"Go to hell," BCCI president Sharad Pawar told reporters angrily, when he was pressed for a reaction to the ICL's announcement of a list of 51 players. Despite being around for nearly eight decades, the BCCI handled the situation badly—and predictably. Instead of either talking to ICL or ignoring it altogether, it reacted like a petulant lord. It sacked ICL's executive board chairman Kapil Dev, the prize catch, as National Cricket Academy (NCA) boss and also severed all relations with those who had signed up with ICL. That led Kapil, impulsive as ever, to threaten to go on a hunger strike to protest BCCI's injustice against the 'brave' young players.
Clearly, the days when ICL was somewhat hesitant about positioning itself as an alternative to BCCI are coming to an end. Thus far, it has portrayed itself as a parallel assembly line for players who could go on to play for India. But with the BCCI adopting a hardline stance, ICL may up the ante now, and become a bonafide rival. "How far will we go? I believe we will go the whole hog. BCCI is pushing us toward that, isn't it? It has only taken negative action and not wanted to even talk to ICL," says Kapil Dev.
In a more guarded way, Zee group executive vice-president Ashish Kaul echoed his comments. "We will offer an alternative to the system of cricket management in this country. Of course, you must remember that it is not going to happen overnight, it will take time. We are taking a holistic approach that will not only offer alternatives to talent and talent management methods but also to the environment in which cricket is played, not the last being the infrastructure. Above all, though, we will involve cricketers as our partners."
For all the talk of ICL being a cash-rich mutineer, there has been some buzz that the players paraded in Bombay have all sold themselves cheap. "I think modern players are mature and sensible enough to know they should not sign contracts without reading them. But, like in any venture, there will be teething troubles and we will rectify anything that even seems anti-player," says Kapil, when asked if players' contracts had said they would lose pay if they were injured. For all its ills, BCCI does take care of players who suffer injuries when doing duty for India. Besides, BCCI also offers the players a share in its profits while ICL does not mention any such bonus. "We shall share profits only when we make any money. Right now we are only in the investment stage," says Kaul.
But not everyone is convinced that ICL has shaken the BCCI establishment. For instance, ex-India cricketer Ajay Jadeja, who has closely watched the idea grow, is not sure ICL has positioned itself well. "It is the best thing to have happened to Indian cricket but it seems to view its own cricket as an inferior product to BCCI's. In a competitive market, you have to market a product that is superior to say even India-Pakistan matches. One of ICL's USPS is it could be competitive cricket without regional boundaries, like English Premier League football or nba basketball. I don't think ICL recognises that yet," he told Outlook.
Jadeja did not see much sense in the argument that ICL would serve as a platform from which BCCI could choose players for its Test, one-day and Twenty20 teams. "How is that possible, given that the ICL expects to keep its players busy for eight and a half months? They would have precious little time to play Ranji Trophy or any of the BCCI tournaments and thus be unavailable for selection in any case. BCCI walked into the ICL's trap by banning players and stopping financial benefits that are already due to them."
It is this aspect of the controversy that ICL is feeding on at this moment. "A democratic body is behaving in a dictatorial fashion," says Kapil. "With its mulish refusal to talk to ICL, BCCI has been helping us grow bigger. If it is controlling cricket in India, it must talk to anyone who is working for the improvement of Indian cricket. I am not upset about being removed as NCA chairman but because the BCCI does not seem to have the courage and the confidence to even talk to ICL." The irony would not have been lost on anyone who remembers how BCCI did not encash a Rs 250-crore bank guarantee from the Zee group before the latter pulled out of a deal with it.
It may be early days yet as we have seen only sabre-rattling, with a high emotional quotient. ICL has not yet unveiled any specific plans to improve cricket in India. Many would have expected ICL to at least name the six teams for its maiden venture, their coaches and captains, but that was not to be. The only thing for sure is that the men chosen and exhibited before the media in Bombay earlier this week will attend a camp in Madras from August 30. The real big fish are some distance away from being signed up, but one thing is clear. There has to be reconciliation—after all, how do you have official Indian cricket without a certain Kapil Dev Nikhanj?