September 17, 2008

More than money

Utpal Shuvro
The exodus of Bangladesh players to the ICL is not so much about money as about a feeling of insecurity and neglect


Why would youngsters like Shahriar Nafees spurn the name, fame and public adoration gained by playing international cricket? © AFP
 

After losing its way following the promises of a new beginning at the 2007 World Cup, Bangladesh cricket is currently in tumult. It's as if it has been shaken by a huge earthquake - an earthquake called the Indian Cricket League.

Since Sunday, when the news broke about the seven contracted BCB players, and seven others, joining the ICL, this has become the only topic of discussion across the country. Even the political uncertainties have become secondary. When the players eventually handed in their retirement letters and were subsequently unveiled as signings by the ICL in India, among cricket lovers there was wonder, despair, anger - and, above all, shock.

There's an easy explanation for why Mohammed Rafique, who has retired from international cricket, or Habibul Bashar, who is in the twilight of his career, joined the ICL. The same could be said of Manjural Islam, Mohammad Sharif and Tapash Baishya, whose international careers are considered largely over. But why would youngsters like Aftab Ahmed, Shahriar Nafees and Dhiman Ghosh spurn the name, fame and public adoration gained by playing international cricket? Granted, the ICL is an easy way to make money: play three months a year for three years, and get paid huge amounts - it's a no-brainer. But didn't any of these youngsters consider the fact that the ICL was forbidden fruit, on tasting which they would immediately become international pariahs?

Many in Bangladesh have muddied the issue by confusing it with patriotism and treachery, but I'm not ready to do that. These boys aren't going to rob or steal, they are going to play cricket. More importantly, the ICL is forbidden only because of the egotistical stand of the BCCI. Otherwise what's the difference between the ICL and the IPL? If Bangladesh's left-arm spinner Abdur Razzak has committed no sin by playing in the IPL, the likes of Bashar aren't doing anything wrong either by joining the ICL. In any case, this analysis through a moral prism is redundant; the ICL-bound Bangladesh players aren't protesting the wrongs done to the ICL, they are lured by the prospect of money.

That, though, may be simplifying things too much. After Sunday's news came out, the BCB revealed how much the retired contracted players had earned while playing for Bangladesh over the last three years. The regulars - Bashar, Aftab and Nafees - each received Taka 1 crore (approximately US$150,000), which isn't that much less than what they are rumoured to be getting from their ICL contracts.

For its part the BCB, trying to retain the rest, has explained to them that just the match fees for all Tests, ODIs and Twenty20 matches for the next three years will be almost Taka 1 crore. But only if the player plays in all the matches. And therein lies the rub of perhaps the entire issue - none of those who have joined the ICL could be certain of playing every game for Bangladesh, or of his future in international cricket.

Bashar never got a chance to play an ODI after giving up the captaincy last May. By far Bangladesh's leading batsman of all time and their most successful captain, he was dropped from the side for the final Test against South Africa last February. He's been out of cricket for the seven months since, with not a single selector in touch with him, and has been forced into the category of "has-beens". There's more. Bashar has complained of being insulted during practice, of being taunted about his age and generally made to feel unwanted. This may or may not be true but it was his perception; for him, the ICL came as a blessing out of the blue.

 
 
Questions have been raised about the way the BCB handles players. One common complaint among players is that there's never been a sympathetic arm around the shoulder after a bad performance. Questions have been raised about the dressing-room culture in Bangladesh. Bashar has said the young players aren't leaving for money but because they don't enjoy playing for the national team
 

For the others, age was on their side but none was an automatic choice for the team. However, if their inconsistent performances were responsible for that, so were the inconsistencies of the selectors, which the players have pointed to while justifying their decision to join the ICL. Alok Kapali, who staged a comeback after one-and-a-half years with a superb century against India in the recent Asia Cup, has been denied a contract despite having played for Bangladesh in the last three series. For him, the comments of Rafiqul Alam, chief selector for the Australia tour, were the last straw. During discussions over the decision to join the ICL, Alam is alleged to have simply said, "There's no problem if you go, just tell us in time. We have lots of cricketers in our academy and Under-19 teams."

The Kapali incident has also raised questions about the way the BCB handles players. One common complaint among players is that there's never been a sympathetic arm around the shoulder after a bad performance. Nafees has had a good career, with a brilliant 138 against Australia early on and 1000 ODI runs in 2006; he was given the vice-captaincy in recognition of these talents. Yet he was not told why he was dropped for the Asia Cup earlier this year.

Some may consider these to be excuses, but serious questions have been raised about the dressing-room culture in Bangladesh. Bashar has said the young players aren't leaving for money but because they don't enjoy playing for the national team.

There could be another reason for this lack of enjoyment - Bangladesh's dismal performance following the World Cup. Series losses and widespread criticism may have made the pressure unbearable for many of the players. Maybe the ICL is an escape route from this pressure. Less pressure, more money - as I said, it's a no-brainer. I wonder how many of these players would have accepted the ICL offer had it come just after the last World Cup, when 'giant-killing' acts seemed to be second nature to the Bangladesh team?

What's happened has happened. The question now is, how will Bangladesh, already down, recover from this body blow? Coping as they were with inadequate player quality, how will they fill this huge hole? Whatever coach Jamie Siddons may think, the Test team needed Bashar and the others for a while longer. Similarly, a stroke-maker like Aftab will be missed in the ODI team. The potential of Kapali, praised by none other than Viv Richards, will be unfulfilled. The words of chief selector Alam may be laughable but they bear an unintended irony - Bangladesh's cricketers are so inconsistent that, with a few exceptions, one can't be distinguished from the other. The feats of Kapali, Aftab and Nafees aren't that great that they cannot be replicated - and whoever replaces them will be as inconsistent.

It's said one can find a positive in any disaster. You can find one here too. Because of the patchy performances of the players, the Bangladesh team never had a settled look all these days, and everyone cribbed about it. But look at it this way: losing them won't make that much of a difference. There was always a regret that they were inconsistent; now, because they were inconsistent, there shouldn't be any regrets!

Utpal Shuvro, the sports editor of Dhaka daily Prothom Alo, broke the story of the ICL's Bangladesh signings

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