Cricket in India was seen as a game played by amateurs since a person could not make a living by only playing the sport. The Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) did not have money in abundance, so players did not have the luxury of a contract in the past.
This changed when India modernized it electronically and digitally. The BCCI, though some exceptionally brilliant administrators, monetized the sport in India and made it into a money-spinner by making itself the richest cricket establishment.
The poor Indian cricketer without a voice in earlier days became an iconic superstar, and this is precisely why Indian cricket is flourishing and the cricketers are confident in showcasing their ability.
I remember an incident during the fourth Test at the Oval in 1979. The astute and legendry cricketer, Geoffrey Boycott was at the crease accumulating runs slowly towards a century. Fielding at forwarding short leg and getting bored with the way the game was progressing, I decided to have some fun with the fielders close by. We joked and laughed between each delivery. The boycott was amused and said, “Boys, this is a professional game, so stop laughing as amateurs”.
My retort to him was, “Geoff, you play it for your bread and butter, we play it for fun and recreation”.
Although an Indian cricketer by then had started thinking as a professional, the attitude and approach needed to be a hardcore professional had still not been entirely understood by most of us.
One is, therefore, amused to read the remarks recently made by Tim Paine, the Australian captain of how the Indian cricketers niggled and did side-show to distract the Australians during the last series. If so, one is proud that Indian cricket has finally reached a height where it is taken seriously on and off the field.
Cricket is now a full-fledged profession in India and similar to a business and corporate venture. The bottom line is to be successful. The days of taking an Indian cricketer as a mentally weak and gentle individual are far behind. In the competitive cricket environment in India at present, each cricketer is a hardcore professional with only one aim and that is to be a winner.
India till the early 1960s had professional cricketers playing for a state side in domestic tournaments. Most of India’s greats like Vijay Hazare, Vinoo Mankad, Chandu Borde, Salim Durani, Vijay Manjrekar, and many more played for sides as pure professionals. The state associations then had some powerful patrons who, in their quest to win the Ranji Trophy, compiled a team of players similar to what we today term franchisees. The cricketer was well looked after and his needs taken care of.
Foreign cricketers were also invited as professionals to enhance Indian cricket. Charlie Stayers, the West Indian pacer was one of the four who came to India to get domestic cricketers accustomed to pace bowling. He played for Mumbai (Bombay then) in 1962-63 and took six wickets in the Ranji Trophy final to help them win.
During the Indian off-season, many of the Indian cricketers played professional cricket in England. However, the word “professional” was frowned upon by men who ran Indian cricket. A famous incident comes to light when Vinoo Mankad in 1952, because of his commitment to a club side in England, was not chosen to be part of the Indian touring squad. Similarly, Russi Surti and Farokh Engineer were not chosen for India’s tour of the West Indies in 1971 because they were playing professional cricket, the former in Australia and the latter in England.
Indian cricket administration, in trying to encourage local talent, set regulations to ensure that professional cricket was not encouraged in domestic cricket. The criteria to play for a state association in the 1960s stated that a cricketer could only play from a state in which he was either born or living. The major cities became the hotbed for an Indian cricketer, as apart from employment one got a good state team to play cricket for. This is precisely why Mumbai, Delhi, Kolkata, Chennai, Bangalore, and Hyderabad became popular cricket destinations and controlled Indian cricket.
Presently, cricket has taken a complete turn, with each association allowed to play 3 professionals. The IPL has furthered the very essence of cricket as a profession. The greatest benefit that has arisen is that Indian cricket has become purified of zonal, state and city biases. Indian cricket reeked of such petty rivalry and internal enmity earlier. At present, one is pleased to see that the side looks to be a well-integrated and a single fighting unit under the Indian banner.
In the world of free enterprise and futuristic thinking, the Indian cricketers not contracted by the BCCI should be allowed to play cricket wherever they want to. In today’s world, professionals in all fields are free to take up assignments anywhere. To restrict an Indian domestic cricketer from not playing in other cricket tournaments around the world is just not acceptable.
The old tales of Mankad, Surti, Engineer, and many others who played cricket for a living come to mind. The BCCI needs to think beyond it, after all an Indian cricketer is no more an amateur!