Until February 2021, Chetan Sakariya was known mainly for his performances in domestic cricket with Saurashtra. Before that, Sakariya, the sole breadwinner in his family, juggled between helping his uncle run his stationery business and trying to make a name for himself as a cricketer. He made his first-class debut in 2018. In March 2020, he was part of the Ranji Trophy-winning Saurashtra team. Sakariya's share of the prize money was "big" but it paled in comparison to his INR 1.2 crore IPL deal with the Rajasthan Royals in 2021. Sakariya has now been picked in India's limited-overs team for the Sri Lanka series.
"People are saying stop IPL [because of the pandemic]. But it has helped families like ours," Sakariya told ESPNcricinfo recently. "My father [who died in May this year] was down with poor health. Had this tournament not happened, I couldn't have afforded treatment for him. Now, I can think of my sister's education. Or building a house for the family in Rajkot."
Like Sakariya, Gharami comes from a family with modest means. As a kid, he used to play with a bat his father had fashioned from processed wood. The money he earned from the Under-23s for Bengal was just about enough to build a small house for his family in Naihati, around 50 kilometres from Kolkata. He admits to worrying about finances but is even more hassled about the lull in his still-nascent career.
"It has been difficult for everyone, but some of us, who don't live in Kolkata but in the suburbs or villages, have been affected more," he says. "There is no proper place to train here. I stay with my relatives and train in Kolkata. That has been tough this year.
"Money is an issue, but it isn't the biggest thing for me at this stage of my career. I am not a contracted player anyway. But yes, not playing properly for a year is tough. I have now signed with East Bengal, and I hear that this year we will have a full season in Bengal. Last year we only had the one-day matches and T20s. CAB [the Cricket Association of Bengal] has arranged for vaccination for everyone, so once that happens, it will be best for everyone."
'Passing the parcel' of accountability
Sakariya and Gharami. Two players whose lives, and livelihoods, follow a similar track. Until one gets an IPL contract and the other doesn't. It's the story of many others in Indian cricket: between 750 and 800 players feature in any men's domestic season on an average; barely 10% of them get an IPL team.
The differences in salaries has been stark since the IPL began; the pandemic has made it worse, by wiping out chunks of the domestic calendar. Last season's men's calendar featured only the 20-over Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy and the 50-over Vijay Hazare Trophy. And the IPL. No Ranji Trophy, which forms the bulk of a domestic cricketer's match time, and income. The women's calendar - in urgent need of a facelift anyway, especially in the absence of multi-day or Under-16 tournament - too was shortened, with only the one-day competition held.
The coming season looks more promising, with the BCCI announcing a lengthy calendar from September 2021 with 2127 matches - men's, women's and age-group categories included. The players' response, though, has been muted. They want clarity on compensation for the missed domestic tournaments. And those who haven't been paid for the matches that were staged last season want that issue sorted too.
When he took over as BCCI president in November 2019, Sourav Ganguly had said that one of his priorities would be to introduce central contracts for domestic players. Eighteen months on, nothing has moved. In June, the BCCI announced the formation of a three-member apex panel to investigate the issue of compensation "at the earliest". Three weeks on, no one knows who the members of the panel are, and what the solution is. A senior player described situation as a game of "passing the parcel" between the board and the associations.
"It's a misconception that those who have government jobs are paid handsomely. That said, we are still much better off than many hundreds of cricketers who don't even have a job to fall back on"Chhattisgarh allrounder Vishal Kushwah
Until the 2017-18 season, the domestic players were paid in two instalments: a flat match fee and a bonus calculated on a pro-rata basis based on the BCCI's Gross Revenue Share (GRS) - essentially its non-IPL revenue from media rights, team sponsorship rights, apparel sponsorship rights, series sponsorship rights etc. This would be paid the following year after the accounts were ratified at the annual general meeting.
Since 2018, though, the GRS component has been added to the match fees, leading to a near 200% hike. The players now get INR 35,000 per day for a first-class game and one-dayers, and INR 17,500 for T20s.
