The postponement of several tournaments -- Ranji Trophy, Col CK Nayudu Trophy, and senior women's T20 League for the 2021/22 season due to raging COVID-19, has put a question mark on the future and livelihood of hundreds of domestic Indian cricketers who are already suffering financially since the pandemic began.
The Ranji Trophy was supposed to be held for the first time in two seasons, following its cancellation for the first time in its 85-year history in 2020/21 also due to the pandemic. The men's domestic first-class competition was scheduled to start on January 13 at multiple venues across six cities -- Mumbai, Bengaluru, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Thiruvananthapuram and Chennai.
But, last week, it emerged that six Bengal players and their assistant coach had tested positive for COVID-19. Mumbai all-rounder Shivam Dube and the team's video analyst had also tested positive prior to the team's departure for Kolkata, to add further doubt on the tournament's immediate future and ultimately it was postponed, keeping in mind the safety of the players, support staff, match officials, and other participants involved.
What may seem a fair call given that there are 38 teams that take part in the Ranji Trophy and creating a bio-security bubble for almost two months and other logistical issues would have been a nightmare for BCCI, the grind of domestic cricketers continues.
Remember, not every player has a job in some government organisation, an IPL contract, or a supportive parent or spouse to help them see through the lean financial phase. Domestic cricket is their bread and butter and the cruel pandemic has snatched that right from them as well.
Yes, the Indian cricket board had earlier announced a significant increase in match fees for domestic players regarding their payments for 2021/22. But the financial uncertainty brought by the pandemic once again reminds about the lack of central contracts for players as well as stake-holders in the game.
Notably, the BCCI offers annual contracts to national team players who are graded on the basis of their performance over a 12-month period. The need of the hour is to do the same for domestic cricketers, umpires and others and it will be a challenging task. But if any cricket board in the world can do it, then it's the BCCI -- the richest cricket board.
Even BCCI president Sourav Ganguly at the time of starting his tenure had suggested that a 'contract system' will be formulated for India's first-class cricketers.
"We will bring in a contract system for first-class cricketers. We (office-bearers) will ask the new finance (sub) committee to prepare a contract system," Ganguly had said.
The postponement of the Ranji Trophy has put the premier first-class tournament in a tricky situation because its final was scheduled for March 16 to 20 and the IPL usually starts by the first week of April. Postponing the Ranji Trophy by 15 or 20 days could further cripple the first-class tournament, whenever it takes off as there is already a significant reduction in the number of matches.
In 2019/20, for example, each side played eight group matches in the Ranji Trophy followed by three knockout games (if they made the final). This time around, teams will play just five group matches, which also reduces the net increase in pay.
And it is not only about the financial sufferings, the players are also missing on showcasing their talent as well. More often IPL scouts keep a close eye on these domestic matches, call players for trials and, if they get impressed, cricketers get hefty deals in auction of the cash-rich league.
Last week, the board had also postponed the Under-16 Vijay Merchant Trophy following the fresh surge of COVID-19 cases and the growing threat of the Omicron variant. COVID-19 cases have been multiplying in India in recent weeks with several states announcing night, and weekend curfews, amid other forms of restrictions and these are definitely not a good sign for Indian domestic cricket.
However, amid all gloominess, there is a silver lining as well. Like, the Indian cricket board had successfully conducted the few domestic tournaments already this season before the recent spike in cases, which means there were some playing as well earning opportunities for cricketers.
According to the BCCI, mid-way into the season, 748 matches have been completed with Vijay Hazare Trophy, Syed Mushtaq Ali Trophy, U19 Challenger Trophy, U-19 Women's Challenger, Vinoo Mankad Trophy, Women's U-19 One-Day Trophy, Women's senior One-Day Trophy, Women's Senior One-Day Challenger Trophy and Men's U-25 State A trophy seen through.
Recently, the BCCI had also started to disburse the match fees it owed to hundreds of domestic cricketers -- male and female -- for the numerous tournaments that had to be shelved due to COVID-19 in the 2020/21 season.
Taking note of the players' concerns, the BCCI had formed a seven-member committee, led by former India captain Mohammad Azharuddin, to find a suitable compensation mechanism for domestic cricketers. And, now the compensation payments are in line with the formula worked out by the group.
Players from those associations, who have duly sent in the filled-in invoices have begun to be compensated 50 per cent of their regular earnings, an Espncricinfo report said. While the process has begun, a number of players are yet to receive payments because of procedural delays with regards to invoices raised.
The delays are understood to be due to issues at the state associations' end.
Livelihoods in limbo
A player who featured in eight games in the 2019/20 Ranji Trophy, for example, received Rs 11.20 lakh (USD 15,000 approx.), the match fee per day for the four-day tournament being Rs 35,000 (USD 470 approx.). For 2020/21, under the compensation structures drawn up, the same player will receive Rs 5.10 lakh (USD 6,800 approx.).
Players who didn't make the XI for certain games in 2019/20 will be compensated for 2020/21 on a pro-rata basis. For example, if a player was part of a team's XI for four games and on the bench for four games in the 2019/20 season, for 2020/21, he will be compensated with 50 per cent of the match fees for four games and 50 per cent of the corresponding fees for players outside the starting XI for the remainder of the games.
Meanwhile, BCCI president Sourav Ganguly, who himself contracted COVID-19, has assured the state cricket associations that the board will do everything to restart the domestic season, which has been stymied due to the pandemic.
"The BCCI would like to reassure (you) that it will do everything to restart the domestic season once the COVID situation is under control. We are committed to holding the remaining tournaments for this season. The Board will come back to you with a revised plan," the BCCI president said in a letter to the presidents and secretaries of the state affiliates on January 5.
Overall, the situation is not at all ideal for domestic cricketers but there is some hope. However, the nature of the will decide the fate of tournaments going ahead.