August 20, 2007

This game has just started

The BCCI faces a problem largely of its own making because it has sown the seeds for the ICL to flourish. But the solution, too, lies in its own hands

The Sharad Pawar-led BCCI has some tough decisions ahead of it © AFP
After more than four months of acting coy, the Indian Cricket League (ICL) has made as bold a statement as possible, parading the 48 Indian cricketers and naming the six overseas players who will form the backbone of its inaugural season. It is as much a statement of intent as a challenge to the Indian board, with which it has been shadow-boxing since the gauntlet was first thrown in April.

The matter is now out in the open; the ICL is an entity the BCCI - nor, indeed, the ICC, which is yet to take a clear stand - cannot wish away. It is faced with a situation it must deal with, and swiftly. It must size up the pros and cons of its current hard line with one eye on the longer term, something it is not always adept at doing. Conventional wisdom says it will not shift from that stand yet this may be the time for some unconventional thinking.

At stake is not just the future of 48 Indian cricketers, though that is weighty enough; an entire domestic season could be held hostage to the simmering feud. Four top Ranji sides - Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Punjab and Hyderabad - have each lost at least half a dozen players, some of whom have the potential to go beyond domestic cricket. More will join the new league, because it still needs another 40-odd players to make up the numbers. If all these players are subsequently unable to play domestic cricket in India, the effect could be crippling.

And that will be the BCCI's greatest challenge: Playing out its role as the custodian of all Indian cricket and ignoring its more natural instinct to protect a smaller piece of turf, precisely the attitude that has given the ICL enough fertile ground to sow the seeds of secession.

If you want one reason why the ICL exists today, here it is: The BCCI is a monopolistic institution that has not modernised and has, till very recently, focused its attentions on international cricket. The public was obsessed with the identity of stars who would or wouldn't, had or hadn't signed up with the league. However, not a thought was spared for those who keep the wheels of Indian cricket moving - the journeymen first-class players, the umpires, the scorers, the faceless people who perform thankless tasks so that, every season, a Karthik or a Sreesanth or a Chawla comes along.

There is no evidence at hand that the ICL will address the problems of these people. It is, after all, a stated commercial venture. But it has entered a vacuum created by the board's inability - unwillingness, even - to see cricket in terms of a sport to be nurtured and see it instead as a cash cow to be milked. This fight, stripped of all ideological posturing, may be about TV ratings and the advertising revenue they bring in but the ICL is likely to tap into the feelings of insecurity and neglect among those who live in the shadows, feelings that prompted the likes of Abhishek Jhunjhunwala, 24, one of the architects of Bengal's road to the Ranji final last season, to sign up and sign away his India cap.

All this invests in the ICL a greater responsibility to safeguard the future of those who have, as Kapil Dev emotionally put it, had the courage to take their own decisions. If the BCCI remains truculent and slaps the ban it has threatened, the ICL must ensure that the players - not exactly the cream of India but honest practitioners of the game - are not left in limbo. In other words, the Zee group, the ICL's parent company, must not pull the rug from under its feet if the whole venture stops making business sense.

Much of that, in turn, will depend on the quality of cricket the ICL will offer, and the jury is out on that. Suffice to say that few of the players named today are Twenty20 experts; most have made their name in longer versions of the game and some, like Inzamam-ul Haq, are patently unsuited to the whirlwind pace of cricket's newest avatar. The problem can be partially offset, though, by smart packaging, for which the presence on board of Tony Greig and Dean Jones will come in handy.

Yet if the ICL has to establish its credibility - and at the moment the meter reading is set to zero - it can only do so with credible cricket. In many ways the easy bit is over. It is one thing to sign up players, quite another to motivate them when they joined for the money. What will they play for: Pride? Nationality? Regional affiliation?

Today was a day when Indian cricket could have celebrated the emergence, in keeping with trends in other spheres, of a money-spinning league promising more opportunities for its players. Instead there is concern over how it will impact the game in India. The problem is largely of the BCCI's own making; so, too, can be the solution.

Will the ICL safeguard the interests and demands of the domestic players? Tell us what you think .

Jayaditya Gupta is executive editor of Cricinfo in India