Changes brewing, though late

SOMETIMES, in Indian cricket, change creeps imperceptibly into the system. At most times it stays outside the door knocking gently, too politely. It lives with the fact that it is not needed. Only rarely does change push its way through and when that happens, as it has in the last couple of weeks, you start to wonder if there is some hope around. Being pushed to the brink is not the best means to induce change but often it seems to be the only route.

There have been some very interesting announcements in recent times. A lot of those have been lost in the interest surrounding the World Cup, and that is fair. But with the return of cricket to mass consciousness, a lot of these will become apparent. There is a bit of change brewing even if it is very late in coming.

The contract system was overdue. At its heart it seeks to provide both security and incentive to players but it expects commitment in return. The players have long been asking for it and when they get it, hopefully by October, they should be willing to show equal professionalism in return. Occasionally cricketers in India give the impression that they must be tended to without needing to provide and that the contract system will change that.

I don't think too many people will argue with the money on offer. Those in the lowest category of Rs. 15 lakhs might feel a bit hard done by, but when you are in your early twenties, and not completely sure of making the squad, that is handsome money. If a player gets to play every game, he will earn much more but then a player at that level will not be in the lowest slab because these are not based on age or experience but on perceived value to the side. That is how it should be.

There has been a feeling that it will create differences within the side where one player will be seen to be earning far more than another. That is a fact of life and the difference is meant to act as an incentive. David Beckham earns far more than Wes Brown in Manchester United and it follows that Sachin Tendulkar should earn more than Ajay Ratra. The star of a movie earns more than the father of the heroine though everybody contributes to the end result. This should have happened long ago.

The incentive clause in the contracts will probably be more widely welcomed. In an ideal world an incentive would be unnecessary. There is pride in playing for your country and there is a lot of money as well and between the two it should guarantee the best possible performance from a player. If that is not enough, we have picked the wrong man. If more money is going to be an incentive to a well paid man to do well then you need to ask yourself what the original fee was for. Was it not for committing the best possible performance to the side? In terms of principle it seems wrong and yet it might work. It does with sales teams in corporations and what it suggests to me is that the players could well have earned themselves a higher basic contract if the need for the incentive wasn't felt.

Curiously, given India's performance in recent times, the incentive scheme will work in favour of the players. With a hundred per cent bonus available for winning against higher ranked teams, it becomes available in virtually every match! It will be interesting to see what the players think about it though and a public debate will be welcome for cricket lovers in India.

But this must be a beginning and in all fairness, it promises to be. The 'A' tours are already making a difference and I am very excited about the prospects of the under-19s. Dalmiya has promised a complete itinerary for them and he has set the ball rolling by appointing a top man to coach them. Robin Singh has a lot to contribute to Indian cricket, more than some of the top stars, because I suspect he will be more willing to give. For the first time, there was a trace of bitterness to him and this should dispel that. His work ethic and team spirit were always above board and if that is all he imparts to India's young cricketers, that will still be a treasure.

The idea of picking younger, more contemporary cricketers is an oustanding one and in a couple of years, Javagal Srinath can easily be added to that list.

Buried at the bottom of a news report was a very interesting little statement as well. It talked about a tournament for corporates and if I understand it right, it was originally meant to be an inter-city tournament funded by corporates. It was an excellent idea because it was modelled along professional soccer or basketball and the BCCI did very poorly to banish it when it was first suggested.

We had hoped it would be the first step towards producing more competitive cricket in India because for all that the contracts will achieve, the first priority has to be to make domestic cricket tougher and I fear we have taken a step backwards there. The decision to allow three teams from each zone to qualify into a super league is a compromise decision and a bit of a sell-out. It means the zonal stage has no competitive value at all and for some reason, the BCCI always puts the interests of the State bodies above that of the national need.

With two teams qualifying from each zone, there would have been far greater competition within the zones as well and that is precisely what we need in our system. There should have been no more than ten teams in the top league and I fear that the extra five will dilute the super league again.

There is one thing though that the BCCI did not make public. I scanned the news reports, but found very little in it about the accountability of state bodies. Over the years, they haven't always covered themselves with glory and they know it. Dalmiya has promised accountability from them and given that he has produced what he promised in the last three months maybe we can expect this from him too.

I think though that he will find it far more difficult than drawing commitments out of players. In State associations, change is a scary word.