The tragic story that is Indian domestic cricket (and I am not referring to the IPL) is sadly not about the sport itself, or its desperately appalling standards, but one that reminds us all about the power of that elusive 'vote'. And this quintessential vote is exactly what I think stands between a system that continually thrives on perceived mediocrity, zero-reforms and a hushed status-quo, that promises much, delivers little and one that is at least seen to evolve keeping the best interests of Indian cricket at its very heart.
It is that vote that will quintessentially prevent Indian cricket from taking decisions which, in doing so might displease lobbies but in its quiet little way, ameliorate the appalling standards that exist. That one vote could well determine the way the direction in which the larger powerplay threatens to play out within the board-games at the BCCI, and it is that very vote that somewhere is preventing Indian cricket from taking that next-big step in creating a system that means business, and of course is seen to be interested in taking Indian domestic cricket to its logical, evolutionary, next level.
The first question, we as responsible cricket fans must ask ourselves - has the geographical, state/city/region-based organization of domestic cricket teams outlived its very purpose? And I somehow sense it has, given that its mandate and purpose was to primarily to spread and democratize the game to different parts of the country. And yes, I would tend to believe that it has done what it could have, and to try and stretch its limitations into possibilities is what the BCCI is doing now, and I honestly believe, the time to make the transition to franchise cricket is riper than ever before.
And let's examine this concept for a while.
By franchise cricket, I mean the South African model, where you have two provinces coming together to make a franchise, which essentially meant that 11 provincial teams were shortened to six in a decision that would go a long way towards improving the domestic system in that country. The problems confronting South African cricket back then (in 2003) was a) the size of the first-class competition was making it unviable, b) playing standards had dropped and the gap between international cricket and domestic cricket was widening and c) this dipping of standards was alienating the players, public, sponsors and broadcasters.
The corrective action Cricket South Africa or what was the then UCBSA took was to introduce a franchise system, that best represented the geographical aspirations of South Africa, yet was modelled on the "strength vs strength" concept, which meant the best 80-100 domestic cricketers in that country were playing against each other at an increased level of competition than ever before. This meant handing over the operational reigns of these franchises to registered companies, which would be under review every four years.
Of course, like most things change, this concept was met with initial reluctance, but today, in hindsight, South Africa has perhaps transformed itself into one of the best cricketing systems in the world, a model for subcontinental nations, where votes and not a genuine desire to improve the standards of cricket is given a higher priority.
Let's superimpose this concept to the Indian system and examine certain possibilities.
To begin with, by default, and thanks to the IPL, we do have ten franchises, a massive drift from the 27 Ranji Teams or State Associations that do partake in our domestic competitions. These ten franchises, which are somewhat geographically representative -- in the sense that they're city-based franchises, could compete in what would be India's premier first-class/four-day competition, followed by a one-day competition, with a lower division, where states compete against each other to act as a possible feeder system to these franchises.
The essence of this franchise system would mean that 150-180 top Indian domestic cricketers are playing a competition which could well be played at a higher-level than the Ranji Trophy and also gives the selectors a measure of some of the top talents on display.
From a cricketing point of view, firstly, there is likelier to be a heavy competition for places, a larger responsibility towards your side, a professional dressing-room and franchise atmosphere and since corporate ideology is largely result-oriented, it could assist incentivize performances, which is in stark contrast to the existing system, which almost presents itself as a formula a captain needs to rehearse, rinse and repeat to win the Ranji Trophy.
Wasim Jaffer, captain of the Ranji champions, Mumbai, says, "I personally believe that lesser the no. of teams, the higher the competitiveness. In our country, we should restrict our domestic cricket to ten teams, but I do not see this transformation happening, because 27 Ranji teams would translate into 27 votes for the BCCI. If you ditch the voting system, and reduce the no. of teams, we could create a system that produces top cricketers consistently."
