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Indian league little threat to world game

During the the schism brought about by Kerry Packer’s hijacking of world cricket in the late 1970s, one statement from Ray Steele, the treasurer of the Australian Cricket Board, was enough to know that the game was up. At the same time that Packer was in the process of spending A$25 million setting up and televising World Series Cricket, Steele announced that he had not been able to sell the commercial television rights for Australia’s 1977-78 international season. The subsequent revelation that he had negotiated a $1,000 increase, from $9,000 to $10,000, for the rights to the domestic limited-overs competition was greeted with great joy by the board members. These dinosaurs were about to suffer extinction.

Packer’s name has cropped up again this week in relation to the ZEE TV-backed Indian Cricket League, which a short time ago announced the names of 50 cricketers who have blown a huge raspberry to their respective cricket boards by joining the league. Javed Miandad urged the Pakistan Cricket Board to take a more conciliatory line than their Indian counterparts by not banning those Pakistan cricketers who had joined up because the ICL had the “potential to be like the Packer series and snowball into something big”. The general consensus is that the ICL represents a serious threat.

I don’t think so. Packer’s success in commercialising cricket, and in the process ensuring that cricketers everywhere received a fairer deal, is the very reason why the ICL presents little threat to the stability of the world game. By and large, international cricketers are happy with their lot and, as with the rise of political extremism, the conditions for revolution demand a growing body of people simmering and disaffected with the status quo.

Packer fed upon the disillusioned in the late 1970s. Great cricketers were served by administrators who were so far out of their depth, and out of tune with the changing times, that they could not sense the danger. Dogs and lamp-posts summed up the then relationship between administrators and players. While there will always be some sense of wariness between the two, the modern-day player knows that he gets a much bigger slice of the pie now than ever before. He may be weary with the amount of cricket he must play, but he is weary and wealthy.

That is the reason why, with the exception of Mohammad Yousuf, not one big-name player with a future rather than a past has signed up. Not one contracted player from India, Australia, West Indies or England has been lured. South Africa are hardly weakened by the loss of fading stars such as Lance Klusener and Nicky Boje. (Boje’s signing is interesting not from a cricketing viewpoint but because he has refused on numerous occasions in the past to travel to India because of fear of being questioned by Delhi police in connection with match-fixing allegations.) While Packer could call upon Clive Lloyd, the Chappell brothers, Dennis Lillee and the rest of the best, so far the ICL has persuaded a less-than-thrilling combination of international has-beens and domestic players who never-were and never-will-be.

Nor have there been signings of note from Indian domestic cricket. For a time now, it has been easy to argue that the lowly first-class cricketer in India, as opposed to his international cousin, has been badly served, even exploited by the Indian board. The public has been in thrall to the Tendulkars and the Dravids and the administrators have been preoccupied with exploiting the cash cow that is international cricket. The level below, which produces the former and without which the latter cannot flourish, has been ignored.

But conditions have been improving, and the ICL is likely to force the Indian board to improve them further, reducing the incentive for any domestic cricketer to leave the fold. The board pay domestic cricketers 13 per cent of their net profits. For the year 2006-07, those profits rose from 45 Crores to 232 Crores, so a domestic player can now expect to earn 25,000 Rupees per playing day, equivalent to £22,000 a year, a very good wage in India.

The assembled hacks in Mumbai must have found it hard to suppress a snigger as Kapil Dev announced to the stage the 44 domestic Indian players who have signed up. They were, he said, “the cream” of Indian cricket; such giants of the game as Reetinder Singh Sodhi, Laxmi Ratan Shukla and Abishek Jhunjhunwala. Sachin Tendulkar and Rahul Dravid must be quivering with fear at the threat to their commercial hegemony.

The ‘cream’ that Kapil referred to was effectively a combination of a few washed-up international players, like Dinesh Mongia, a number of domestic veterans (about half of the 44 were over 27 years of age, and therefore past the point where they might expect to have a serious international future) and a smaller number of younger players with genuine prospects. A number of state associations have been hit hard, but India may be thankful for the hurricane which is effectively blowing through the system, washing away many cricketers who, since they have no serious international ambitions, are clogging it up. County cricket could do with something similar.

Packer’s revolution was born out of a genuine financial need among cricketers, conditions that barely exist today. It was successful because it pitted one shrewd, ruthless and forward-thinking businessman against the dinosaurs of Australian cricket administration. But Lalit Modi, the man who controls Indian cricket’s purse strings, is no Ray Steele, and the BCCI are no dinosaurs. They are as financially shrewd and as ruthless as Packer ever was.

An aggressive response from them was always likely. Kapil was sacked almost immediately from his position as chairman of the National Academy and since the BBCI are not prepared to sanction the ICL, they have effectively branded all those who have signed up as rebels. Already, it has been reported that Shukla has backed down (“What I earn from Bengal is decent enough,” he said) and one or two others are having second thoughts.

More than that, it has been reported that the BCCI are in the process of setting up their own international domestic Twenty20 competition, and that they have been in talks with Australia about this for months. As rumours of the ICL have swirled around, India’s administrators have not been idle. Setting up their own competition would completely scupper the ICL initiative. My understanding is that the England and Wales Cricket Board have yet to be approached about this.

In all the brouhaha surrounding the ICL, the suspicion remains that it is not the interests of the Indian first-class cricketers that are at the heart of this venture, or indeed the interests of cricket as a whole, but simply the frustrations of a television owner who cannot slake the cricketing thirst of his viewers.

One man provides the link between the Packer revolution then and the ICL now. Tony Greig cut a rather heroic figure 30 years ago as he accompanied Packer to the famous High Court victory. Greig’s latest association with a cash-rich media magnate is likely to have less far-reaching consequences.

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Categories: Cricket News, icl info
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