Not so long ago, the predominant narrative in the cricketing discourse revolved around "player burnout" or what is now today called as "exhaustion". It took the BCCI to splash some cash around to silence it and somewhere, the focus through the Indian Premier League (IPL) went towards "creating a global Indian product" at the cost of its content - the players.
Now, in the typically circular fashion of cricket debates, "burnout" has resurfaced, with some Indian cricketers apparently upset with the calendar thrust on them -- a calendar driven not by sound logic but by the greed of those who matter, leaving the poor player with no choice except to follow the diktat. This re-visiting of the topic has predictably resulted in pro forma denials and a studied silence on the part of the Board -- a technique that body has perfected over the years.
In the modern era, given the way cricket is played and administered, player welfare becomes a critical, if not the most important aspect, of cricket administration. Sadly, the BCCI isn't up to it. Or let's just say partly so, given that in this country player welfare is by and large seen through the sole lens of financial security. That view is no doubt is important, but in the big picture it serves more as an illusion than something concrete.
Financial security apart, the most important aspect of a sportsman's career is the accepted cycle of fitness and injury issues, and in today's circumstances that has become more acute than earlier. And this is where there is a need for the players to stand up and be heard on these issues -- especially the ones involving scheduling particularly of needless commercially-motivated adventures largely driven by pre-decided obligations.
There might, from the Board's point of view, be an obligation to play Sri Lanka multiple times a year, for instance -- but from the players' perspective, the problem is that such tours, shoe-horned into vacant spaces on the schedule, fill their time with no-account contests and correspondingly reduce the time they have to work on their injuries, and on their skill sets.
The need of the hour is a full-time players representation body that should be a radical departure from the now-defunct Indian Cricket Players Association, which was formed in 2002 with typically noble intentions. In the years since, however, its office-bearers became not just puppets, but the actual voices of the establishment. The body should be led by players who owe no allegiance to the board; the body should take a holistic view of player concerns - from safeguarding commercial interests to providing him with a forum to express his concerns without inhibitions or fear.
The body must be headed by a former Indian captain of some repute - for example, Sourav Ganguly, who possibly might know a thing or two about these issues. Yes, it creates another forum -- but given the success of similar initiatives in England, Australia and South Africa, it should hopefully work in India, despite the Board's best efforts to stop such initiatives. In the long run, such a body might end up diluting the impact of, or negating altogether, the "Board-Player Agent" nexus that dominates Indian cricket today.
My personal opinion is that the involvement of corporates with Indian cricket is a double-edged sword. Yes, money coming into the game is terrific, especially given the larger scenario of cricketers getting improved job security through honorary employment opportunities with these very corporates. But with events like the IPL and the Champions' League, the players also become victims of a relentless corporate ideology that not just demands better commercial returns for their engagement, but also expect results from individual cricketers at all cost.
Simply put, an Indian cricketer, more or less fatigued with a comprehensive calendar of international cricket, is forced to ignore the demands of a body that screams for rest and recuperation and of a mind that tells him of the need to work on some basic skills, and appear for these franchises. And for those who think T20 cricket is all about running and bowling, or having a bat-out for 20 overs, there is an element of naivete about that thought. It's a far more intensive format, mentally and physically; add to that off-the-field engagements like excessive traveling and even commercial obligations for the franchise, and it must definitely take a toll on a cricketer's body/fitness levels, unless of course they're super-humans.
I'm no sports science expert, but even speaking as a layman, one of the critical elements in fitness terms is "recovery", which these guys have no time for. The Board must take a hard look at its policies, revamp the contract system (I'll come to that later) and protect some of its top players for the larger international commitments. In my view, there should be a cap on the number of IPL matches they play for their franchises -- 5 or 6 at the maximum -- and at a larger level, there also needs to be a fitness program powered by the BCCI that takes the franchises into confidence, so that burnout and exhaustion is kept in check. The larger concern is, corporates eventually end up being de facto in influencing selections, which does not make sense when you consider the larger interests of Indian cricket.
In fact, it sets up the risk of serious conflict of interest: the franchise wants its star players to play all games; from an Indian cricket point of view though, the Board might want some players rested occasionally because there is a big-ticket international tour/tournament immediately after the IPL ends [as happened with the T20 World Cup this year]. While franchises are entitled to seek its big-money players' presence in the playing eleven, a balance needs to be struck between that requirement, and the need for adequate rest so that the team playing in Indian colors is fully fit.
Cricket is no more a 11-player game -- the proliferation of international and domestic/league commitments means that it is time to borrow from football, to think in terms of a "squad". Or in layman terms, it is necessary to put a balanced rotation-based policy in place. An international cricket team today needs to think of 22 quality players, two to each position, with replacements ready to slot in seamlessly.
Ironically, this is exactly what Greg Chappell advocated during his stint as Indian coach. Unfortunately, the fashion was to label anything Greg Chappell proposed as "experimentation" -- a word that during that era somehow acquired a negative connotation -- and thus, we ended up throwing the baby of good ideas out with the bathwater. Such a policy of seamless rotation not only provides healthy competition for those in the first XI, it also permits the team to try out various permutations and combinations based on pitch and ground conditions and even the nature of the opposition.
Take an example: recently, when Yuvraj was found unfit in the Test series against Sri Lanka, Suresh Raina had to make his debut as an emergency measure (that Raina did well is neither here nor there). Had there been a proper rotation policy in place, Raina would have been used in Tests before and the team would have had a good idea of what he could do; equally, had there been adequate rotation, Yuvraj would have had more time to recover from injuries rather than being rushed into the squad, thus risking aggravation of existing problems. Most importantly, a proper rotation policy based on the "squad" concept allows the team management to rest some of the members who might be fatigued. This is something the BCCI and Gary Kirsten should work on in tandem, given that Indian cricketers play more cricket in a calendar year than their counterparts.
Revamped contract system
Finally, the time is ripe for the BCCI to acknowledge that the present graded payment contract system, which came into existence in 2004, is well past its expiry date, and that an immediate reform/revamp is essential. The reason should be obvious: with the emergence of the IPL, the players are now employed by two entities where earlier, they were only employed by the BCCI. With individual players signed up with two entities, the risk of conflict of interest emerges, as mentioned earlier, to the detriment of the players' well being.
The revamped contract system should be based on the English model, where centrally contracted cricketers are primarily employed with the ECB, which has the authority to take decisions that might be in the best interests of the cricketer and of English cricket. The classic case was the recently-concluded Twenty20 Cup in England, where some counties wanted their England players released to turn up for them. But thanks to the ECB, none of the fast-bowlers in particular turned out for their counties in these T20 games, barring one or two instances where there were commercial overtones.
The net result was that the ECB ensured that the likes of Stuart Broad got plenty of rest through the early part of the English summer, keeping him fresh and match fit for the season ahead. This is where I sense an opportunity for India, given the multiplicity of obligations involving its employees. The time has come when the Board must start protecting and preserving its cricketers for the longer haul.
A start could be in emphasizing that national commitments take precedence over IPL contracts. Effectively, this means that if the BCCI believes that a cricketer is struggling with an injury, it must put its foot down and insist that the player getting sufficient time for treatment, rest and recuperation takes priority over his turning up for franchise commitments. And also, keeping greed and private bilateral agreements aside, the time has come when the BCCI culls redundant tournaments, which serve no purpose except needlessly tiring the cricketers and putting off viewers for good.