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Will IPL franchise owners swallow international cricket whole?

They have set down roots all over the world and made the international game feel increasingly superfluous. But ultimately the fans will decide

Osman Samiuddin
Osman Samiuddin
Rohit Sharma won his third IPL title as captain, Mumbai Indians v Rising Pune Supergiant, IPL final, Hyderabad, May 21, 2017

Man of many hats: this year Rohit Sharma's captaincy roles at national team and franchise level came into conflict with each other  •  Tsering Topgyal/Associated Press

Soon after India's recent ODI series loss to Australia, in which they had been badly stung by injuries, Rohit Sharma was asked about the Indian team's plans for workload management during the IPL. There are two world titles at stake this year for them - although every year nowadays there is a world title - and the IPL can be a gruelling tournament. The subtext: Rohit, how might the IPL affect India's shot at international glory?
"I mean, it's all up to the franchises now," he responded, as he searched for the right note to strike. This right note was important. "The franchises own them [the players] now, so we've given some indications or some kind of borderline kind of thing to the teams. But at the end of the day, it's up to the franchise, and most importantly it's the players, you know, they have to take care of their own body.
"They [players] are all adults. So they have to look after their body and just, if they feel that it's getting a little too much, they can always talk about it and have a break in one or two games. I doubt [if] that will happen but."
It was a coy little play, all knowing smiles, and for that last sentence, a raised eyebrow too. The franchises have control. India have a little say, and oh, sure, the players… lol, who am I kidding, it's all the franchises. This being a post-game press conference, there was no chance of taking this conversation any further.
No such restrictions here, though.
Because what we had here was a slightly absurd situation. Here was Rohit Sharma, India captain, revealing that India had given some guidelines to IPL franchises to manage workloads of players India will bank on for their twin challenges this year; IPL franchises where - double-checking notes - Rohit Sharma is captain of Mumbai Indians, one of the most powerful and successful of those franchises. He was wearing the India cap when he said this. Soon he'll be wearing the Mumbai Indians cap, and then, at an IPL press conference, if we're lucky, he might be asked to respond to Rohit Sharma, India captain, and who knows, he might explain that India captain Rohit was right to doubt it, and that perhaps he had better be less coy about it next time.
Different cap, different priorities, but same head. Whether it's Rohit, Mumbai and their India players or another franchise is not as important as what this Black Mirror-esque scene distils - namely a future in which all that might be left is a calendar face-off between ICC events and the IPL.
If at one level this was Rohit (Ind) talking to Rohit (MI), at another it was the BCCI talking to the IPL, all as a subtweet at the ICC. Usually this conversation and tension happens with and to other players and other countries. But now it's the captain of the game's richest, biggest member country suggesting that the biggest league in the sport, the second-biggest in all sport, where he captains the most expensive franchise, has an inevitable priority. The ICC can cope with the odd Australian, English or West Indian player missing their tournaments. Indian players, though? Players from the team that, we are forever reminded, remains the reason international cricket is alive?
This might sound a little alarmist, and maybe right now it is. But take a moment to log the current breadth and span of the IPL and its franchises across the calendar. (Admittedly, the league, owned by the BCCI, and the franchises are somewhat distinct, and their interests not necessarily aligned, but that distinction is lost on a global calendar.) Between the end of the last IPL and the end of this year's, Mumbai Indians - or a franchise owned by Mumbai Indians in another T20 league - will have played a minimum of 34 T20s. The same will be true for Kolkata Knight Riders and Delhi Capitals, both of whom also each own franchises in three other leagues. In that same period only India, of all international sides, will have played more T20s. From July, with the launch of Major League Cricket (MLC) in the US, there will be a minimum of five more games for Mumbai- and Kolkata-owned franchises, as well as for Chennai Super Kings (who have teams in two other leagues).
Consider that across those leagues, Mumbai Indians currently employ 62 different players, Kolkata Knight Riders 56, and Delhi Capitals 60. With 18-man squads in the MLC, and accounting for overlaps, that will be upwards of 70 players. IPL franchises, in other words, employ more players across the world, across the calendar, than any board and its central-contracts pool. Many more. We're not even counting coaching and support staff.
