April 19, 2012

England and India: two sides of the cricket coin

The IPL and county cricket are not as irreconcilable as many think. And cricket needs both

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.

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

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • John on April 22, 2012, 18:53 GMT

    @jay57870 on (April 22 2012, 15:26 PM GMT) I know that all is rosy with IPL in your world but it is not with everyone. I admit it's a great success , big crowds , raucous atmosphere but maybe other countries are happy with their own tournaments. Re "Cricket-lovers need to look beyond their own backyards & borders" -Cricket lovers need to watch whatever cricket they want to watch. The thing is the IPL isn't that big over in England. It is shown on ITV4 , who would only have paid a very small amount of money to show it. Don't get me wrong , I quite enjoy some of the IPL games but the fact is that most non Indian fans would rather watch their own T20 tourns than IPL - no matter how comparatively small they are

  • Jay on April 22, 2012, 15:26 GMT

    Globalisation is the name of the game. Cricket is the "second most popular sport" (per TIME Magazine) and "globally it stokes the fire in people's souls." Not surprising, given a 1.5 billion population in South Asia alone. And millions more in the rest of the cricketing world. Market forces are at work: Demand & supply, with T20 driving the game's popularity, IPL in particular. Cricket-lovers need to look beyond their own backyards & borders. It's only a matter of time before bad spring weather, peer pressure & money drive KP's English mates to join him in IPL. And at some point elite Pakistani players too will join in. Even Test competition is wide open, given recent struggles of Brits, Aussies & Indians on the road. To sustain & promote Tests, ECB & CA need to reinforce ICC's efforts to hold a World Test Championship. BCCI cannot do it alone. It should be given highest FTP priority. Just like the rising IPL tide has lifted all boats, a WTC "window" of opportunity is long overdue!

  • Bob on April 22, 2012, 14:49 GMT

    How weak a country's county system is purely incidental and of no interest outside that particular country. However, it does provide the breeding ground for cricketers with the necessary skills to graduate to test standard. And given that our test team is currently number one in the rankings, I suggest that, depsite all the huge names and reputations in other countries county teams, England must have a pretty sound system. Furthermore, Justin Langer described it as the strongest first class county system in the world.. and I'd suggest he knows more about that sort of thing than most, if not all, of the commenters on here.

  • John on April 22, 2012, 11:41 GMT

    @bestbuddy - Not necessarily. On paper and in reality can be 2 totally different things. Take last year's county championship league 1. Lancashire won the title with what on paper looked like a side which would struggle to stay up and Yorks who would have been one of the favourites to go down would have been one of the pre season favourites.Also England have a policy where their contracted players play very little cricket for their counties.On paper SA should be destroying every side they play in tests but in reality when they are not drawing series (which they have with most of their series from the last few years) they are just ekeing out a series wins by a single test. India on paper should be at the top of the T20 rankings - in reality they are 7th and nearer to Ireland than England in the rankings.Also re Hall , he is playing div 2 cricket in Eng and possibly has improved his batting anyway.If Eng's domestic game is so weak they have overachieved big time to be worlds number 1

  • Daniel on April 22, 2012, 9:53 GMT

    With all due respect to Mark Nicholas, England have the most watered down first class system in the world after India. There isnt a single first class team in England capable of winning the first class competitions in either of South Africa or Australia - nor any other of these countries domestic trophies. 18 county teams vs 6 franchisees/6 state sides, which competition do you think will have more international quality players per team? It is no surprise to see players like Andrew Hall have averaged almost 10 runs per innings more in England than in South Africa, despite far more challenging conditions for the first 1-2 months of the season. Hell, New South Wales in Aus have in the past contained 11 Australian players almost every season for the past decade or so, while even a weak Warriors franchise in SA had Botha, Ntini, Parnell, Boucher, Boje, Kallis, tsotsobe and ingram in 2010/2011, all international players past/present

  • John on April 21, 2012, 20:45 GMT

    @jay57870 on Have to pick you up on a few points here. 1 - I'd say India possibly have overcooked the IPL to the detriment of the national side. In test cricket they have not even looked competitive in England and Australia and the T20 side were languishing in 7th in the rankings last time I looked. Also England does promote it's own test cricket quite well. Many of the tests these days are sold out and the domestic T20s are often packed out too. Also I'm not sure how many English players actually went up for auction this year which would suggest that they preferred to prepare for the home series with WI and SA at home rather than play the IPL. Fair play to KP for backing up his words but they weren't directed at his "mates" and if they were I'm sure his "mates" would disown him. It was just a bit of publicity which to a degree worked.

  • Rivka on April 21, 2012, 17:58 GMT

    The writer is being too kind. Nobody needs the IPL. The IPL has been disastrous for Indian cricket. India needs a competitive domestic circuit which produces quality players. At this point the Indian cricket board shows no sign of wanting to improve the status of first class cricket in India.

  • Dummy4 on April 21, 2012, 16:52 GMT

    @zenboomerng- thats y its Indian premier league, so its focused on Indians.

  • Jay on April 21, 2012, 12:51 GMT

    In his Bradman Oration, Rahul Dravid stressed the need for cricket to balance all 3 formats. Overscheduling must be avoided. The fan must be respected. Great Test players like Rahul, Sachin & Co have committed to help India rise to the top in all 3 formats. It held the Test crown before England. To say that India pays "scant respect" to the longer form & pays "homage to the short-form" is not valid, precisely on account of its long Test history & success in all formats. Each nation must build its own "commercial ecosystem" to make cricket viable. IPL is now the golden goose. But India cannot do it alone. Nor should it be held solely responsible or accountable. It's a shared role, where England & Australia must assume more active ownership, precisely because of their superior first-class cricket systems & great traditions. Just like Brits spare no effort to preserve & promote tennis (Wimbledon) & golf (British Open). Ditto the Aussies & the Australian Opens. So, why not Test cricket?

  • Jay on April 21, 2012, 12:39 GMT

    India is doing it in its own way to sustain & enhance cricket. It has history on its side. IPL is a 100% sanctioned sport. Unlike the rebel WSC in the 70s. If IPL is "unashamedly commercial" or in the "hands of marketers and money men" then what was the breakaway WSC? Recall Packer's dubious tactics to gain exclusive TV rights & mass marketing, and slyly lure Aussie/Brit players with lucrative WSC deals. Worse still, the rebel tours of South Africa in the 80s. In those turbulent times, India showed guts to scorn Packer. As the late Tiger Pataudi revealed in a 2010 speech: "Not a single Indian cricketer" joined WSC despite "the English captain (Tony Greig?) ... surreptitiously recruiting for Kerry." In fact, BCCI took a principled stand by hosting "second-rate teams, but to full houses. A lot of money was made and shared between the countries and cricket survived"! Because of its conscionable efforts, "India and Indian cricket earned a huge amount of goodwill and gratitude"!

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