When cricketers worried about the market
March 21, 2008
My piece appeared on Rediff.com yesterday.
It is in no small part due to the ICL that a certain class of cricketer can now be concerned about the whimsies of the stock market. In a warm hotel room in Chandigarh, this is indeed what Dhruv Mahajan is presently worrying about. Mahajan is 28 and to be married in one month. Now he’s a member of the Indian Cricket League with the Delhi Giants, a world away from the Jammu and Kashmir Ranji side he represented since 1999, and even led for four years. “Aaj bhi bada dard hai,” he says, wrapped in a quilt. CNBC, on mute, has only bad news for him. “Now whoever puts his money in, bhool jaaye ek saal ke liye. I say thanks to ICL maine itna paisa uda diya iss pe.”
‘Paisa uda diya’ is an unlikely declaration coming from a domestic cricketer. To blow it, they have to have some of it first. The ICL struck at the very heart of this issue. Of course, of the several reasons players of any age choose to join the league, they will mention money least of all. It is a very good reason because Mahajan and other players like him, such as Abid Nabi, his roommate (and teammate from J&K) who is currently sprawled on the floor just listening, earn around Rs 25 lakh a year with incentives. “The first factor is monetary, but log apne mooh se nahi kahengey,” Mahajan says, lifting a finger to his lips. And he’s right. The other night, a player who participated in two world cups would only say, “I get to play with stars.” This he would say repeatedly, disregarding the actual question.
Mahajan, who averages 28 point something in first class cricket, and Nabi were sounded out by scouts soon after the ICL was announced in April. They were told of the league and its financial packages, and left to think about it. When it was decided that they were interested, Zee officials sent them a more complete plan. In months, the BCCI would announce its league and ban a raft of players. This posed questions for players: What were the repercussions, what did it offer, how did it compare with what they had now? Nabi considered staying back to play for his state, and weighed his options: Money, opportunity, exposure in one corner. No exposure, little money, and certainly no backing in the other. “Bahut sawaal aaye dimaag mein. I did think about it, but also thought that if I did not perform in the future, what would happen?”
“When we shifted here,” Mahajan says, “everybody knew they were taking a big step. There was no talk of amalgamation or this making up between the leagues. So everybody knew what they were doing.” He says it’s incomprehensible why the BCCI would ban players. “See, ICL players are not against Indian cricket. Nobody is. So I don’t know why…” He said he could have waited for the IPL to happen, but who knew what would happen if his personal form dipped? “A bird in the hand is better than two behind the bush.”
Mahajan and Nabi have heard – only heard, they insist – that their share of revenue for the 2006-07 season is being stopped. For J&K, that season ended in December 2006. “The check still hasn’t come,” Mahajan says. “Aur ab aayega bhi nahi,” Nabi adds. They laugh at this, unsurprised if no money comes their way. When you’re young, Mahajan says, you come in to the dressing room for the first time and it hits you that cricket comes with a lot of nonsense attached. In Mahajan’s retelling, they would travel by normal three-tier when they were entitled to beds in second-AC. They would be permitted a daily allowance of Rs150 when the rule book stated Rs500. The BCCI would ask them to take up the matter with the host association. Eventually the problem was solved when Niranajan Shah called up the association. “In announcing these things they’re very prompt. But not in giving.” Laughter.
“If you have financial security, you can focus on your game,” Mahajan says. “ICL gives you that. A common guy comes here, he’s financially secure. He can focus on his game. The pressure that exists in state teams is not here. If you don’t perform for two games in J&K, you’re out. Then you say that he had a bad year. He plays two in five games, and it’s a year for him?” His detailed stories of J&K are hair-raising. There are tales of team instability, selectors and coaches discouraging promising cricketers, and the lack of overall opportunity. It impacted earnings seriously, and neither would there be enough games to play. “Over here, you are yourself. You are your own boss. Only your own performance matters. That’s all you have to do.
“But this is how things should have worked in every state team. I’ll give you a very good example. Here, we’ve played three matches. First match we won, second match we lost one-sided. We were never in the game. If this was J&K, half the team would have been out. [Points and laughs ‘Nikalo!”] But we played the same team in the third match and won one-sided. Yahaan pe stability hai.”
Mahajan is animated about this, and as he goes about it, Nabi sits there like he’s heard it before. “Cricketer ko akhir sirf cricket chahiye. And, look, money matters. In Ranji, if you make a guy sit out for one game, he earns Rs 70,000 instead of Rs 1,40,000. Half the money is gone. It’ll keep playing on his mind. It’s human psyche. In ICL, if you’re sitting out, and if your team wins, you get an equal share. So you’re happy because your team is winning. In every way, ICL is better. Cricket-wise, money-wise, standard-wise. You can say “Country! Country!” all you want, but not everybody can represent the country. Those who couldn’t represent it came here. They have come here with a grudge, with a point to prove.”
It is his belief that the IPL is not for everybody. “Fine, both ICL and IPL are cash rich. But in IPL, the cash has gone to the rich guys only. What we’ve heard is that players like Mithun Manhas and others are being paid 20 lakhs.”
It was all quite cloak and dagger last year in J&K. Only Mahajan and Nabi knew they were leaving for the ICL. It became an inside joke, and now their friends want in. “They tell us, ‘You’ve done your own work, abhi apna kaam bhi karva lo’.” They say a number of cricketers, grown tired of a poisonous atmosphere, would like nothing better than to move. This is where they come from: “Once, after we lost a game, this selector wanted to change the team. I told him to give me a chance with this team, and he agreed on the condition that if we lost, I’d do exactly what he said. I lost, and 22 players played in five one-day games. Twenty-two players! Where else does that happen?”
The list of complaints is rather long-winded, and you’ve probably heard it all before, like Nabi has. So we won’t go there. This is domestic cricket, and hopefully cricket as it used to be. Perhaps ICL was ill-conceived, and there’s a good chance it won’t catch on. But a domestic cricketer can now worry about his stock portfolio. Really, how cool is that?