Star-studded welcome for Corporate Trophy
Fresh from a much-needed break of nearly two months, India's leading cricketers will begin another packed season with the Corporate Trophy, the BCCI's new showpiece domestic one-day tournament - with Rs 1 crore (US$204,272) for the winners - starting on Tuesday.
The Indian board has invited 12 corporate teams to take part in the eight-day tournament, which will see most of the Indian team - with Sachin Tendulkar a prominent exception - play for their employers across four venues. There are two teams from Air India, which has seven members of the Indian team on its rolls including MS Dhoni, the captain.
On the face of it, the corporate trophy is a high-profile season starter that will help ease top cricketers back into 50-over mode ahead of the one-day tri-series in Sri Lanka -which starts for the Indians on September 11 - and the ICC Champions Trophy in South Africa later in the month. The BCCI has staked big money on this - the runners-up get Rs 50 lakh (US$102,109) - claiming that the tournament's prime objective is to promote employment opportunities for domestic cricketers in India's corporate houses.
But the real significance of the tournament possibly lies elsewhere - in its design to kill off another tournament. It was conceived in January, just four months before the Indian board announced its amnesty offer for ICL cricketers. ICL players have since admitted privately that after the corporate tournament was announced they received calls from their employers asking them to wind up their association with the unofficial league. "And then, as we were wondering how we could possibly return to the official fold, came the BCCI's amnesty offer," a leading Indian ICL player said.
As it turned out, the corporate trophy was, in fact, the first nail in the ICL's coffin; the unofficial Twenty20 league cancelled its March programme and that finally led to an exodus of players back into official cricket. At the same time, the BCCI has ensured that the corporate trophy, despite a glittering launch last week, will not cut into the IPL's glamour either in format or content; no foreign players here, and no high-octane promotional campaigns, just the prize money and two major venues in Bangalore and Mohali with Visakhapatnam and Dharamsala hosting the other matches.
Besides, the preliminary rounds don't make for close contests, if the stronger teams play to full strength. Air India (Blue) and ONGC are the clear favourites in Groups A and B. ONGC, led by Gautam Gambhir, have a bowling attack that could represent India on a lean day: Ishant Sharma, Praveen Kumar, Munaf Patel and Amit Mishra. Air India (Blue) feature Harbhajan Singh, Dhoni, RP Singh, VVS Laxman and Mohammad Kaif.
Groups C and D are more evenly placed. In Group C, Indian Oil, with Wasim Jaffer and Rohit Sharma being their big draws, could be challenged by Tata Sports Club, who have Rohan Gavaskar, Ajit Agarkar and Ramesh Powar in their ranks. But it's Group D where the real competition is at, with Air India (Red) holding a slight edge over India Cements, who have Rahul Dravid, S Badrinath, L Balaji and Sudeep Tyagi in their line-up.