The foreign cast

Munaf Patel and Jermaine Lawson may not quite be the Messi-Ronaldinho-Eto'o dream combination but such exotic pairings have a certain resonance. Currently it's only in England that overseas players add spice and value to talented local teams on a regular and widespread basis. Just last month, while Mushtaq Ahmed was spinning Sussex to county glory, Shane Warne was bowling bouncers from a standing start at the Rose Bowl, frustrated as he was with the opposition's safety-first attitude. Elsewhere in the county circuit, there was Darren Lehman, Stuart Law, Brad Hodge, and other international stars livening up things in their own inimitable ways.

At around the same time, in another continent, in another setting, Ajay Shirke, an entrepreneur from Maharashtra was busy striking a deal with Lawson, the West Indies fast bowler capable of flustering the likes of Australia. In India, Maharashtra has taken the lead in this regard having got Darren Holder as their director of cricket last year, and 'importing' Munaf, Sairaj Bahutule, Sridharan Sriram, Chandrakant Pandit by getting them to shift allegiance from their original states.

The Rajasthan Cricket Association soon followed suit. They roped in Kabir Ali and Vikram Solanki from England to play for Rajasthan, who have always languished in the Plate Division since the Ranji championships was divided into Elite and Plate in 1999. Any obstacle, if there ever was, to foreign players coming and playing in India, was recently cleared by Niranjan Shah, the BCCI secretary, who qualified foreigners as out-station players and said three such players were allowed to represent a Ranji side.

Earlier inter-state transfers used to serve either of the two purposes: provide a veteran a chance to add two to three years to his career by moving to a weaker side, or for a young man a chance to get noticed by moving to a strong side. But now, as Munaf's switch from Mumbai to Maharashtra shows, the associations are actually buying players to win. Munaf, Bahutule, and coach Pandit moved from Mumbai to Maharashtra in a move that was one of its kind. "I have a sort of set-up in my mind, where we have two to three professionals in the side guiding the raw young players," says Shirke, an advocate of free movement as in a perfectly competitive market. In fact, why just three out-station players, he queried. And nor is he holding back money when it comes to hiring professionals.

"Some 15 years ago, the Indian national players used to participate in the domestic league, so the standard was quite good. But now that they are hardly available, we had to bring in somebody," says Pandit. "Foreign players will serve the dual purpose. They will make us more competitive and also help our budding players. They will bring with them new ideas which we can benefit from."

Maharashtra's inclination has been towards roping in fast bowlers, what with Lawson, Darren Gough, and Tino Best's names doing the newspaper rounds. "We are looking at really good fast bowlers, or allrounders. Australia and New Zealand players may not be available because their season clashes with ours. Still, we are not going to bring just about anybody to just make a statement," says Shirke.

Any obstacle, if there ever was, to foreign players coming and playing in India, was recently cleared by Niranjan Shah, the BCCI secretary, who qualified foreigners as out-station players and said three such players were allowed to represent a Ranji side

No name has been finalised as yet, but Pandit thinks good pace bowlers can combine well and also help develop the already available talent. This, again, shows a basic shift in strategy: rather than woo a foreign batsman to come and get better exposure to spin bowling, now state teams are looking to get fast bowlers to help them win matches. However, Anshuman Gaekwad, former Indian coach, has a word of caution. "If they can help Indian cricketers, it is very good. But if the sole purpose is to win matches, this is a nuisance," he says.

A substantial increase in the state associations' budgets is another factor that has motivated domestic teams to look out for foreign cricketers. A state association that hosts Tests and ODIs used to get Rs 7 crore per year earlier; that has been increased to Rs 12 crore. An association that hosts only ODIs used to get Rs 6 crore; now they will be getting Rs 8 crore per year. The corresponding figures for an association that doesn't host an international are Rs 4 crore and Rs 6 crore. "This money had to be utilised. It just happens that we are the first ones. Someone had to take the lead," says Pandit. "When the board [BCCI] is taking the initiative, we also should put the money to proper use."

Is the England County set up the model? "If more and more teams think like us, why not?" says Pandit. The move has the potential to become a revolution. An exceptional performance from Maharashtra will certainly help. "Our results will set the tone. But right now, the attitude is typified by a senior board official who told me I won't be elected the next time if I bring in foreign players. I said, sorry my aim is to improve the standard of competition, not get elected," Shirke says.

Even last year, they were the most impressive team, apart from UP. They even beat big-brother Mumbai, only for the second time in Ranji history. If they can continue with their present form, the Shirke structure of two to three professionals working in tandem with homegrown talent could become an ideal mix for the other Ranji teams as well.

But with the kind of money around, this could provoke a race among the state teams to grab the best overseas talent. Transfer window, a term more popular in the football leagues, may become relevant to Indian cricket, not only for overseas transfers but also inter-state. In that scenario what will be critical will be the choice of the player for it will be unfortunate if the teams get caught up in upstaging each other and sign up spent forces or unsuccessful players.

But all that is well into the future. Right now, to see Munaf and Lawson operate in tandem will be a local Maharashta fan's dream and something that should, overall, bode well for the prospects of Indian domestic cricket.