How England learned to fall in love with the IPL

Ten years ago it was anathema, but now the ECB is effectively paying its players to take part

Tim Wigmore
Tim Wigmore
In February 2008, Dimitri Mascarenhas was in New Zealand for a limited-overs series with England when a number flashed up on his phone. It was Shane Warne, who had just been signed by Rajasthan Royals as their captain in the inaugural IPL auction.
"It was completely out the blue," Mascarenhas recalls. "Warnie said, 'Do you want to come?' I was like, 'Absolutely, yeah.'"
The second IPL auction, for players unwanted in the first or who had not entered before, was in a few weeks. To enter, Mascarenhas needed Hampshire, his county and primary employers - who had just made him their new captain - to agree.
"There was a lot of resistance," Mascarenhas recalls. Eventually Hampshire let him enter the auction, and then take part in the inaugural IPL - but only for two weeks of their choosing, which entailed missing as little county cricket as possible.
"It wasn't ideal. Warnie wanted me to go for the whole thing. Initially I wanted to go for the whole thing as well. But I understood that from Hampshire's point of view, losing their captain from the first two months of the season wasn't great. We came to a compromise which suited both." And so Mascarenhas became a quiet revolutionary. He became the first Englishman to sign up to the IPL when he joined Rajasthan for US$100,000 in the March 11 auction - though, as his deal was pro rata, he only received a fraction of that.
Mascarenhas played just a solitary game in the first season of the IPL, but dismissed AB de Villiers in that match, helping Rajasthan beat Delhi Daredevils. "He just tried to hit me into the leg side and it went straight up into the air to Warnie. That was a pretty good scalp. I'll take that any day of the week."
Compared to his T20 experience in county cricket, "The IPL was totally different - 50,000 Indians, who are just more passionate than any nation you can imagine about cricket, just screaming and shouting the whole time. The noise was just relentless. It was a proper atmosphere.
"The first English player to play in the IPL - I count myself lucky to have had that opportunity. I always called for more English players playing straight away. They could only benefit from that experience."
In his first year in India, Mascarenhas remembers it was serious cricket "but there was definitely some fun to be had along the way. There were a lot of parties after every game - it was an amazing spectacle." By 2010, "there was a sense of becoming more professional off the field as well as on the field".
For a long time, the initial opposition to Mascarenhas going to Rajasthan was an emblem of England's relationship with the IPL. While every other Full Member - even Pakistan, who sent eight players to the 2008 tournament - embraced the realities of the tournament, England remained steadfast in their opposition.
Two months after the IPL began, Giles Clarke welcomed Allen Stanford and his Stanford-emblazoned helicopter - it was actually rented, and just had his company logo painted on - onto the outfield at Lord's.
England were deeply suspicious of the IPL, yet they were not oblivious to it, recognising how it transformed the economic incentives in the sport. Hence the appeal of Stanford, who with his promise of an annual $20 million winner-takes-all match, could allow England's centrally contracted cricketers to enjoy riches to rival the IPL without actually playing in it. While India and South Africa, reportedly his first two choices, rejected his offer, Clarke and the ECB welcomed it. Later in 2008, England were eviscerated in the 20-20 for 20 match at Stanford's private ground in Antigua; three months later, Stanford was sentenced to 110 years imprisonment for fraud in the US.
Yet, long after Stanford was behind bars, England's disapproval of the IPL remained. In 2009, the ECB only brokered a compromise with their centrally contracted players in January, allowing them to appear in the first three weeks of the tournament. As Clarke had explained, "What would be said if a centrally contracted player was allowed to go to the IPL, then got injured and couldn't play in the Ashes?"
Clarke's prophesy proved correct. Two Tests into the home Ashes, Kevin Pietersen was injured, and his achilles problem in part blamed on his IPL involvement.
The truce between England's players and board remained uneasy. Like the Kellogg-Briand Pact of 1928, which rendered war between states illegal, the deal had the sense of sounding brilliant in theory but less well suited to real life. England's players could play for a short period each year, and would be increasingly well remunerated by the board for internationals. County players needed their counties - who would receive 1% of their county salaries back for each of the first 21 days they were away, and then 0.7% each thereafter - to agree. (Before 2012, the IPL teams in question reimbursed the counties, but since then it is the players themselves.) Some counties only let players enter the auction at a high price: in 2014, Nottinghamshire stipulated that Alex Hales and Samit Patel needed to receive a bid of at least $400,000 to be allowed to go. Some players chose to enter for a high fee, because otherwise they could actually lose money, taking into account reimbursing their counties.