Yes there is more international cricket in this FTP than in the last. But less and less of it with any meaning, and more and more of it feels secondary to this IPL footprint, spanning four major leagues, playing in total for nearly six months over the year, all of it with a point that is the point of all major sports: to win a league. Is this not the future that cricket has obsessed over since the start of the IPL - in which it takes over the international calendar? The future some have feared and some have eagerly awaited?
Well, three new leagues, in South Africa, UAE and the US, all with significant IPL investment, popping up in recent months have dropped that future on the calendar like a bomb. But really, scanning through the last 15 years, everything has built gradually, inexorably, to this moment: the future by a thousand cuts, creeping up every time a tour game was cut from an itinerary; or a player arrived on tour two days before a game; or a second XI turned up for an international series because most players from the first were at the IPL. Whenever a central contract was turned down for freelancing; or three-Test series slowly died; or the IPL got a two-month window in the international FTP without anybody admitting explicitly that it had happened.
That window is now two-and-a-half-months wide, though it's also a bit of a red herring in this discussion. The number of IPL matches will in time increase to nearly 100, but the window itself might not. Not for a while anyway, with monsoons at one end of it and the WPL (another league with IPL involvement) hemming it in from the other.
But that window doesn't need to expand when the franchises are expanding instead, controlling calendar space wherever they go. And for all that they have already spread, there is more ground to spread upon. Both England and Australia have grappled - flirted? - for years with the idea of IPL investment in their major tournaments. The Hundred is making losses. The BBL has stagnated. IPL franchises are waiting with bated breath. How long before both the ECB and Cricket Australia decide, like the rest of the world, that private equity is the boost their tournaments need?
Once those dominos fall, what's left? A lopsided, laughably tiny WTC, meaningless white-ball bilaterals and ICC events. In which case, how long before the calendar rationalises itself and squeezes out the bilateral international excess to leave just the IPL, its proxy leagues, and ICC events (which still hold some cachet)? It is only natural that fans will choose and keep alive only what they want, and that the rest of it - some leagues, maybe Tests, maybe international white-ball cricket - will wither away.
Or how long before the BCCI forces that rationalisation on cricket, because, let's be real now, this does hinge mostly on the good graces/proactivity of the BCCI. This is, after all, actually about control of the game within India, between the BCCI, which owns the IPL, and IPL franchise owners. The former employs Indian players year-round, and the latter employ them for a part of the year but would love to start employing them in their interests elsewhere, where the presence of Indian players can make or break a league. Once this is figured out, the international calendar is dust.
For now the BCCI is either unwilling or unready to make a move, aware of the delicate balance of this moment - that Rohit answer, for example, the one that hints at the unsaid tensions here, has been edited out from the video of the press conference that is up on the BCCI's site. It is the only answer cut from the entire interaction, as if taking it out might make it stop existing.
Ultimately, it's hard to sustain the argument that this might be all bad. Not when it gives players greater agency, treats them better and pays them better than ever before. Or when it provides fans a calendar with regularity, consistency and meaning, which they have never had. Nearly 200 years old and international cricket scheduling is still an abstract, as if each of the 12 Full Members arrive at scheduling meetings with their own 1000-piece jigsaws, shrug, throw all their pieces on the floor, pretend the mess represents a giant, completed jigsaw, and walk away, proclaiming it is the new FTP.
We began with Rohit, so too we end. A couple of seasons ago he injured his hamstring in the IPL. There was an Australia tour soon after that season, the preeminent bilateral rivalry of this age. The BCCI's medical panel, the coach and board president all advised him not to hurry back, to make sure he was fit for Australia. Rohit ignored them, trained, and returned to play in the IPL. Subsequently, he was not, it turned out, fit enough (with Covid quarantines an added complication) to make the start of the Australia tour. He made it in time to play the last two Tests but the choice that he made was clear.
At least then it still felt like it was a choice, with inherent risks, and he had to make it. That jeopardy is gone now. It isn't a choice anymore.

Osman Samiuddin is a senior editor at ESPNcricinfo