May 26, 2009

Who needs first-class cricket?

Why the success of the IPL may mean that domestic cricket could lose its value as a stepping stone to the Test platform

Most cricket clubs have a few older players still good enough for first XI selection who nonetheless prefer to muck about around in the second XI, usually on the grounds that it's time to "give the kids a go", although often as not because they like the easy runs and cheap wickets available when playing slightly beneath one's class. Did the second season of the IPL give a foretaste of a similar phenomenon in the global game?

Eight of the Australian team appearing at the Oval against West Indies on 6 June for the ICC World Twenty20 will be there because they are their country's best players. Three will be there because Adam Gilchrist, Matthew Hayden and Shane Warne are not playing, having demonstrated in South Africa that if they are overripe for Test selection, they still ooze juice in Twenty20. For champions Deccan Chargers and semi-finalists Chennai Super Kings respectively, Gilchrist and Hayden hammered a total of 1067 runs at a strike-rate of 148.2; Warne took 14 wickets at 26, gave away just 7.3 an over, and threw himself around in the field.

The trio looked, moreover, to have worked the format to their advantage, perhaps because South African conditions asked more questions of cricketers than the benign and controlled environments of the first season - which, all in all, actually made for some very interesting viewing in the cricket breaks between the advertisements.

Hayden was unrecognisable from the stumblebum who shuffled out of Test cricket to the sound of his own feet in January; Gilchrist was entirely recognisable, as international cricket's most electrifying hitter for the last decade. And not since Rififi has there been a bigger heist than the Rajasthan Royals' comeback against Mumbai Indians at Kingsmead on May 14, with Warne winkling out Ajinkya Rahane, then Sanath Jayasuriya and Sachin Tendulkar, and finally throwing the ball to Munaf Patel for that larcenous final over.

Age and endurance might have been a problem had Hayden, Gilchrist and Warne been pitted in a longer format, but Twenty20 is a basic form of the game, so players with good basics prosper - see also Anil Kumble and Rahul Dravid. So ask yourself, who do you think opening bowlers in the World Twenty20 would prefer to bowl to? Hayden and Gilchrist or David Warner and Brad Haddin, good cricketers that they are? And who would a batsman sooner back himself against? Warne or Nathan Hauritz?

Okay, so it won't happen: Australia's selectors are as likely to borrow Hayden, Gilchrist and Warne from the IPL as a Pakistan team-mate is to borrow Shoaib Akhtar's protector. The reason is, of course, that the three are officially "retired" from "all forms of the game". But that is actually all. To clarify the situation, I enquired with Cricket Australia a few weeks ago about whether Australian players had to be chosen from within the ranks of Australian domestic cricketers. The answer took a little while coming back, but it was a no.

Where "unretired" players were concerned, it could be a little more complicated: for instance, for the purposes of the calculation of provident-fund entitlements (the superannuation scheme for Australian players, which operates on a sliding scale favourable to those with more games), the player would apparently be considered to be starting his career again rather than resuming after a break. But the inference of the reply was intriguing: that, theoretically, nothing prevented David Warner playing only for Delhi Daredevils and Australia - he need not play for New South Wales. Nor, it implied, was there any impediment to, say, Phillip Hughes devoting himself full time to banana farming at 25, and only coming to town for Test matches and to represent the Chittagong Challenge Rider Kings or whoever has been added to the IPL by 2014-15.

If you were a West Indian, how would you be feeling towards the Test cricket that your captain regards as such servitude? Would you perhaps be just a little envious of your pal Dwayne Bravo's Mumbai-Indians payday?

For Australians the IPL seems a distant affair, on television at an ungodly hour, involving a kaleidoscope of uniforms and a cacophony of commentary, and competing for attention, none too successfully, with the clamourings of the various football codes. Yet the gravitational pull it is exerting on cricket here is no less significant for its subtlety. Already there has been one instance of an Australian-born player jumping the queue to national selection because of IPL feats, in the form of Shaun Marsh, who aside from back-to-back 70s against South Africa last summer hasn't quite substantiated his Kings XI Punjab reputation. A potential long-term development might be a gifted Australian under-19 player talent scouted by an IPL franchise, coming thereby to the attention of an English county or a South African province, and presenting for national selection having bypassed his country's first-class structure altogether.

How much, meanwhile, would Andrew Symonds be looking forward to the prospect of starting next season back in the Sheffield Shield, having partaken of the lotuses of IPL but missed out again on Ashes selection - probably his last chance? The disaffected player once had no choice but to accept the bad with the good. But why mess around with Snakes & Ladders if you can simply play Monopoly?

Among the players of the Test-playing nations, of course, Australians are better off than most. The baggy green is lined with crisp green. If you were a West Indian, however, how would you be feeling towards the Test cricket that your captain regards as such servitude? Would you perhaps be just a little envious of your pal Dwayne Bravo's Mumbai-Indians payday? And look 10 years hence; who will wish to be playing international cricket over the age of 30 if it becomes an inhibition on one's earning capacity, as indeed members of Gayle's team in England already appear to regard it, and if Lalit Modi is as good as his word in mooting a second IPL tournament every year?

These are among the questions that the irresistible rise of IPL continues to pose, and the influence it promises to wield, while remaining, of course, as we're incessantly reminded, simply an Indian "domestic" tournament - albeit shaped over the last six weeks in South Africa, even more than last year, chiefly by the talents of players from other countries. This ICC World Twenty20 is one thing; by the next, chances are, cricket will look different again, with the imponderable being not who might be there but who might not.

Gideon Haigh is a cricket historian and writer