April 4, 2013

If it's April, it must be the IPL

Once, spring meant county cricket, but there's no denying the centre of the cricket world has moved east since

In just a moment or two the county cricket season begins. This used to be a big deal but, as if we needed a metaphor for change, we have it with the start of the sixth Indian Premier League - a tournament that consumes the second-largest nation on the planet in a way that seemed inconceivable less than a decade ago.

The best players in the world once arrived in bitter England, swapping sandals for socks and discovering the cable knits of many county colours to be their closest ally. Now they head to India. It is a franchised game that pays the bucks and Kolkata Knight Riders who grab the headlines from Daredevils and Super Kings, Warriors, Indians and Royals. No more spring days in Nottinghamshire, Sussex or Somerset, and to think, from those three counties alone, English cricket had Hadlee and Rice, Imran and Le Roux, Richards and Garner. House bands to die for but no one cranking up the volume. Quel domage! We cling on in England, truly thinking that three different 18 county competitions starting in early April is the way forward. It's quaint, it's okay but it's not the 21st century.

My first full county season for Hampshire was 1978. We turned up for pre-season training on April 1st and huddled around a lone dressing-room radiator until the coach came and told us which net to bowl in. You hoped for Barry Richards or Gordon Greenidge, balancing the desire to see them up close against the certainty that fielding off your own bowling would be a brutal experience. Lunch was a pint and a pie at the local pub and in the afternoon another bowl at the gods or fielding practice under absurd weather conditions. By 7 o'clock you were back in the pub, and at closing time it was home for a bowl of cornflakes - unless it was Friday, of course, and then you could afford a curry. I always figured there was more to Indian food than the Kohi Noor in Totton, Southampton, rather as I suspected that India wouldn't depend on Sunil Gavaskar forever.

In those days the "capped" and "uncapped" players changed in separate dressing rooms, or separate buildings at Hampshire. We were issued with a blazer, tie and cap along with a couple of sweaters. That was pretty much that. The pay cheque was £21.50 per week - and the 50 mattered. On occasion, promotion would come in the form of 12th man duties for the 1st XI. The upsides were a stint at third man while a senior player had a rub down, and signing a few autographs - mind you, the shrill of one teenager offering his mate "10 of these for a Richards or Greenidge" soon crashed us back to earth. The downside was running the baths for the bitten old professionals - "Too hot kid, much too cold kid"; fulfilling the close-of-play drinks list correctly - "Where's my lager and lime youngster?"; and paying for your own dinner alongside tight buggers who logged every spare rib as if it were on the commodities exchange.

The IPL is shamelessly commercial, outrageously kitsch, variously gifted, and sometimes even surprisingly exciting given the gulf between good player and bad. That's entertainment!

There was no training as such. In the winter months we ran and played football and squash to keep reasonably fit. Then from the start of April we played cricket, indoors and out. We were all bowling fit because we did so much damn bowling. There were some injuries but not many. Playing through a bit of pain was a given; you wanted the job. We helped run the scoreboard on big games and ran the covers on and off the outfield if rain came. We had a ball, really, and dreamt of playing for Hampshire and England. But it was an old pro's world, not a place for dreamers. There was no enlightenment.

And then suddenly, as if transported into the 1980s by the Starship Enterprise, we had sponsors, kit, tracksuits, trainers and a gym. We had direction and support and something close to equality. This seismic change in approach was out of Australia and the Caribbean, where first World Series Cricket and then a phenomenal West Indian team modernised the idea of professionalism by taking it to mean the pursuit of excellence, not the inherently selfish grind of earning a quid on the production line. Come the revolution.

Kerry Packer had done the trick, shaking the game's core. There was more money and the action was high quality. Briefly, county cricket became a nerve centre and anyone who was anyone wanted a piece of it. Allan Border played a couple of seasons for Essex and thought it a better standard than the Sheffield Shield at that time. The banned South Africans came pretty much en masse, as did most of the champion West Indians and the talented Pakistanis. India's finest cricketers, Gavaskar and Kapil Dev, were an even greater coup than Richard Hadlee and Martin Crowe from New Zealand. And Border wasn't the only Australian. Incredibly, Dennis Lillee and Jeff Thomson had a crack as well. We listened and we learned from these amazing cricketers. Around the world, lovers of the game knew the teams we played for and followed the scores, and the resulting success and failure, by the media of the moment. These were county cricket's halcyon days, when Hollywood's lust for Ian Botham was matched by the nation's crush on David Gower. Not that the administrators knew it. The county game hasn't changed much, and in full summer swing it still has merit, but the people have changed. The stars have gone, east.

Like it or not, their world is the IPL today and you don't have to love T20 to see the IPL in all its glory.