For England's players, the terms of the deal became less appealing as IPL franchises became savvier: with sides valuing continuity and cohesiveness, the notion of recruiting England players for a mere few weeks, and having them invariably miss the tournament playoffs, became less attractive.
In a sense the bargain also became less advantageous for the ECB: while they had the financial heft to keep their internationals on side, the IPL relegated the first Test series of England's summer to a B-list event, with the IPL either depriving their best opponents of practice time in English conditions, or increasingly leading to star visiting players missing the series altogether.
Naturally it was Pietersen who exposed these fissures, in the summer of 2012. First, he said that the IPL's struggles in England were "down to a lot of jealousy". Then he retired from both forms of limited-overs international cricket in 2012; he had wanted to retire from ODIs only, but his contract prevented him from doing so. After his offer to return to play all forms - but only if he could play the entire 2013 IPL, missing two Tests against New Zealand - was rejected, Pietersen sent the notorious texts about Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss to South African players during the series.
Yet the central irony of England's relationship with the IPL is that it is Strauss, more than anyone else, who has embraced the Pietersen line: the more England players who can play in the IPL, the better - not just for financial reasons but also for their professional development, and ultimately for the good of the England team. And so, after Strauss was appointed as director of England cricket, confronting the detritus of their performance in the 2015 World Cup, he took the avowed view that playing in the IPL would not merely be tolerated, it would be actively encouraged.
When England played their first game since the 2015 World Cup, in Dublin, their captain, Eoin Morgan, was playing for Sunrisers Hyderabad instead. Strauss reasoned that, for England to be more successful in tournament cricket, their players needed more IPL experience.
On occasion, IPL experience appears more impediment than benefit. Last year Jason Roy went to the IPL as England's potential tournament winner in the Champions Trophy. He left it having played only three games - including one batting at six, which felt like using Mesut Ozil at right-back - and with his form disintegrating in the wake of a lack of game time, was dropped during the Champions Trophy.
Still, even this chastening experience did nothing to deter England from embracing the IPL with ever more gusto. The new Future Tours Programme, from 2020, will minimise England's internationals in May - thereby making England's players available for the entirety of the tournament, and hence far more attractive to franchises. Counties - even Surrey, which is by far the wealthiest - feel powerless to prevent their players joining the IPL, even as replacements in the final days before the county season begins. County cricket in April and May is now, in effect, played only by those not deemed good enough to win an IPL deal.
Rather than the ECB, it is the counties themselves who are now fighting to quell the IPL's influence: a rearguard to protect their own relevance and not become glorified feeder clubs for IPL franchises. This year, for the first time ever, a full 11 England cricketers are featuring in the IPL, with David Willey, who left a Yorkshire pre-season friendly midway through, on the brink of becoming the 12th.
Two years ago Sam Billings entered the IPL auction at Strauss' encouragement. He received such a low fee - Rs 30 lakhs (approximately US$ 46,000) - that, when taking into account reimbursing Kent, Billings was losing money from his IPL experience. Strauss used the ECB's coffers to reimburse Billings.
Where once the ECB dissuaded their players from taking part in the IPL, now it was actively paying them to do so. Nothing better embodies how England's attitudes towards the competition have been transformed. Yet it is this very rapprochement that has made the counties increasingly vulnerable to being plundered by the IPL. Whether counties will accept their subservient position to the league or can chart a different course is one of the burning questions in the English game - and with England players increasingly attractive, one that has never felt so urgent.

Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts