The Indian Premier League, English cricket and how the game got its sex appeal back
The IPL returns today, a six-week whizz-bang of sixes and showbiz held across India that will in May reach its climax and fade from public view again almost as quickly as it appeared.
It was the tournament that first catapulted cricket into the 21st century as the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) realised that they were losing the battle for the public attention in what is the sport’s biggest market.
However, it was in England that the format was first introduced to the professional game in 2003. The vote was put to the 18 counties and remarkably, only 11 of them went in favour. It was enough to make it happen though and the sport quickly changed forever.
Given the timing, England were ahead of the curve. The instant gratification generation who had grown up with Facebook and Twitter were only just starting to emerge, the perfect people to enjoy this new form of cricket.
But somehow the English game missed the point. Perhaps with a third of the country’s teams not in favour, there wasn’t a cohesive, concerted effort to move the game forward.
So when first India and then West Indies, South Africa, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Australia adopted a franchise-style T20 competition, England would barely let their players travel to play in it, never mind copy them.
It was not until this year that England, T20 world champions in 2010, finally threw their weight behind players travelling to play in the IPL and by all accounts it took Andrew Strauss, born in South Africa, and Trevor Bayliss, an Australian, to make the changes happen.
And the English players involved — there are eight of them in India — have been brought in as highly valuable assets. Tymal Mills and Ben Stokes are two of the most expensive overseas players while Eoin Morgan, who unlike his countrymen already has nearly 50 IPL appearances to his name, brings the weight of the England ODI captaincy with him.
Now, we will see franchised T20 cricket arrive in England at long last and it could happen as early as next year. What it looks like and where the teams will play is still unclear, but one thing is certain — the interest is there and we must welcome it.
I remember last year going to the Oval on Friday night with my Dad, who had first taken me to the ground for the Ashes Test in 2001, my first ever Test match. It became an annual pilgrimage even though on that sultry August day we watched Steve Waugh destroy an already pulverised England attack, dodging dropped pints from topless, overweight middle-aged men.
Some 15 years later, we were once again dodging pints and my father, just as he had on our first visit, complained that half these people weren’t even watching the cricket.
“But 20,000 of them have bought a ticket, they’re buying food and drink and look at who they are,” I retorted.
We looked around. These people were young, there were families, there were children, there were women. Cricket had become the sport of the masses again. It had threatened to become the preserve of the elite and those who enjoyed the players outnumbering the crowd while mediocre teams played out games depleted by the departure of the world’s best to play in leagues elsewhere.
Instead, England is one of the best T20 leagues in the world and the crowds are streaming into county grounds up and down the land.
And if you want to go down to Hove on a Tuesday and watch County Championship cricket with a couple of hundred people, you still can. And that will still be okay. The only difference now is that these clubs are in far ruder health than they were 10 years ago.