The problem, though, is the need to calculate and ratify the GRS component, exacerbated by the absence of an AGM over the past three years, first because the BCCI was run by the Committee of Administrators and then because of the pandemic.
"Sometimes there are delays in the invoices coming from the associations to the BCCI, and there have been delays because a lot of state associations had not adhered to the BCCI constitution," a BCCI insider explained. "I think some players received money on time because their invoices came on time; players from some association faced difficulties and delays. Some new associations didn't know what to do."
Where the grass is greener...
Some players have been exploring other avenues. Yes, players who are within the system, the system of the richest cricket board in the world, are looking for opportunities elsewhere.
Vishal Kushwah, the Chhattisgarh allrounder, featured in the limited-overs competitions in 2020-21, and even trialled with a few IPL teams - without luck. While he is employed with the auditor-general's office in Raipur, the lack of a cricketing income led to him looking for opportunities in the UK.
"It's a misconception that those who have government jobs are paid handsomely," he said. "That said, we are still much better off than many hundreds of cricketers who don't even have a job to fall back on."
He is now with Colony Bay Cricket Club on a five-month contract that pays him £ 1000 a month, "just about enough" to get by. "The club has given me an accommodation, but all other expenses are mine. It's not easy to save from the contract, but at least my essentials are taken care of," he said. "I have loans to pay back at home, so I thought at least this will give me something to keep going. My employers have been kind enough to grant me leave, although a portion of my time in the UK is on leave without pay."
Ravi Yadav, the Madhya Pradesh left-arm seamer who entered the record books when he became the first to pick up a hat-trick in his first over on first-class debut, used his fees from his debut season to build a cricket academy on the outskirts of Firozabad, his hometown (in Uttar Pradesh).
"I spent my savings of the past two years to build a small facility," he said. "I don't have a job outside of cricket, so I need to find a way to run my house not just alongside my cricket but even afterwards. I am [almost] 30. I only play days' cricket. Last season, I wasn't picked for the T20s or one-dayers, so there was zero income.
"What is disheartening is the association asks us to contact the BCCI and there is no one in the BCCI to tell us where we stand. All we want is a point of contact with regards to domestic cricket. I don't think that is asking for too much"Anonymous domestic cricketer
"The lockdown came and my academy shut down, so that income stream was cut off too. I've struggled to make ends meet over the last 18 months. Hopefully, things will improve."
The announcement of a proper season offers a glimmer of hope to the less privileged of these cricketers. The prospect of two new teams being added to the IPL and the impending mega auction before it could also serve as motivation for many.
"When we keep playing regularly, you tend to ignore certain aspects," Kerala allrounder Jalaj Saxena said. "I had personally worked on the mental aspect, in the absence of match practice or a regular season. When you go on to the field, there are so many emotions you go through. When you're bowling, you're at times anxious to pick wickets. When you're not scoring runs, you're eager to get in that one big score. Sometimes, when you let emotions rule, it gets difficult. There are breathing techniques I have practiced that have made me calmer and helped me make better decisions.
"I am a lot more relaxed now. Sometimes, emotions and performances don't go hand-in-hand, so you have to detach yourself. I've practiced yoga every day in this period, it has helped me connect with each and every part of my body."
Until December last year, Saba Karim, the former India wicketkeeper, was the one-point contact for matters relating to domestic cricket in his capacity as BCCI's general manager - cricket operations. More than one player has said that his departure has led to a disconnect between them and the people in charge.
"What is disheartening is the association asks us to contact the BCCI and there is no one in the BCCI to tell us where we stand," a senior player said. "All we want is a point of contact with regards to domestic cricket. I don't think that is asking for too much."
Domestic contracts are a reality for players in most top cricket-playing nations. However, the sheer volume of players and associations they deal with on a regular basis makes BCCI's job that much more challenging.
But the BCCI has pulled off more challenging tasks in the past, like moving an IPL season to South Africa in under three weeks, or finding ways to even fit in the remainder of the IPL season in the UAE amid a crammed international calendar and the pandemic. As a number of players have highlighted, it perhaps comes down to - that word again - intent.
Shashank Kishore is a senior sub-editor at ESPNcricinfo