England and India: two sides of the cricket coin
Rarely can cricket have provided a better metaphor for the state of two nations than in the past fortnight or so. While the English county season opened to four-day matches on emerald green fields in bitterly cold conditions, another cricketing land halfway across the world launched the full swing of the Indian Premier League. Not so long ago the game's international summer playground was in the shires - Malcolm Marshall's first game for Hampshire in 1979 was delayed by snow - but now the good and great gravitate to the expensive franchises and parched pitches of India for the helter-skelter of 76 three-hour matches that satisfy the hunger of an increasingly virile nation. India may have been the slowest ICC member to embrace Twenty20 but it has surely been the fastest to make something tangible from it.
England continues to wrestle with the first-class format. The Morgan Report recommends slap and tickle to the existing system when the existing system is bursting at the seams. Given the clichéd blank sheet of paper, you wouldn't start with 18 first-class teams, but any hint of dissolution of the counties and you're up for heresy. India, meanwhile, throws the past into the past, treating Test cricket and the four-day game with scant respect and paying homage to the short-form game. India works on demand and supply, simple as that.
The unashamedly commercial IPL has branding closer to its core than bat or ball. As India goes West, towards capitalism, so the game is dropped into the hands of marketers and money men. Each game is event-driven and better for it. You leave IPL matches in high spirits, but not always because the quality of play has captured your attention, often because the peripherals have caught your eye and given you a good hit. Mediocre cricketers suffer at the hands of big, very big names that sell cars and clothes and condominiums, and with each sponsored strike for six comes a moan of pleasure and the click of the till. There is no true draft system in the IPL; there can't be. Equality is not the point. This is not a bad thing; it is just a different thing. It is the speed of the moment. Briefly I spent some time within the IPL and had a ball.
Previously I had spent 17 years as a county cricketer, starting out with Marshall that same year. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose: everything changes and everything stays the same. We played early-season matches cloaked in five sweaters and with hand warmers in our pockets. Woolly hats were favoured but not approved. Slip fielding was dangerous; being hit on the inside thigh by the new ball was stratospherically painful. We drank pints of beer in an evening - or glasses of brandy in Marshall's case - and ate mainly pie and fish with chips or curry. No skin-fold tests back then, just hours of nets before the season's play and then be damned.
The best in the world came to England for the craic. Viv and Joel; Imran and Le Roux; Hadlee and Rice; Richards and Greenidge; "Zed" and "Proccie" at "Glors" (Gloucestershire); Javed, Kepler, Kapil, AB (Border), BC (Lara), Waz, Mikey, Sunny, Sachin, even Sir Garfield Sobers. County cricket was a finishing school. Hard graft, you made a bob, it was what you did. They wouldn't come now. Well, they don't. They go to India. The Delhi Daredevils have a front four that reads: Sehwag, Pietersen, Jayawardene, Taylor. The death overs are bowled by Morne Morkel and Irfan Pathan. That's the real deal. How the great world spins.
Back then Kerry Packer's World Series Cricket had hijacked the game with significant ease and devastating impact. The best players came together and played under his marker for two Australian summers, earning money hitherto unheard of. The very English ICC of that age blew a gasket and then lost a restraint-of-trade case in the High Court. The county game took umbrage, misunderstanding the corollary of the heist. At a feisty meeting at Edgbaston in the spring of 1978, the Packer rebels defended themselves from the jealousy of their peers. Within a year Packer had the TV rights he craved, World Series closed shop, and the incomes of cricketers worldwide, including in the counties of England, began to improve. That was commerce then, the IPL is commerce now.
In the wash-up, the IPL will have improved the lot of cricketers worldwide by increasing their market cap. But, as ever with these things, blood will spill along the way. With ownership comes responsibility and from responsibility comes accountability. There is no reason on earth why India cannot drive the governance of the world game, but with the financial muscle must come pastoral care. Test cricket is the game's foundation, the trunk of the tree. From it come the various branches. No trunk, no tree.
Pompous England hates that it doesn't run the show, and the Champions League cock-up still burns. Bossy Australia wishes it hadn't let Lalit Modi steal in so damn easily. One minute their players were just that; whoosh, the next they weren't. IPL jealousy is written across many faces, the haves and have-nots. Keep your friends close and you enemies closer is the moral. India is super-smart and super-committed to its own cause.
Only the other day Kevin Pietersen made strong and relevant points about England's inability to see the IPL light. It is typical of a mistrust that has long bothered the game. Obviously enough, its root is in imperialism, but you would think the fellows in glass houses might have found a way through that old chestnut by now.
At this moment England might well have the best first-class competition in the world, alongside the top-ranked Test team. Both are born of a system that has been in place since WG was hitching his britches. India are the one-day world champions and own the most dynamic short-form tournament there has ever been. This is no coincidence. Our misgivings about one another are stoked by a voracious media, but the IPL is no more a piece of contemporary evil than the county championship is a relic. There is a need for both. Let the great world spin.
Former Hampshire batsman Mark Nicholas is the host of Channel 9's cricket coverage