Suddenly, in the space of a couple days, three Indian cricketers have been linked with county cricket deals. It is very rare in Indian cricket, in the current climate. One has been confirmed, the second awaits official paperwork and the third is tinged with a bit of personal nostalgia.
Gautam Gambhir has been allowed to fly to Essex for the remainder of the season, making him the only current Indian to be with a county team. Piyush Chawla looks set for a second county stint as he waits for a UK visa, this time for Somerset, after he represented Sussex successfully in 2009. While far from official and highly unlikely, Shikhar Dhawan has attracted interest from Surrey by the man whose List A record he fell short of breaking last week, Alistair Brown, who is now coaching the club's second XI.
While not earth-shattering, this is significant for the fact that few Indian cricketers have had lengthy spells in county cricket in the past decade or so. Those who have been granted playing time in England have done so largely to try and force their way back into the Indian team. Most notably, Zaheer Khan enjoyed his most successful period as an Indian cricket following a 2006 stint with Worcestershire. Others have also benefitted from time with counties, such as Sreesanth who in 2009 returned to the Test team after a brief period with Warwickshire, and Harbhajan Singh who in 2012 came back from a year in the wilderness after a decent stint with Essex. While Pragyan Ojha did not play a Test during India's 2011 tour of England, he gained from four matches for Surrey in which he took 24 wickets. Later that year he made a place for himself in the Test team.
It is a far cry from the 60s, 70s and 80s when the likes of Sunil Gavaskar, Kapil Dev, Bishan Bedi, Farokh Engineer, Mohinder Amarnath, Maninder Singh and Dilip Vengsarkar featured across the county cricket scene. In the last decade the number of Indians to play in England is far more sporadic. Since 2000, in fact, the number of Indian cricketers to have played for the country and in county cricket is just 14: Rahul Dravid, Sourav Ganguly, Javagal Srinath, Anil Kumble, Virender Sehwag, Harbhajan Singh, Zaheer Khan, Sreesanth, Yuvraj Singh, Mohammad Kaif, Dinesh Mongia, Murali Kartik, Pragyan Ojha, Piyush Chawla.
The likes of Wasim Jaffer, who played 31 Test from 2000 to 2008, and Aakash Chopra, whose ten Tests spanned a 12-month period in 2003-04, were two prominent Indian players who made appearances in League cricket. Jaffer represented Scholes CC in the Huddersfield Drakes League and Chopra for Hem Heath in the Staffordshire League. There were others too who played for India fleetingly since 2000, such as Sarandeep Singh and Ajay Ratra (Staffordshire), Nilesh Kulkarni (Liverpool League) and Sairaj Bahutule (Surrey League).
Telling, a busy international calendar has played a big role, as has the BCCI's rigidity against sending Indian players to England. More on the second factor in a bit. Where once summers were marked out as time to hone one's talents in England, in today's climate they are spent playing international cricket or Twenty20 leagues. A breakdown of India's international assignments between April and September of each year - generally the timeframe of the county season - since 2000 shows that the time away from international assignments has been on an upward curve.
In 2000, India played just three ODIs between April and September; in that time, Dravid, Kumble, Srinath and Ganguly played county cricket. In 2001, the number of international matches for India swelled to 19, 14 of which were ODIs. In 2002, eight Tests and eight ODIs. The breakdown continues: 2003 - five ODIs; 2004 - two Tests, nine ODIs; 2005- 13 ODIs; 2006 - 12 ODIs, four Tests; 2007 - five Tests, 11 ODIs; 2008 - four Tests, 15 ODIs; 2009 - one Test, four ODIs, five T20Is; 2010 - three Tests, 13 ODIs, 7 T20Is; 2011 - seven Tests, six ODIs, two T20Is; 2012 - two Tests, five ODIs, one T20I. And in the summer of 2013, India played 15 ODIs. Little wonder then that Indians do not feature in county cricket.
Then there is the BCCI resistance, which in the form of a clause in IPL contracts does not allow Indian cricketers to participate in overseas Twenty20 leagues. Yes, there is an actual clause (8.2) in a player's IPL contract that binds them from participating "in India in any competition or league which is the same as or similar to the League without an express no objection certificate from IPL" or "anywhere in the world in any competition which is the same as or similar to the CLT20" or "in any Twenty20 cricket competition anywhere in the world which is (i) not officially recognised by the official national governing body for cricket in the country where such competition takes place, or (ii) not approved by the ICC in the absence of any such national governing body; or (iii) "Disapproved Cricket" as set out under any applicable ICC regulations" or "in any other cricket competition anywhere in the world which is or could reasonably be considered to be similar to or competitive with the League save for any competition which acts as a qualifying competition for CLT20".
It is a travesty because playing in England allows cricketers to become better, and considering India were whitewashed the last time they toured England it would appear pertinent to allow more players to the counties considering India have a tour there lined up in 2014. If not the currently India players, then fringe players and domestic players should be allowed to pursue county contracts with ease. Sadly, it is a case of economics played inside board rooms in India.
So many Indian players have played at least one season of domestic cricket in England. The list is a healthy one: Gavaskar (Somerset), Bedi and Kapil (Northamptonshire), Amarnath (Durham, even though it was not a county then), Engineer and Ganguly (Lancashire), Azharuddin (Derbyshire), Shastri (Glamorgan), Vengsarkar (Staffordshire), Maninder (Shropshire), Tendulkar (Yorkshire), Dravid (Kent, Scotland), Sehwag (Leicestershire), Zaheer (Worcestershire), Anil Kumble (Surrey, Leicester, Northamptonshire), Javagal Srinath (Gloucestershire, Leicestershire). What these players gained from batting and bowling on seaming wickets, against seasoned county campaigners and other international stars is palpable.
Dravid recently made an interesting observation in an interview when asked about how he reacted to the news of Hansie Cronje admitting to fixing matches. Matter-of-factly, he said he felt so isolated from the news back in India because he had been in England playing county cricket for Kent for five months. It was a telling admission, not just because of how cut off one could be in those days without ready access to the internet or smart phones, but because a cricketer like Dravid actually had time to spend that much time playing county cricket. And it is no surprise that the man who ended his career as Test cricket's second-highest run-getter became a better batsman after his county stints and who credits the system as a sort of finishing school. And it was after 2000 that Dravid kicked his international career up a notch. Does the BCCI take note of this? No, so instead we get tours to Sri Lanka every summer.
Indian cricket may not have rich a legacy of county cricketers as West Indies, South Africa and Australia do, but there is a deep-rooted connection. It was in England, of course, that Ranjitsinhji and Duleepsinhji formed a famous pair for Sussex. It was at Sussex that the man whom India's premier domestic tournament is named after invented the leg glance. Iftikhar Ali Khan Pataudi and his son MAK Pataudi earned international caps after successful England stints; Pataudi senior for his exploits for Worcestershire and in a Gentlemen vs Players match at Lord's in 1932 and junior for his records at Winchester. Bedi, Gavaskar, Amarnath and Kapil all had success in county cricket. Tendulkar was, famously, the first overseas player to represent Yorkshire and it was after playing for Kent that Dravid blossomed into a world champion. Manoj Prabhakar took 51 first-class wickets at 28.21 for Durham. In 1996, Kumble was named one of Wisden's five Cricketers of the Year after finishing the previous county season as the only bowler to take 100 wickets.
In the last decade, however, the relationship has thinned out. Though his international days are behind him, only Kartik was until the end of 2012 a regular in England having played for for Lancashire, Middlesex, Somerset and Surrey across eight seasons. Now its over to Gambhir and Chawla. Who knows? Maybe they can change the trend.