The appraisals have been done, increments announced. Huge ones. Here are the winners: Rohit Sharma, Shikar Dhawan, M S Dhoni, FoKS (Friends of Kohli&Shastri). Loser: Test cricket.
In what is a great move, the Board for Control of Cricket in India’s (BCCI) Committee of Administrators (CoA) announced a humungous rise in annual compensation for players, which is welcome considering that the board is flush with funds earned only from the exploits of these cricketers. They definitely deserved more than they have been earning; for keeping the Indian team amongst the top-ranked in all formats, and more for absorbing all the pressure they have to handle for representing a country where the game is religion. Where one bad day in office can be professional suicide.
While the effort to reward players can be lauded, what cannot be ignored is the glaring bias towards certain players, and lack of a long-term perspective on the growth of the game while handing out the goodies.
This year, apart from the existing A, B, and C categories, the board also introduced a new category – A+. Again, a step in the right direction. When one hears of such a category, you would imagine the best being placed in this category, players who are critical to the team, irrespective of the format. The criteria, however, is that players who will be part of the squad in all three formats – Test, ODIs, T20s – will get an A+ contract worth Rs 7 crore. Now let us look at this year’s beneficiaries – Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma, Shikhar Dhawan, Bhuvneshwar Kumar, and Jasprit Bumrah. While there is no debate on Kohli’s inclusion in this category, all others need to pass scrutiny.
It needs no great analysis to point out that while Sharma and Dhawan might make the squad for a Test team, they are unlikely to make the playing XI every time. The last time we experimented with them in the recently-concluded series in South Africa, the results were disastrous, and both Kolhi and Shastri came in for much flak for omitting the best Test batsman overseas in the team, Ajinkya Rahane, to provide buddies Sharma and Dhawan a place. Luckily for Dhawan, after a bad first Test, an injury kept him out; otherwise it would have been double flak.
Kumar and Bumrah have emerged as indispensable bowlers in all formats, and deserve their rise to the highest category. They have been aptly rewarded. But if they are eligible for the A+ category, then so are players like Cheteshwar Pujara and Ajinkya Rahane. They might not form part of an ODI or T20 team, but are invaluable for the Test team. Along with Virat, only Pujara and Rahane are certainties in India’s Test team. Just like Rohit and Shikar are a must in the ODIs and T20s.
In the last column, we had emphasised on the need to nurture Test players if the format has to have any chance of surviving the T20 onslaught. And it can’t be done by just praising the glory and beauty of the purest format of the game.
The board needs to walk the talk. Can you imagine the positive impact on new entrants into the game if Pujara and Rahane were placed in the A+ category and earned Rs 7 crore purely for being specialist Test batsmen? There would be a beeline to get batting techniques right, rather than just learn slog shots.
By only including Rohit, Shikar, Bhuvaneshwar, and Jasprit, the wrong signal is being sent out. A message that you need to be good in all formats to get A+. A Kohli is a rare one, not just in Indian cricket, but across the globe. For the others, it is very likely that they will excel in one, probably two formats. Hence, excluding them from the highest pay is unfair. While it is good to have an all-rounder in the team, specialists carve out most of the victories. Sidelining them will upset the balance in the new crop of players following the money. Already there are many who would just like to be T20 specialists, and will be content earning few crores hawking their limited wares in the IPL. If the board also encourages this, then we might as well write an obituary for Test cricket, and going ahead, for ODIs.
Speaking of the shorter formats, a major gainer in the new contracts is Dhoni. While most news reports scream headlines about the former captain being downgraded, one doubts whether the legend thinks similarly. For a player whose every match performance is scrutinised closely, down to the strike rate, and whether the ball is hitting the middle of his bat, and whether he is finished rather than being a finisher, Dhoni would be thrilled to take home Rs 5 crore in the A category. It also ensures that he continues to be in the Indian team and steadily reach his goal of playing the 2019 World Cup.
According to one report, Dhoni was part of the team – along with Kohli, Sharma, and Shastri – which worked with the BCCI to introduce the A+ category, and he was aware that he would not be in that one. It was the former coach Anil Kumble who had brought up the need to increase the pay. But he couldn’t take it to fruition because his tenure was cut short by Kohli, who preferred to have Shastri in the dressing room.
With Kohli, Shastri, Sharma, and Dhoni very much in the thick of things, it is no surprise who got into which category. It would have been great if apart from looking at individual names and the benefits they would derive, they would have also taken into consideration the overall impact their decisions would have on the various formats in play, and the direction that future cricketers would chose.
(The author is a co-founder of SportzPower and The Fan Garage)