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