August 1, 2012

India, look after your young

Four ways the BCCI can make first-class cricket as attractive as the IPL to budding cricketers

India have slipped to No. 5 in the Test rankings - their lowest in the last five years. Even though rankings mean little unless taken in context, India's decline in Test cricket is apparent. They were No. 1 when they arrived in England last year. By the time they finished their series in Australia six months later, one of the best eras of Indian cricket had come to an end.

In the last four parts of my review of Indian cricket, I examined some of the problems: While there's an apparent dearth of quality openers, the middle-order has showed some promise. Quality spinners aren't coming through the ranks, but there's hope in the seam bowling department. In the final part of this series, I will look at ways to encourage young Indian players to not only play first-class cricket but to mould their games to suit the demands of Test cricket.

Sachin Tendulkar said recently that there's no system to ensure that youngsters like Test cricket, because it has to come from within. Quite true. The general consensus is that the younger generation of cricketers prefers T20 over other formats. But there's a distinction between liking T20 and playing in the IPL. If you take away the glamour and the money from the IPL, many cricketers would give the tournament a miss.

Before you accuse me of it, let me assure you this isn't another excuse to slam the IPL. It is about finding ways to make first-class cricket in India more relevant. Unfortunately the IPL has created several problems for Indian cricket. The solution isn't to abandon or condemn the league but to give first-class and national cricket preference over it. If the IPL loses a bit of its sheen in the process, it will be a small price for India to pay for climbing back to the top.

Bring parity between IPL and Ranji payments
At the risk of upsetting a few players and sounding like a radical, I suggest that to make sure cricketers take the longer format as seriously as the IPL, the BCCI bridge the gap between the money an uncapped IPL player makes and what a first-class player earns in a season. At present the gulf is so huge that anyone in his right mind would happily sacrifice his first-class career to be a part of the IPL. Remember, financial insecurity was the root cause for the exodus to the Indian Cricket League.

There are only two ways to bring parity: substantially increase the money a first-class cricketer makes in a season, and limit how much a player with fewer than 50 India appearances can earn during an IPL season.

No matter how impressive you have been in the IPL, if you can't back it up with strong domestic and India A results, you should not stand a chance of getting picked for ODI and Test cricket

All the uncapped players are likely to go under the hammer next season. It will be worth including in this list players like Saurabh Tiway, Shikhar Dhawan and M Vijay, who haven't yet played 50 games for India each.

Also, set the cap on what a player can receive close to what he would normally make in a first-class season. Franchises can bid higher for such a player, with the amount bid over and above going to the IPL. This cash can later be routed back to first-class cricket and be deducted from a franchise's overall purse.

If the BCCI thinks bringing parity in payments for uncapped players in the IPL and domestic cricketers will make a large dent in their finances (there are over 500 cricketers who play first-class cricket every year), they can at least try to match the IPL payments for the top 20 batsmen, bowlers and allrounders (so 60 in all) in the domestic circuit through a bonus clause.

Such an arrangement will encourage young Indian players to work hard on the first-class circuit to reach that coveted 50-appearances mark, while those who are still only playing first-class cricket will try to finish among of the season's top performers. Some players may lose out on the money they deserve but Indian cricket will benefit on the whole.

Base selections only on first-class performances
Another way to ensure that first-class cricket stays relevant is to make sure national selection is always based on four-day performances. No matter how impressive you have been in the IPL, if you can't back it up with strong domestic and India A results, you should not stand a chance of getting picked for ODI and Test cricket. The moment India start picking players from the IPL, they devalue their first-class set-up, which leads to players losing focus. Yes, there's a need to improve the standard of first-class cricket in India but that doesn't mean IPL performances should count for more. After all how many IPL success stories have made a significant mark in international cricket so far, even in T20 cricket?

Protect Indian assets during the IPL
The BCCI must assume complete control over its contracted players, even during the IPL. If a player is nursing an injury and needs to immediately take a break, the BCCI must step in to ensure he does, while also compensating the player and the franchise.

While it's convenient to expect players to forego large sums of money to remain fit for the Indian team, if we don't want another situation where most players miss the international tour that follows the IPL, like with India's tour to the West Indies in 2011, the board needs to secure the players' interests.

Protect young spinners from the IPL
Part three of my review highlighted the dearth of good spinners in the domestic set-up. It is important to ensure that the few promising ones aren't lost to the IPL. Once identified as future prospects for India, these youngsters must be kept away from the IPL till they are mature enough to handle the demands of T20 cricket without compromising the skills they need to succeed in the longer format. It's for the BCCI to ensure that these youngsters are looked after properly and that they don't lose out financially. Quality spinners are an endangered species and must be protected.

Former India opener Aakash Chopra is the author of Out of the Blue, an account of Rajasthan's 2010-11 Ranji Trophy victory. His website is here and his Twitter feed here