Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Future of ICL

ICL, the Indian Cricket League, has been the ugly sister of domestic T20 events ever since the launching of the IPL. It is regarded in many quarters, not unfairly, as a place where only two types of players go: those past it, and those who aren't going anywhere. Since most of ICL's "international stars" are players looking to line their retirement nests with a few more greenbacks, I don't have much sympathy for them. Unfortunately, ICL teams are also home to many of India's young cricketers, who had lost all hope of ever making the national team when they put all their eggs into the Essel group's basket. Thanks to the BCCI's arrogant and in my opinion, illegal, ban on any players associated with the rebel league, their careers are pretty much over if the Essel group decides to call it a day. After all, ICL isn't setting the TRP charts on fire by any stretch of imagination. This would be a massive waste all around.

The BCCI owe the Essel group a huge debt of gratitude. If it weren't for the owners of Zee, the BCCI would never have been forced to launch what is possibly its greatest ever money-spinner, the Indian Premier League. It wasn't just money either. The IPL threw up many new stars, players previously completely unknown. The biggest beneficiary was Swapnil Asnodkar, a previously unknown Goa batsman, languishing in the Ranji Trophy's plate division, out of sight of the national selectors. His opening partnership with South Africa captain Graeme Smith was one of the main reasons that Rajasthan Royals emerged triumphant in the inaugural IPL. But who knows how many Swapnil Asnodkars play in the ICL? Will they be frozen out of the national side forever, just so the BCCI can make a few million more by strangling ICL in the cradle?

The ICC has just asked the BCCI to speak to the ICL. I can't remember the last time the BCCI listened to the ICC. The ICL is also planning legal action against the BCCI, probably on the basis of unfair trade practices. We all know how long court cases take in this country. Unless the BCCI willingly speaks to the Essel group, with the hope of reaching a constructive solution, the ICL is basically toast. Their viewership is not nearly enough to sustain them (I read somewhere that fewer than 5% of households have access to Zee Sports, the main broadcaster. Zee's dispute with TataSky can't be helping their subscriber base either). The franchises have virtually no fanbase to speak of, at least in Mumbai. Let's hope the BCCI puts the good of Indian cricket ahead of profits, for once. I won't be holding my breath.

How will cricket benefit? I was watching an ICL match the other day, I don't remember between who, but what struck me the most was how many names were familiar. In just that one match, played the following: Chris Harris (NZ ODI great), Shane Bond, Nantie Hayward, Abdul Razzaq (set WC '99 on fire), Jimmy Maher, Stuart Law, Ian Harvey, Russel Arnold and Justin Kemp. Not a bad collection of names for a limited-overs match. You could build a very decent team out of that bunch. There are plenty of other retired greats plying their trade in ICl too, Inzamam-ul-Haq and Brian Lara, to name two. Throw in a few unknown, but possibly talented Indian youngsters, and you will see that ICL isn't really lacking in quality, as much as it is in glamour. India would be missing out on a lot of hitherto untapped talent, talent which has benefited by playing alongside top-class internationals for a year, the same as their IPL counterparts.

What is the future of the ICL? It could go down the path of American baseball. Baseball in America, known collectively as Major League Baseball (MLB) consists of two leagues, known as the American League and the National League, although since 2000, the two have ceased to be distinct legal entities. The two leagues together have 30 franchises. At the end of each season, the champions of each league play each other in a best-of-seven series labeled, quite presumptuously these days, the World Series. Players can and do transfer between the two leagues. A similar structure would be the way to go for the BCCI, if they are forced to recognise ICL. They can cross their fingers and hope that ICL folds on its own, and the good players come back to the BCCI fold.

The other way could be simply to integrate the two leagues. This would increase overall competitiveness and there is a precedent for it, again in American sport. American football is played under the National Football League (NFL). However, briefly in the 1960s there was a rival league, known as the American Football League (AFL) started in response to resistance by the NFL towards expansion of the league to include more franchises. AFL started in 1960 and boasted of 10 franchises. It began by recruiting top college talent from under the noses of the NFL, then began raiding NFL squads for players. After finally establishing equality with NFL on the field and in the money stakes, the two leagues merged in 1969. Imagine the possibilities of a merged T20 league. There could be two divisions and relegation and promotion battles, a la soccer leagues, from which both leagues draw inspiration. With many of the franchises in the same city, there could be amazing local rivalries. Think of it: Mumbai Champs versus the Mumbai Indians, both curiously inaptly named teams (the Indians contain the maximum number of foreigners allowed, while the Champs sit at the bottom of the ICL table), the southern rivalries of Deccan Chargers, Hyderabad Heroes, Chennai Superstars and Chennai Super Kings. ICL also contains franchises not found in IPL, Ahmedabad, Lahore and Dhaka to name three.

The latter option is much harder for ICL but also more rewarding. By regularly playing against IPL teams, they would certainly earn a lot more money and get more exposure. But as mentioned earlier, AFL was only able to merge with NFL by proving its strength. The only way ICL can do this is to grab currently active international stars to play in their league. This is only possible if they can convince the other cricket boards to break ranks with the BCCI on the issue of banning ICL players from international cricket. It seems unlikely the BCCI will reverse its stand unless its hand is forced.

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