A cash bonanza for Ranji players

FINALLY it seems to be happening. For long, everyone talked about the pitiable state of Ranji, and how first class players were treated shabbily.

MATHUR

A top player like Rahul Dravid is hardly tested in Indian domestic cricket.-Pic. V. V. KRISHNAN

FINALLY it seems to be happening. For long, everyone talked about the pitiable state of Ranji, and how first class players were treated shabbily. Observers never tired of pointing out that in India's premier domestic tournament, and its national championship, facilities were primitive, nobody paid attention and players toiled for nothing.

Affected by this barrage of shrill criticism, there is, now, a move to correct the ills, at least partially. And the first step in the direction is a hefty pay hike for all Ranji players from this season. The cash-rich BCCI has approved a proposal to double, yes double, match fees for players regardless of whether they are in grade `A' or `B' of the national championship.

Treasurer Kishore Rungta confirms this development. Some details are yet to be sorted out, he said, but every player will receive at least Rs. 20,000 per game compared to the present Rs. 10,000. In the new proposal, allowances for all players down the line will increase, an under-19 player will get almost Rs. 4,000 for a match.

This is terrific news, specially when you consider the recent pay slash for international cricketers in Sri Lanka and a slow down in Australian players' salaries. Elsewhere in the world, money is scarce, cricket Boards are battling to keep their nose above the water but, fortunately, Indian cricket is financially healthy. It can thus allocate vast amounts to provide career security to its players.

Higher salaries are part of the BCCI's recent decision to allocate 26 % of its gross 100 crore annual revenue to players, and earmark approximately 10 crores out of this to first class cricketers. Which, when broken down to a per player per game calculation, roughly means Rs. 20,000 of which some part (maybe 8,000) will be put aside in a benevolent fund to be paid out later.

Ranji players will welcome this windfall, for long they slogged through the season, unnoticed and ignored, getting only meagre rewards for their efforts. While top stars made top bucks from international cricket, Ranji players stayed on the periphery, below the poverty line so to say. Now, with this big raise, they are assured a fair wage, or at least decent compensation for pursuing the game.

This security is an essential need in contemporary times because normal cricket employment is fast disappearing — jobs are drying out as corporates have shut the door. Gone are the days when university players were hired for club/office matches. Now Test players and others on the fringe of India selection are unemployed. As the economy gets more competitive, and profit margins get slashed, companies realise they can't afford cricketers and running teams to play obscure local tournaments does not make sense any more. Many teams, in Delhi and Bombay, have wound up, and only a few lucky ones are able to land jobs, that too on short term contract basis.

With no jobs (in banks/public sector undertakings/private firms) players can only turn to the Board for help. Playing Ranji is almost a full time job, in terms of time and effort, and this is possible only if players are assured a basic return to encourage them to stay in the game. The ultimate answer to this problem lies in first class sides offering annual contracts (as in county cricket) but that is a possibility only in the distant future. At present, Indian cricket is neither organised nor professionally developed to sustain a professional workforce of about 600 players from 27 teams.

Hopefully, more money will have a profound impact by arresting or at least slowing down cricket drain, and stopping young talent from moving out. If Ranji becomes a viable career option talented players will stay on and for others, not as talented with nowhere else to go, this could be the spark to do better.

While financial security is necessary, and a commendable goal in itself, the real benefit of cash injections into the system lie in boosting quality. The normal argument is cash motivates players to work hard and money-fuelled competition drives up the level of play. Of course, no direct cash/quality correlation exists. If it was so simple county cricket (with average contracts worth 30,000 pounds) would be like Packer's World Series Cricket, which is not the case. English cricket is not short of money but most County teams don't play any better than Himachal or Vidharbha.

Still, if a player is spared the worry of securing his future and that of his family, there is a chance he will devote himself fully to his cricket career. Reason for this is he understands his growth depends on doing well in cricket, and that his performances will determine his advancement.

There is another significant aspect of the Board's decision to increase money. It shows someone is willing to look closely at Ranji, wanting to set things right and address basic issues. While international cricket is a Mumbai blockbuster (made attractive by dazzling technical gloss and media hype), Ranji is treated no better than an ordinary black and white documentary by an obscure, amateur film-maker in Moradabad. When Sachin and Sourav grab your attention, why bother about Sanjay Gill or Sangram Singh? Hopefully this thinking is changing, based on the understanding that tests and Ranji are related, there has to be some sensible balance between the two.

While more money for India's 600 first class players is a step forward, more inputs are required to make Ranji a vibrant assembly line that throws up quality players. Ranji must become tough and competitive, not allow an ordinary player to score 1,000 runs in a season or average above 100. Australia is strong because its non-Test cricket is such, Test players are under pressure to keep their places in the team. Steve Waugh and Michael Slater need to compete, and prove themselves, in grade cricket to stay in contention for top level competition.

Compare this with India where its top stars have little need for domestic cricket. For them it is pointless, a waste of time because it is not a challenge. Sachin and Dravid are hardly tested, and Sourav could easily score a hundred against Tripura batting right-handed.