March 1, 2008

Welcome to the inquisition

The IPL, and its creator the BCCI, is sparing no rod to make sure the ICL is ground into the dust - the rest of world cricket be damned



How does international cricket stand to gain if the likes of Shane Bond are barred from playing it? © Getty Images

Witch-hunts are odious things, whether in fact or fiction - in Miller's Salem, Stalin's USSR, McCarthy's or Bush's USA. Morally they are bankrupt, for only the persecutor can be right; the other is wrong and all in between can stick it. Often it is not enough to prove the other as just wrong. Often that is not even the purpose. The point is to discredit them, to demolish them altogether.

Nothing less than what went on in those times is being carried out now in cricket, a sport where more grey exists between any two opinions than most others. Miller's witches, McCarthy's reds, Stalin's non-reds and Bush's jehadis are now joined by cricket's Indian Cricket League (ICL) signatories. World cricket's establishment doesn't want to just stop the ICL, it wants to grind it into the dust, taking along anyone associated with it.

Players who signed up for it have not only been banished from international cricket, but possibly will be banished from first-class cricket, and any other means they have of making a living. Daryll Cullinan and Moin Khan have been prevented from carrying out their broadcast commitments because of their ICL involvement. Soon media outlets might be barred from covering matches because they have given coverage to the ICL.

In Pakistan, where the hunt has had a particularly zealous fervour to it, organisations that employ ICL players - banks and some such - have been advised to terminate those players' contracts. If this isn't a witch-hunt, what is? And as with the ugliest of these things, fears are deliberately misplaced, or grossly exaggerated.

To date, no one has expressed precisely how the ICL, or those involved with it, will harm cricket. Or at least harm it in any way different to how the sanctioned Indian Premier League (IPL) also might. Unofficial leagues are vulnerable to match-fixing is one feeble whimper from some. Mostly it is heard from the same men who presided over an official circuit in which three leading captains, and numerous other players, happily fixed games for five years before being found out. The IPL, incidentally, is not yet under the purview of the ICC's Anti-Corruption Unit.

Cricket cannot be run by outside bodies is another fear, though the ICL is trying to make some money from the game - as opposed to run it. In any case, in Pakistan and India, where the PCB and the BCCI have arguably harmed the game more than nurtured it, who or what is to say their monopoly can't at least be questioned?

Does the ICL poach talent away from international cricket? If so, how that is the case we know not. The ICL's contracts state that international cricket takes priority over the league. Pakistan argues it is not fair to have players playing in the ICL over domestic cricket. That is fair enough.

But rash as prophecies might be, here's a dead cert: when the IPL calendar potentially moves forward next year to avoid a clash with the English county season, possibly eating into Pakistan's domestic schedule, Pakistan will not have a problem if a player - particularly a big name - wants to skip matches for Sindh at Rs 25,000 a month, and instead go to Delhi for US$25,000 a week.

And what little substance remains in the argument vanishes when you consider Nottinghamshire's plight. They have just signed on David Hussey for two years but he has also signed with Kolkata in the IPL, and what takes priority, according to the coach, Mick Newell, is uncertain. No action is proposed against Hussey, yet Shane Bond, Rana Naved-ul-Hasan and Mushtaq Ahmed, who are in similar situations, except that they have ICL contracts, are likely to be forced out of county cricket by their own boards.

 
 
Cricket cannot be run by outside bodies is one fear, though the ICL is trying to make some money from the game - as opposed to run it. In any case, in Pakistan and India, where the PCB and the BCCI have arguably harmed the game more than nurtured it, who or what is to say their monopoly can't at least be questioned?
 

All the fears, the scare-mongering, only provide a thin veil that barely cloaks the real issue. And that is of money, and specifically of the BCCI losing out on it. For the IPL, the market is free and proud - as the auction symbolises. Not so much for the ICL, at which obstacle after obstacle is thrown.

The BCCI is the only board to benefit financially from the IPL and it is the only board to stand to lose if the ICL thrives. Not anyone else, just the BCCI, above the doors of which must now be placed the placard "Power without responsibility" - nothing captures this attitude more than Lalit Modi's remarks damning county cricket's future. This is the insanity of it, that a TV-rights tangle in an overcharged, loud, brash industry is threatening relations between players and boards, players' livelihoods and domestic cricket around the world.

These men are not dopers, or match-fixers. They're not even rebels. These are men who have served cricket honourably. Some do not see an international, and thus lucrative, future ahead of them, so they choose to somehow secure themselves financially. Others are unhappy with the hand life, and their cricket boards, has dealt them and are expressing it. Some are just plain greedy. But what have they really done to have their careers sabotaged? Played for an Indian-based Twenty20 league, funded by private money, or just played for the one that the BCCI doesn't like?

Morally this is wrong, but soon might come a time when it is legally bereft as well. One group of ICL players in Pakistan, including Imran Farhat and Taufeeq Umar, is planning legal action against the board, and it is believed that they will argue that any bar is not only restraint of trade, but a constitutional violation. Rana, Mushtaq and Bond, none centrally contracted, and who haven't or might not be given an No-Objection Certificate from their home boards to play county cricket, have even stronger cases.



All about the money: Lalit Modi's remarks about the future viability of county cricket have been an eye-opener © AFP

Nobody forgets that there is a precedent here, in the battle Robert Alexander QC fought on behalf of Kerry Packer 30 years ago. The legal minutiae may be different now - central contracts, for example, may make a difference - but the broad legal argument remains the same: what Alexander called "a naked restraint of trade."

At one stage in the Packer hearings, Alexander argued that John Snow had no future in Test cricket, and neither, because of South Africa's ineligibility, had Mike Procter. Further, their absence from English county cricket would reduce its attractiveness to the public. The very same could be argued, could it not, for Rana and Mushtaq? And no man, sane or otherwise, can say that county or international cricket will be a better place without Bond in it.

Legal action may be inevitable. It is sad, for these are not matters where a hammer is needed, where force is deployed. These are delicate matters, where loyalty, patriotism, big money, greed, and the value of modern-day sportsmen all collide. These are matters where, for example, if a Pakistan player needs to ask himself why he jumps ship after one axing, then the board needs to ask itself why so many of their stars are doing it, instead of just wiping them out. These are matters where debate, discussions, negotiations and compromise are needed.

That, though, has never been the way of witch-hunts, whenever the time, wherever the place.

Osman Samiuddin is Pakistan editor of Cricinfo

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