The Trent Boult question Indians want to ask, but can't
As new and lucrative T20 leagues come up in South Africa and the UAE, Indian players alone can't cash in as BCCI won't give clearance, to maintain IPL's exclusivity
On Sunday, Cheteshwar Pujara scored a quickfire 174 while playing for Sussex in the Royal London One-Day Cup. His astonishing knock was laced with 20 fours and five sixes and was the highest-ever score made by a Sussex batter in List A cricket. But try as he might, BCCI won't allow him to play The Hundred or England's T20 competition.
On August 12, MI Emirates, owned by Reliance Industries, announced the players for the inaugural edition of UAE's International League T20. The squad included four West Indians, three Englishmen, three Afghans, one each from New Zealand, South Africa, Scotland and Netherlands. An Indian owner but no Indian players.
On August 10, New Zealand Cricket released Trent Boult from its central contract. The decision won't shut the door on his international career but it will mean that contracted players will be first choice. It will also allow Boult to play in multiple T20 leagues around the world. As things stand, no international retirement but the chance to spend more time with family and play cricket around the world. Boult has put himself first and that is something no Indian cricketer can do at the moment.
As things stand, BCCI has made it clear that no Indian player, including those who only play domestic cricket, can play in any other league until he is retired from all forms of the game. This strangely remains specific to male cricketers as the women (who don't have the WIPL yet) are allowed play in the WBBL (Australia) and the Super League (England).
BCCI's argument has been simple (if rather selfish): it wants the Indian Premier League (IPL) to remain the only T20 league where one can watch Indian players. It believes it adds to the value of the league and also lends exclusivity to it. On its part, BCCI is entitled to its opinion on the matter.
But shouldn't the players be entitled to their opinion as well? Surely, there are cricketers in India who would like to play in leagues around the world while still harbouring ambition to represent the country in international cricket. So, why aren't they allowed to do?
Unlike the top rung of Indian cricketers who have contracts with BCCI, there is no contractual obligation that should restrict the other players from maximising their earnings. But to play in any of these leagues, they need a No Objection Certificate (NOC) from BCCI. And with the board making its stand, few even dare apply for it. Suresh Raina, Robin Uthappa and Irfan Pathan in the past have requested permission but it was never more than a polite plea.
However, if someone does decide to take BCCI to court, how can that be expected to go? Lawyer Saurabh Mishra reckons the board won't have it easy.
"If the other players are not contractually bound to BCCI, then the board cannot stop them," said Mishra. "Article 19(1)(g) of the Constitution of India states that one of our fundamental rights is to practice any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business. If any of the rights mentioned in Article 19(1) are infringed, the citizen can easily approach the High Courts (seeking relief) under Article 226 of the Constitution of India and under Article 32, for the enforcement of the fundamental rights."
Mishra added: "Further, Article 21 mentions that no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty."
But at the moment this is precisely what BCCI is doing. The act of depriving Indian players of the chance to play in other leagues is good for BCCI (and perhaps IPL too) but is it good for the players?
That is where this becomes an argument about choice. Should BCCI decide where the players can play or should the players decide where they can play?
"We have now seen that athletes in other sports are taking their federations to court and winning too," said Mishra. "So, someone needs to do that in cricket too. It is not an easy decision but if they do, they will likely win."
The fear within
However, given the power BCCI wields, there will be the fear that whoever takes it to court will pay for it in some way. This may or may not have any basis in reality but the fear exists.
As a precautionary tale, one can look at how the NFL sidelined Colin Kaepernick, who protested police brutality and racial inequality in the United States by taking the knee during the national anthem. The act set off a movement in sport but Kaepernick, who played six seasons as the quarterback for the San Francisco 49ers, hasn't managed to play a single NFL game since then.
Of course, this would have been a little easier if there was a player's body to fight for the rights of the cricketers. But the only player's body in India, the Indian Cricketers Association, is the official association for ex-cricketers. So, there isn't much cover there either, and that complicates matters.
BCCI could play ball but then it wouldn't have waited so long if it truly wanted to do that.
For now, the big question is, who will bell the cat. The players know this is something that has to be done eventually but the first one into the breach isn't always the one to survive. There is some glory to be had but there might be some pain too.