Why Indians don't play in foreign T20 tournaments
The decision that Harbhajan Singh has signed to play for Essex during the second half of the county season is no surprise. With more than 12 months of international cricket at home looming, Harbhajan wants to win back his India place, and county cricket will give him the daily drill and discipline required to try and become a match-winning bowler once again.
The news that Harbhajan isn't playing the Friends Life t20 for Essex may well be lost in the wash. After all, it wasn't part of the original deal and Essex are struggling to qualify for the knockouts with only a week of games to go. What has happened in the recent past with Twenty20 and Indian players, though, is classic BCCI at work - in reverse, defending rather than attacking. While the world's players rush to the IPL waving NOCs from their boards, India's players aren't allowed to return the compliment.
ESPNcricinfo knows of at least seven Indian players who have been refused permission to play in Twenty20 leagues or events in other countries over the past few years. These include big-ticket names, India regulars, first-class stalwarts, fringe players, Twenty20 specialists, players centrally contracted to the BCCI and those that aren't. They can't be named for fear of being censured - either directly or subtly - by the board.
These players have been invited to the Big Bash in Australia, by clubs and franchises in South Africa, by counties in England, and by the Bangladesh Premier League teams. They have all been refused permission by the BCCI. The inaugural season of the Sri Lankan Premier League had to be postponed from 2011 to 2012 because the BCCI refused to send its players to the tournament, fearing it was secretly bankrolled by Lalit Modi. Tony Irish, the chief executive of the South African Cricketers Association, calls it an "unfair" equation.
The BCCI has done its best to ensure that Indian involvement in domestic Twenty20 matches is restricted to the IPL. Its principle is a simple protection of its assets in order to ensure no rival league will be able to lure their players away with larger pay-cheques. It has used the IPL's clout - 10% of the overseas cricketers' IPL contracts is directed to their boards - to ensure a diplomatic silence over the one-way traffic.
Similarly, the BCCI does whatever it can to keep its flock under control. Legally (see clause in the sidebar alongside), the players are free to take part in domestic Twenty20s elsewhere. All they need is "an express no-objection certificate from the IPL."
It is fairly standard practice. Players of other nations also need an NOC from their boards before they play overseas. The South African players' NOC is a four-way agreement between the board, the player, the South African Cricketers' Association and the overseas country's board or tournament. Clause 23 of a standard South African player contract states: "In the event that the cricketer wishes to enter into an overseas contract during the contract period, he should apply to CSA for a Non Objection Certificate in a reasonable period and in the prescribed form."
In England, the county player's contract is available on the Professional Cricketers' Association website with clause 2b allowing employment and engagement in the off season, "subject to the written consent of the Employer (not to be unreasonably withheld)."
Paul Marsh, of the Australian Cricketers Association, told ESPNcricinfo that Cricket Australia was obliged to grant permission to its players wanting to play in overseas T20 events, "outside the Australian summer, provided that the competition is recognised by the ICC member in the relevant country."
The NOC for players from England, Australia and South Africa stands for a largely accessible no-objection certificate. For Indian players, though, it stands for "no-chance".
The IPL contract is very carefully drafted (with what one lawyer called the NOC 'carve out') and is designed to preserve its status as the most sought after in world cricket. The issue is its implementation, which is with a heavy hand. The BCCI is not merely trying to keep its contracted players free from injury due to too much Twenty20. The memories of the injury-ridden 2011 tour of England are still fresh. All it is doing is protecting turf by ensuring that no Indian plays Twenty20 anywhere else.
Refusing to grant Indians permission to play everywhere is not illegal, but in this case, it is just wrong. Cricket is not an FMCG (fast-moving consumer good) business where monopolies are protected with oppressive fervour. Inviting all the world's cricketers in but refusing Indian cricketers the right to get out is feudal, shortsighted and overbearing.
The BCCI is doing more than denying the Indian cricketers earning opportunities. It is limiting the range of cricket experience that can be gathered by playing in different conditions, on varying wickets, against different opponents. Any short-term benefits are undermined by a long-term short-circuiting of skills.
Left-arm spinner Murali Kartik happens to be the only Indian in county cricket - now in his eighth season - and, with the BCCI's permission, has played all formats for Lancashire, Middlesex, Somerset and now Surrey. Should he be invited to play in only a Twenty20 competition elsewhere in the world, it is safe to assume, he will be refused permission.
What this shows is that India's cricketers have access to unprecedented earnings, as the main fund-generators for the BCCI, but not to many individual rights. Nor do they have the power of collective bargaining, having entered into a purely financial agreement with the board and their IPL franchise.
The issue also exposes the absence of a players' spokesman, especially when the IPL contract was being drafted. India doesn't have a players' association, even though every generation has tried. Compared to today, the days of Bishen Bedi asking for an increase in match fees, or the settlement between the board and six players who took it to the Indian Supreme Court in 1989, now look like days of healthy dissent.
In the post-IPL era, even a random, unverified and vociferously-denied rumour of a cricketer discussing an Indian players association can result in him being turfed out into the cold: an end to his prospects, even of a fair payment of wages. It is, in fact, what happened to one of the seven who was refused permission to play Twenty20 outside India.
Sharda Ugra is senior editor at ESPNcricinfo