As the mauve coloured Mumbai Champs team bus started on its first promotional drive to roll out the Indian Cricket League (ICL) bandwagon last Saturday in Mumbai, one thing stood out. The slogan read: "ICL, the future of Indian cricket". This was slightly jarring: is Subhash Chandra's league really going to churn out youngsters ready and available for Indian cricket in the future? The BCCI, Indian cricket's governing body, anyway, has announced they have nothing to do with the ICL players.
Doubts persist over the veracity of ICL, but those who are a part of it have no doubt it's a noble venture. Rajesh Chauhan, the former India offspinner who left cricket in the mist of doubts over his bowling action, was one of the first men Kiran More approached earlier this summer. "I got the ICL offer from Kiran, who wanted me to begin first as a talent scout," says Chauhan, who is now the assistant coach to Sandeep Patil with the Champs. The 40-year-old Chauhan still looks in peak shape and is eager to share the knowledge he accrued playing the game at the highest level.
"Nine years after I left cricket this is the first time someone approached me" is Chauhan's prime reason for having joined ICL. He is anything but happy with the way he has been treated by the board. "I left cricket nine years ago but nobody from the BCCI or anyone involved with cricket talked to me or expressed their desire to take my help. I never got any support," says Chauhan, who now lives in Bhilai, a small town in Madhya Pradesh, and has an academy there.
Chauhan elaborates on what he feels was mistreatment from the BCCI. "I tried to give back to the game, but no-one was willing to open their doors." By bringing Chauhan, and others like him, on board, the ICL has given these players a sense of worth.
Robin Morris, once an upcoming allrounder for Mumbai, played his last first-class game three years ago - an Irani Trophy match, the first game of the 2004-05 season. "I took eight wickets in the match, but while fielding I suffered an injury to my right shoulder. Even though I was in pain I bowled 46 overs," reminisces Morris as he takes his lunch in the makeshift dressing room in a corner of the Western Railway ground. The injury aggravated and Morris had to take time off to recuperate. "Not one person from the Mumbai Cricket Association bothered to call me and consult me about my injury."
Just few months into the ICL fold, and Morris is already at home. "If ICL had been around three years ago, I would've joined without any hesitation. ICL is a very well-organised system" says Morris, who sees plenty of difference between the set-up back in the Mumbai training sessions and the ones at ICL. "There was no professionalism when I was playing for Mumbai. Thirty players would gather at the ground and there would be random chances with both bat and ball, but not enough. Here everybody gets fair opportunity."
Kiran Powar, a domestic veteran who has represented four states - Mumbai, Assam, Goa and Baroda - in his decade-long career says the difference between domestic cricket and the ICL is huge. "The amount of information we get from the backroom staff is such an eye-opener that now we think if we had had access to the same five years ago, we could've even played for the country."
Morris points out another vital difference. "There are international stars [at the practice] like [Nathan] Astle and [Johan] van der Wath who point out where we are good and where we might be going wrong." The international stars, even if they are retired, are a big attraction to the domestic players in the ICL. Dheeraj Jadhav, part of the India Test squad two years ago, believes the level of competition he'll face from the "well-balanced sides" in the ICL will stand him in good stead. "The competitive cricket I'll get to play at the ICL will help me boost my performance and it doesn't matter if I get a chance to play for India or not. That's another story."
Jadhav's is an interesting story. At 28, he should have ideally been plying his trade in the domestic circuit trying to fulfill the dream of playing for the country. His decision has been criticised as a rash one, but he has a different take on the matter.
"Last season, playing for Maharashtra, I played just the four-day games. Then I was dropped from the one-day team and told that I had fitness problems. Surprised, I asked them to give the fitness test, but that never happened. I missed the Deodhar Trophy and the Challenger events, which hurt my national chances. Now, should I be more bothered about doing my best to get into Test reckoning or should I divert my attention to getting back into my states squad, a state I've loyally represented from the beginning of my career?"
Even if the ICL had not happened, Jadhav, who captains Air India, his regular employer, had made up his mind to quit Maharashtra. He doesn't deny that money was an important factor in his making up his mind. In retrospect, Jadhav might have perhaps taken too hasty a decision, but he is not lamenting. "As a professional cricketer I did take into account the money factor and it definitely counted a lot in my deciding in favour of the ICL."
The financial aspect has been a big factor in many domestic players signing on ICL's dotted line. Each player has a contract of three years, with the rates varying according to the stature of the player. Unconfirmed reports suggest that players of Jadhav's stature might be getting anywhere in the range of around Rs 80 lakhs. Apart from this, the players also receive Rs 2000 as daily allowance (state associations pays domestic players anywhere between Rs 500-1000). If Jadhav had been representing any state, his overall earnings, including the sponsorship, would have been around Rs 15 lakh.
Says Jadhav: "If I perfom well, the ICL people have assured me of their full backing." Jadhav doesn't want to discuss the fine print, but is confident that ICL will deliver. Morris and Powar say that it's the exposure and the feeling of walking out with the likes of Brian Lara (whose absence at the training sessions remains grist for rumour mills) and Inzmam-ul-Haq is irresistible. "Previously no-one would know that I was playing out there. With ICL I know that people will recognise me," says Morris with a smile.
These players could be speaking for all the domestic cricketers who opted to play for the ICL defying all the threats and bans of the BCCI. The ICL has given them a second life. A life where they see an opportunity to create an identity for themselves.
Nagraj Gollapudi is an assistant editor at Cricinfo