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England warm up to overseas T20 leagues

Players are being actively encouraged to play in the Big Bash and explore IPL options to expand their horizons - and eventually England's

Will Macpherson
David Willey dives to try to prevent a boundary, Northamptonshire v Lancashire, NatWest T20 Blast, Final, Edgbaston, August 29, 2015

David Willey was allowed to skip a Lions tour to gain white-ball experience in the BBL ahead of the World T20  •  Getty Images

This month, England's Adil Rashid and David Willey begin stints as overseas players in the BBL. This is not a landmark as such - a number of other English players will take part, and have played in the competition before - yet it is significant.
Previously, players took part when not involved with England or when gaps appeared in their schedules, such as Ben Stokes' stint with Melbourne Renegades when he was dropped from the World Cup squad. This time England have created gaps for the betterment of their players and white-ball teams.
The deals for Rashid and Willey, with Adelaide Strikers and Perth Scorchers respectively, represent the change in attitude towards overseas T20 leagues that has taken place among those running the England set-up. They acknowledge that the BBL, IPL and the rest are hothouses of white-ball knowledge and meeting places for the world's finest short-form minds, in conditions strange to English players, before vast audiences, both live and on TV. It is an admission that the England team can better themselves by stepping out of the English system and their own comfort zones.
Those who have played in such tournaments have long extolled their virtues and seldom shy away from venting their frustrations with the ECB's failure to embrace life overseas. Luke Wright has extolled the virtue of "rubbing shoulders with top players, picking the brains of top captains, learning and training with the best in the world". Upon being made captain of Sussex's T20 team, he used the contacts he had made to sign Mahela Jayawardene and George Bailey, and his experience of playing with and against Shaun Tait to manage similarly fragile quick Tymal Mills.
"You want your players to be exposed to different conditions, environments, coaching methods, playing with different players, learning against different opposition"
Jason Gillespie
Those in charge have recognised the benefits too. Given that England are coached by Trevor Bayliss, once of Sydney Sixers and Kolkata Knight Riders, and captained by one of their most itinerant players and another strident advocate of overseas leagues, Eoin Morgan, perhaps this is no surprise.
"There has been a sea-change," Andrew Strauss, England's director of cricket, tells ESPNcricinfo. "These leagues are a melting pot of different ideas around white-ball cricket. Look at the last World Cup, look at the semi-finalists. I think 38 out of 44 players had played in the IPL. You're going to get great experiences of playing under pressure. Over the last decade or so we've been behind a lot of teams in white-ball cricket. It seems an opportunity that we cannot afford to turn down.
"International teams tend to spend a lot of time with people from that country and speaking a certain language about white-ball cricket and a certain philosophy. You can get quite wedded to that and that can be a dangerous place to be. These tournaments allow players to see things from different viewpoints, and that's also why we've tried to get someone like Jayawardene working with the team, to open up other avenues that guys might not have seen so far."
Strauss sees such leagues as a key vehicle to help prepare England for a home World Cup in 2019. "You're an overseas player, it's over to you to deliver, you can't rely on someone else," he says, also citing the personal development a player experiences living and working in an alien environment with new team-mates.
Yorkshire - and Strikers - coach Jason Gillespie agrees. "You want your players to be exposed to different conditions, environments, coaching methods, playing with different players, learning against different opposition," he says. "It helps to make them more rounded and there's lots of sharing of knowledge."
There's another tacit admission here: that England's own T20 competition, the NatWest Blast, does not prepare players for high-pressure situations. After England sealed a 3-0 series sweep over Pakistan last week, Morgan could not resist a swipe, saying England wanted to see "more guys in pressure situations" with the World T20 months away. "We don't have the privilege of a very good T20 domestic tournament, so we don't see guys under pressure that often."
Strauss agrees. "The Blast is proving very successful - you look at attendances and there's a lot to be said for it," he says. But with 18 teams and the absence of a dedicated block, it means players are constantly switching formats. "It's a very different tournament to the IPL or the BBL. I don't think you get the same type of pressure in the Blast as you do in those tournaments."
