount.

The word on the street
Naturally, the ICL's willingness to release their players without much fuss, and the BCCI's open welcome, have led to intense speculation in Indian cricket circles. An ICL official privately suggested that these moves are part of a compromise that could see Zee TV, ICL's parent company, get a share of the official broadcasting pie when the BCCI's TV rights come up for renewal next year. Zee TV is currently blacklisted by the Indian board, and one of the reasons why Subhash Chandra, the owner of Zee, started the ICL was that he was denied the opportunity to broadcast India matches in 2004, which led to a long-drawn legal battle with the BCCI. Incidentally, Chandra also shares a good personal rapport with Sharad Pawar, the former BCCI president, who still has the final say in Indian cricket matters.

The buzz doing the rounds among ICL players, meanwhile, is that they will be part of an IPL auction now, with a cap of US$ 50,000 per player. But, of course, all these suggestions have been dismissed as "wild speculation" by BCCI officials who claim that the ICL is simply crumbling under its own financial burden.

Ajay Shankar is a deputy editor at Cricinfo