The concept would also mean a home and away format (as used in the IPL), which would mean a 18 quality first-class games in a league system, and in effect, make tournaments like the Duleep Trophy redundant. This, coupled with the English points system, which is primarily responsible for incentivizing results, whereby a certain no. of runs scored in brackets of overs, (say 249 runs) counts for a batting point. Same goes with bowling, where 3-5 wickets taken, counts for a bowling point.
In effect, this motivates teams to actually go for results, unlike India, where understandably, given tighter schedules, a first-inning lead is a deemed a satisfying result. Additionally, the same franchise-teams, could also play a fifty-over league tournament in between some of these first-class games, as it happens in England, South Africa and Australia, thereby reducing or eradicating some of the least-significant one-day tournaments in the Challenger Trophy, Corporate Trophy.
Tournaments like the Ranji One-Dayers can continue, given that certain standout performers could stand a chance of winning a franchise contract for the next season, again, objective being incentivizing and rewarding performances. Another, important change that could well be catalyzed through franchise cricket is, that you won't have state associations (like J&K, Tripura and Goa etc) who receive equal funding from the BCCI, yet perform poorly consistently and are not particularly bothered about having structures in place and show no scope of improvement over a five-year period. And of course, with corporate involvement, merit becomes a critical factor which might translate to corrupt practices like attempts to influence selections through inducements receding gradually.
From an IPL franchise point of view, a larger involvement with the grassroot domestic cricket makes more than a commercial sense. Marketing-wise, it gives them an opportunity to remain visible right through the year, unlike the current scenario where they're in public domain for a maximum of three months (Champions League T20 included).
Joy Bhattacharya, spokesperson for the Kolkata Knight Riders told me, "Most franchises would love to be involved with the game right through the year instead of just three months. It would primarily help us keep in touch with our cricketers, know their concerns (injury and fitness) and help assist them with our professional setup."
Also, rather importantly, it could well go a long way in bringing back fans back to domestic cricket, which today stands at best at Twenty20 tournaments.
By the home and away system I proposed, it gives these franchises an opportunity to take their cricket beyond their geographical limitations i.e. cities, into places which has been deprived of cricket in general, not just international. Imagine a four-day game between a Kolkata Knight Riders and Mumbai Indians in Siliguri or Agartala, for e.g. In essence, what I mean, is it helps these franchises attract newer fans to not just their franchise, but domestic cricket too.
Bhattacharya cited an important example, when he spoke about KKR coach Dav Whatmore, who is currently working closely with the under-19 and under-16 setup in Bengal. "Whatmore's involvement with the grassroot structures of Bengal cricket gives us a perfect opportunity to look at players coming through the system and monitor their progress." Of course, this must be weighed in carefully through a revenue-sharing model, whereby the State Associations are also given a portion of what the franchises earn from the BCCI, through television rights and sponsorship rights.
The Ranji cricket vs franchise cricket is a classic marketing case between a faltering product and an emerging brand. The IPL franchises, in their own way have evolved themselves into a easily connectible and popular brand, with a greater sense of recall than any Ranji team would manage, given the times we live in today. Marketing strategies, like merchandising, fan connect programmes have succeeded for these IPL franchises, while your quintessential Ranji team, despite its rich history, is struggling for an identity, sadly.
What fans would like to see today is a domestic competition that they're likely to be interested in, likely to associate themselves with and in my honest opinion, franchise cricket could well be a start, which of course comes with the caveat of "success not being guaranteed", but at least, the South African success story tells me, that it is something worth giving a shot at.
Personally speaking, I believe now is the time to reform Indian cricket. Yes, we're World no. 1 and all that, but to think about it, the Indian cricketing story has largely been despite/inspite of the system, rather than because of it. The optimist in me would hope that this is the time we bite the bullet, take some tough decisions that might shake up the existing status-quo, but donning the cynic's hat, as much as I'd love to see a competitive franchise system, it looks beyond the realms of practicality.
What this would mean is a complete sea-change of our mindset, approach and intent towards making our seemingly listless domestic system, from a game of power-broking through votes, to one which competes with the best in the world.