Give 'em the old razzle dazzle
Razzle dazzle 'em
Give 'em a show that's so splendiferous
Row after row will grow vociferous
How can they hear the truth above the roar
Razzle dazzle 'em
And they'll beg you for more

It is an utterly seductive affair, I have it on now as I write and the commentators can barely contain their highly strung vocals. If only it were just background but David Warner is a whizz and Mahela Jayawardene is a joy. I'm hooked. There are greats and legends and icons and veterans. It is shamelessly commercial, outrageously kitsch, variously gifted, and sometimes even surprisingly exciting given the gulf between good player and bad. That's entertainment! And Kerry Packer had nothing to do with it and it has nothing to do with county cricket. It is where we are, every April, in IPL land. And that applies to the cricketers of Nottinghamshire, Sussex and Somerset because they wish they could bin the beanies and the mittens and the warm-up matches against the Universities and be there too.

Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel 9 in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Mir on April 8, 2013, 18:13 GMT

    Test is best, but you can't ignore IPL. Where else would you see all the star players together in a domestic competition? Since ODI and T20 cricketers are financially better off and cricket has become more fun for the players and fans. Different formats need different sets of skills and fans are able to see more talented players on show

  • Dummy4 on April 7, 2013, 21:34 GMT

    What ever people may say about ipl but the truth is that ipl is a complete entertainment. County cricket is still good and players want to play in it but just think about how many uncapped players get fair amount of money in it? This is 21st century and IPL has created its own position in world sports!

    I just enjoy watching cricket and when anyone watch it, they expect entertainment.

    Accept the reality.... there is no point criticizing IPL

  • Jay on April 7, 2013, 0:27 GMT

    Mark - London Olympics 2012 were billed as the "greatest show on earth"! The Queen received a Bafta for her "most memorable Bond girl" stunt at the Opening Ceremony! Yes, that's entertainment! So why not IPL Cricketainment? Forget Kerry Packer. Welcome Kate Perry: She kicked off IPL 2012 with Hollywood & Bollywood on the same stage. You see IPL is the Great Equaliser! Where icons & no-names, haves & have-nots, old & young share the same dressing-room! Where participants from all corners aspire for a piece of the "commonwealth"! Where old foes (Sydney-Gate '08) hug each other: Symmo & Bhajji! Where 9 of that Oz XI made good in restoring the "spirit of cricket" alongside the Indians! Where Ponting, Johnson, Tendulkar, Harbhajan, mentor Kumble of MI beat Dhoni, Hussey of CSK in a cliff-hanger today! Where the real KP in a knee-brace flew in from cold London - for a hot DD-RR contest at Kotla - declaring: "I'd rather be playing in this brilliant tournament"! Is ECB listening, Mark?

  • Santanu on April 6, 2013, 1:08 GMT

    The reason why the IPL does not produce high quality cricket has less to do with the T20 format and more to do with Indian pitches, which are heavily biased in favor of the batsman. If the IPL ever graduates from being an Indian entertainment event to a serious aspect of world cricket, its venue ought to be be rotated among the major cricket playing countries. An IPL match played at the MCG and Perth, or Lords and Headingly, will be quite a different affair than one played at Eden Gardens and the Chinnaswamy stadium.

  • Chandru on April 5, 2013, 21:03 GMT

    Where can you see Sachin and Ricky open the innings? Only in IPL! Long Live both Sachin and Ricky - two truly great cricketers of modern era.

  • John on April 5, 2013, 16:54 GMT

    @Cpt.Meanster on (April 4, 2013, 22:57 GMT) To be fair , many of those comments are in response to folk who come on threads where IPL is a side issue and slate the domestic sides and the national sides for not releasing THEIR players during THEIR domestic seasons and look down their noses at THEIR domestic tournaments because they may have ambition but not the realistic finances to match IPL. Yes IPL is a huge tournament but that does not mean to say that it has to appeal to everyone

    Please publish this time. There is nothing of offence or untrue.

  • vas on April 5, 2013, 12:06 GMT

    Playing T20, cricketers invented new awkward looking shots like scoops and reverse sweeps and other yet to be named shots because they couldn't afford to play dot balls. The balls which are not in their zone need to be put away at the risk of loosing their wickets since there are plenty of batters to last 20 overs. Now that we are used to seeing those shots, they don't look awkward any more. You need talent to master these shots .

  • Dummy4 on April 5, 2013, 11:09 GMT

    The old world charm of county cricket would still be infectious for the purists = your rendering of the same was super soulful - nevertheless you also appreciate IPL - thus being in the present yet reminiscing the past. Good article to read..

  • John on April 5, 2013, 9:34 GMT

    Surely both formats (Test and T20) both have different plus points and different minus points and it depends on your particular preference. Also in places like India a T20 international would attract a bigger crowd than a test match and in Eng and Aus a big Ashes test would attract bigger crowds than a shorter formats so surely it's as much a geographical/culural thing.

    I must admit when I watch IPL at times it goes very slowly. Obviously when we see the tight finishes like in yesterday's game it's different but are the IPL games played at a slower pace than other T20 games or did it just seem that way to me?

    Personally I think non IPL fans should accept or ignore the competition and IPL fans should enjoy the format but not try and force their views accross as gospel and accept that certain countries/domestic teams have their own priorities which do not involve IPL.