One of the Blast's major shortcomings is the lack of global interest; Sky will broadcast the BBL this month but the Blast's cumbersome, stretched schedule (which seldom sees overseas stars stay for more than a handful of games) means overseas broadcasters show no interest. None of Chris Gayle's 328 record-breaking runs for Somerset in 2015 were visible to anyone not in the ground (a maximum of 23,000 across three matches).
It is not in Strauss' remit to make changes to England's domestic structure, and he believes that while the ECB is working on coming up with "as compelling a T20 competition as possible", there is also "no way we can just adopt the IPL or BBL models in England. It's very difficult to do and probably not in the best interests of the game." As a result, the aim, where possible, is to use overseas leagues to expose England's best cricketers to high-pressure environments.
Strauss also wants English coaches to taste these competitions. Gillespie says his first season with Strikers will be "a big part of my learning as a coach". Rich Pyrah, who retired recently to join Yorkshire's coaching staff, will go with Gillespie, "to see first hand how the Big Bash is and impart some of his ideas, but importantly, just sit back and see how it works over there and hopefully bring something back to Yorkshire".
Sussex bowling coach Jon Lewis is set to spend time with Melbourne Stars, and Strauss is working on getting other coaches experience in the coming IPL and BBL seasons.
On the playing side, flexibility rules. Opportunities presented themselves with Willey, whose England experience, Strauss says, meant "the Lions environment was probably not going to add a lot", then Rashid, who is set to play a key role in the World T20 but wasn't trusted as a Test spinner in South Africa. Things will continue to be judged on a case-by-case basis. "We have a big array of opportunities and we've got to use it wisely in each case," Strauss says.
The IPL, due to its timing, remains the elephant in the room. Pietersen picked apart English cricket's attitude towards the competition in his autobiography, concluding that the tricky relationship was down to "jealousy", and saying that players grew "uneasy" when the topic was raised as they feared being dropped for taking part. He also famously described talking to Strauss about the IPL as akin to explaining "gangsta rap to a vicar".
Now, though, Strauss acknowledges that the IPL is the T20 benchmark. He has clarified that players will not be allowed to miss Tests (the 2016 edition finishes on May 29, midway through England's second Test against Sri Lanka) but says some white-ball specialists will be encouraged to enter the auction.
Tests remain English cricket's Everest. No one has yet come out and said otherwise; Willey joined Gillespie at Yorkshire with the explicit aim of furthering his Test ambitions, while Alex Hales has long stated his (surely soon to be completed) desire to make the transition from white ball to red. The fears Pietersen highlighted still ring true. Joe Root, Jos Buttler - now scrapping to regain his Test spot - and Stokes are reportedly unlikely to enter the 2016 IPL auction due to the clash of interests. Pietersen, of course, forewent Sunrisers Hyderabad for Surrey when he sniffed a Test recall earlier this year, while Morgan made a similar decision 12 months earlier.
"Over the last decade or so we've been behind a lot of teams in white-ball cricket. It seems an opportunity that we cannot afford to turn down"
Andrew Strauss
There are other barriers, too. Counties understandably want access to their best players for a vital period of grunt (the Championship will begin its seventh round of fixtures as the IPL ends), which could cause issues if those in the national set-up are granted leave. Gillespie says Yorkshire will not allow players to go, but Nottinghamshire's Mick Newell is more flexible with the likes of Hales.
"If we want Alex to play the majority of his cricket for Notts," he says, "then we have to allow him to play for other people as well, and that hopefully means a lot of England, but also other franchise teams too. He's not just a Nottinghamshire cricketer any more. We give him our blessing because we still want to see him play for Notts 80% of the season rather than nothing."
Players sacrifice approximately 1% of their annual county salary for every day that they miss for the IPL, which means they must command huge prices at the auction to make a two-month stint worthwhile. In previous years, high base prices have meant the likes of Hales going unsold. "We need IPL teams to bid for our players, we can't force them," Strauss says. "Hopefully quite a few have put their names in lights in the last six months. If we can find a way for more to be available for more of the IPL, then that's a good place to be."
While Pietersen was derided as a mercenary for taking part, now the skills and experiences he - forever ahead of his time - so vehemently evangelised are exactly what the ECB is after when looking to build giants of the game; money and England's own schedule and sensibilities have taken a back seat.
It may have arrived frustratingly too late for Pietersen, but it appears that England's age of insularity is coming to an end, to be replaced by the dawning of an era of more enlightened thinking.