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Cricket: Indian officials wrestle with breakaway league

While India’s team struggles in England, the attention of tits administrators is firmly fixed on events at home.

India lost at Birmingham on Monday to go 2-1 down in an interminable seven-match series of one-day internationals against England. It is not just because its team had already won the more prestigious five-day test series that this reverse will have paled for the administrators of the Board of Control for Cricket in India. Potentially far more important was a defeat it suffered on the same day in the Delhi High Court.

The court ruled that players who join the rebel Indian Cricket League cannot be fired from jobs. While the action by the players was against Air India and the India Oil Corporation, which both employ a number of provincial-level players and had given notice of dismissal, it applies equally to the BCCI and other employers.

The ICL plan is for a series of matches in the newly popular 20-over-a-side format among six teams composed of a mix of Indian and international players. While the league has announced the signing of around 50 players, it has yet to set a schedule.

What gives it muscle, and is scaring the powerful BCCI, is that the league is sponsored by Zee television, India’s largest media conglomerate. The BCCI’s wealth, the greatest of any cricket organization, is built on television contracts.

The ICL immediately conjures memories of the World Series Cricket launched 30 years ago by the Australian television magnate, Kerry Packer. There are parallels both in the pivotal importance of television money and the court case, which echoes Packer’s victory in the British high court over English cricket’s attempts to fire players.

Like Zee, Packer had failed to secure the rights to broadcast national team games in controversial circumstances.

There is, though, one massive difference. One reason Packer succeeded, forcing the Australian authorities into a deal that has allowed his companies to dominate the nation’s cricket coverage ever since, was that the players of the time were grotesquely underpaid.

Packer was able to sign almost the entire squads of West Indies and Australia, the dominant powers of the time, plus enough of the best of the rest of the world to form a powerful third team.

Current test players, in particular the stars of the Indian team, are much better rewarded. The ICL would have to pay exceptionally well to persuade established players to risk their careers, particularly with the International Cricket Council warning that it will withhold recognition of the matches if the BCCI wishes.

None of the Indian squad currently touring England was among the 51 names announced earlier this month by the ICL frontman Kapil Dev, India’s greatest-ever all-round player, who was fired as director of the BCCI’s National Academy for his involvement.

The five foreign players are Pakistan’s Inzamam Ulhaq, Abdul Razzaq and Mohammed Yousuf, and the South Africans Lance Klusener and Nicky Boje. The rest were Indians, ranging from former test players, like the Bengal captain Deep Dasgupta, to others only on the fringes of provincial teams.

One underwhelmed local critic said that the typical ICL team looked likely to be composed of “three international has-beens, two domestic has-beens and six domestic never-weres.”

Inzamam is one of the half dozen best batsmen of the last 20 years, but at 37 is at the end of his career. So, too, is the West Indian Brian Lara, the all-time test record run-scorer, who is reported to have signed. Klusener, nearly 36, has retired from tests. Boje, a spin-bowler, has until now avoided India following implications of match-fixing. Razzaq is a perennial underachiever.

The name that stands out is Yousuf, who is 33 and set single-year records for runs and centuries in tests in 2006. He would be a savage loss to Pakistan, whose board has announced that it willfire ICL players.

Much will depend on how successful ICL is in recruiting players of his quality.

Signing other midcareer test players from Pakistan, Sri Lanka or New Zealand would turn a domestic issue into an international one. The New Zealand pace bowler Shane Bond was reported on Zee’s own cricket Web site to have received a “staggering” offer.

Signing one or more of India’s current stars would transform the league’s commercial prospects. Without them, ICL will be offering an unproven format – India is the one country so far immune to the quickfire charm of 2020 – and little star quality.

Subhash Chandra, the head of Essel Group, which owns Zee, told the Hindustan Times that the competition would run parallel to the domestic leagues run by the BCCI.

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