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Top Indian cricketers won’t be allowed to play in Saudi Arabia bankrolled richest cricket league: BCCI official

Officials from Saudi Arabia have reportedly held discussions with Indian Premier League team owners with the intention of starting the world’s richest cricket tournament in the Gulf nation.

fter staging Formula One races, owning Newcastle United, bringing Cristiano Ronaldo to play in the domestic league, and promoting the rival LIV golf circuit, cricket could be the next sport Saudi Arabia is venturing into.

The two sides have been testing the waters with the relationship recently with ‘Visit Saudi’ being a major sponsor for the ongoing Indian Premier League. Saudi oil giant Aramco has had sponsorship deals with the International Cricket Council (ICC) and BCCI. The kingdom has set the strategic goal of becoming the No.1 tourist destination for India by 2030.

IPL franchises – such as Mumbai Indians, Chennai Super Kings, Kolkata Knight Riders, Delhi Capitals, Sunrisers Hyderabad, Rajasthan Royals, and Lucknow Super Giants – are already involved in overseas T20 leagues from UAE, South Africa, USA and Caribbean – but BCCI doesn’t allow Indian players to feature in any other domestic competition in the format fearing it will diminish the IPL’s brand value.

Getting top Indian stars to play in an overseas domestic league could be the real game-changer in this regard and will definitely put the cat among the pigeons.

But if the BCCI is to be believed, that’s not going to happen any time soon, even though IPL franchises can put their money wherever they want.

“No current Indian players will be taking part in any of the leagues, but as far as franchise participation is concerned, we can’t stop them, a top BCCI official told The Indian Express. “It’s their individual decision. We have seen IPL franchises going to South Africa or Dubai and we can’t say no. It’s their choice to have their team in any of the leagues around the world.”

The BCCI providing technical knowhow in organising a T20 league could be a start, with IPL franchises getting another market to invest.

‘Everyone is looking out’ for ownership opportunities in other countries, a franchise official said. “From a franchise’s perspective, that’s the direction it’s going. I don’t think there’s a single franchise that’s one-dimensional.”

While welcoming the prospect of having a league in Saudi, the official felt that the immediate concern is that about infrastructure. “At the moment, we don’t know if they have enough stadiums to conduct a league of this magnitude.”

Starting from scratch

As of now, the UAE is the major cricketing destination in the gulf region and has hosted the T20 World Cup, IPL, Asia Cup and even bilateral series involving Full Member Nations. It also houses the ICC headquarters and has impressive cricket infrastructure and stadia in venues such as Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Sharjah.

Saudi Arabia

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Saudi Arabia doesn’t have such infrastructure, but plans to set the ball rolling in this regard.

“Our aim is to create a sustainable industry for locals and expats living in the Kingdom and make Saudi Arabia a global cricketing destination,” Saudi Arabian Cricket Federation chairman Prince Saud bin Mishal Al-Saud has been quoted as saying by Arab News.

“One of our biggest plans is to have a proper infrastructure for the game, since we don’t have it today. We are planning to have cricket academies, more grounds, better facilities with entertainment and other services around them to attract Saudi as well as foreign youth to the game.

“One of our biggest objectives is to bring better quality of life for expatriates working here. We have about eight million people from Asian countries where cricket is the most popular game, places such as India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka,” he added.

The kingdom has extremely deep pockets and its interest in investing in the sport has the ICC enthused.

“If you look at other sports they’ve been involved in, cricket is something I imagine would be attractive to them,” ICC chair Greg Barclay was quoted as saying.

“Given their advance into sport more generally, cricket would work quite well for Saudi Arabia. They’re pretty keen to invest in sport, and given their regional presence, cricket would seem a pretty obvious one to pursue.”

The country’s big investment in sport and bringing elite-level tournaments and events to the Kingdom have been criticised in certain circles as ‘sportswashing’ – a bid to paint it in a positive light to take attention away from its allegedly poor human rights record, its treatment of women, and the assassination of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul. These efforts include making football legend Lionel Messi a brand ambassador, staging heavyweight boxing title fights and professional wrestling extravaganzas.

How much is too much?

Any progress in having an official Saudi-based T20 league needs the blessings of the ICC and the member countries. There has been a mushrooming of such competitions of late, of varying quality and prize money. Apart from those staged by Full Member nations, off-shore leagues in places such as Canada, UAE and now coming up in the USA, have the potential to relegate international cricket, considered the cornerstone of the game not too long ago, to the margins of international cricket.

Already, IPL chairperson Arun Singh Dhumal has said he is not averse to the idea of two editions of the tournament in a year.

“If there’s a window for a second IPL, we will definitely look at that,” he told The Indian Express Idea Exchange recently.

And with the footprint of companies owning IPL teams getting bigger by the day, and they showing interest in signing players on long-term contracts to play in more than one league, it presents a big challenge to the game as it has been known over the years.

Recently, Australian media reported that their cricketers have been approached by IPL franchises with multi-club deals worth millions of dollars. This could be a particularly attractive option for players nearing retirement and looking for a big payday.

“At the end of the day, everything comes with a financial reward. If you aspire to get a central contract, you‘re going to be rewarded. I think guys see the short-term at the moment with all the leagues and stuff around,” veteran Australian opener David Warner has said.

The franchise official, however, said there were a lot of loose ends to be tied before cricketers could be tied with such long-term deals to play for one employer around the world.

“Having annual contracts with one player is not that straightforward because these are tripartite agreements involving the cricket board, player and the franchise. However, we are far away from a scenario where owners will sign a player for two or more of their teams to get a long-term commitment,” the official said.

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