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England's attitude towards the IPL won't please everyone. But what is the alternative?

Criticism of players resting for India Tests jars with England's success since embracing the IPL

George Dobell
George Dobell
Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer are key players for Rajasthan Royals  •  BCCI

Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer are key players for Rajasthan Royals  •  BCCI

There was a resigned look on the face of Chris Silverwood, England's head coach, when he was asked about the IPL on Tuesday. Not resigned to losing his players, perhaps, as much as resigned to the question reoccurring after all this time.
England's attitude to the IPL - which is, in short, to accept it as a fact of life and embrace the benefits it offers - will never please everyone. And, at times of stress, it may be used as a stick to beat them. But, emotive though it may be for some looking for quick fixes, it isn't in the top dozen issues facing English cricket.
Besides, you would think the matter had been resolved by now. Since England have embraced the IPL, relationships with their own players have improved and they've won a World Cup. And, in winning 2-0 in Sri Lanka despite resting Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer, they showed they had done a pretty good job of managing the rotation process.
But matters have been exacerbated by the Covid pandemic. It has resulted in this year's IPL starting five months after the last edition finished and players being forced to live in a lockdown environment which increases the difficulties of being away from home for long periods. And while most of England's top players have been free to take part in the IPL, they have subsequently been rested for international duty. Jos Buttler, Jonny Bairstow and Sam Curran will all miss Tests in India for this reason.
"What can you say? We've decided to rest and rotate [and] we've decided we need to look after the players. And I do believe we have to be proactive in looking after them, rather than wait until there's a problem."
Chris Silverwood, England's coach, defends their selection policy
Some will argue that isn't right, and that playing for your country should always take precedence. Well, it's a nice thought. But it's simplistic. Professional cricket is a business. The reason these international tours are being staged now, at vast expense and with great inconvenience to the tourists, is not to provide cheer amid the gloom of lockdown, beneficial as that is. It's to satisfy the economic demands of the game. And once you accept that money defines everything in this relationship, you understand why the IPL - with its vast broadcast deals, salaries and sponsorship tie-ins - has its dominant place in the cycle. Besides, when the international schedule is packed to saturation point, it's inevitable there will be a sense of dilution around the sense of prestige.
For those who don't accept this, imagine, for a moment, the alternative to England's IPL policy. Imagine the England management refusing to release players from their central contracts to appear in the IPL. They have, to some extent, been down that road before. But it would result, in time, in players being forced to choose. And life in England's bio-secure bubble - month after month of hotel room isolation away from family and friends - is really not all that attractive right now. Some of the top players could well conclude they could earn as much from a few weeks in India, Australia and the Caribbean - and enjoy a far less arduous lifestyle - as they would from their central contracts. Some of those that stayed in their central contracts might feel resentment, too. That's not a healthy attitude in a dressing room.
Look what happened to West Indies when they enforced such a policy. It didn't result in greater availability. It resulted in many of their best players simply going long periods without representing them at all, let alone in all formats, all year round.
And there are positives to IPL involvement. For a start, the players are exposed to high-quality competition in conditions which they may otherwise rarely experience. They get to play with and against many of the best players in the world. They get to share ideas and learn new skills. With a T20 World Cup in India at the end of 2021, you would think that experiences there at present would be especially valuable.
None of these ideas are new. As far back as 2010, Paul Collingwood credited his IPL experiences as crucial to England's success in the World T20, England's first global limited-overs trophy. In the IPL, he had recognised the importance of having a left-arm seamer and, as a result, picked Ryan Sidebottom ahead of James Anderson in the England side.
More recently, Archer played a huge role in England's 2019 World Cup win. He bowled that Super Over less than three months after his international debut, having graduated into the England side as an almost fully-formed bowler. The IPL played a significant part in that development and England's change of attitude towards it was reflective of their increasing prioritisation of limited-overs cricket.
It's not unheard of for players to skip the IPL, either. Chris Woakes and Jason Roy opted out of the last edition and Stokes missed part of it to spend time with his family. The situation is not as black and white as is sometimes claimed. It's possible some England players will miss some part of the next IPL, too.
None of that should blind us to the drawbacks. The chief one of those is that IPL involvement is another demand on the top players. And, in an environment which already requires an unreasonable amount of them, that's an issue.
Equally, it's played during the English domestic season. That means it dilutes the quality of county cricket and lessens the development opportunity it should be providing. It's forced England to abandon the idea of two Tests in May, too, effectively reducing their window for hosting international cricket.
And for all the playing benefits, players have sometimes come back from IPL duty having struggled to retain the levels of fitness required for the demands of longer-form international cricket. It's not a perfect scenario, by any means.
But the ECB have made a virtue of necessity and embraced the positive aspects of the arrangement. Yes, they talk up those positives and ignore the negatives. But what, really, is the alternative? Moaning about the IPL is like moaning about English winters and getting old: it might be understandable, but it won't make any difference.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo