As they apparently say at the poshest parties when asked who is coming: “Everybody who is anybody darling”. As many as 1122 players, including 282 from outside India, have put themselves up for the IPL auction. It is easier to ask who can’t be there.
But for one player at least, the decision has not been an easy one. For two seasons, Joe Root has eschewed IPL, firstly because he wanted to establish the certainty of his Test match game, then because of the twin considerations of his first child and his appointment as England’s Test captain.
Such considerations are now behind him. Root wants to swig headily from IPL’s champagne flute as much as anybody. Entering his peak years, at 27, he desires to assert himself as a multi-format player, part of a special breed of batsmen including Virat Kohli, Steven Smith and Kane Williamson who can turn their hand to anything cricket’s split personality can devise.
The mood in England towards the IPL has also changed. Resistance to the tournament was abandoned within the ECB from the moment Andrew Strauss became director of England cricket. But resistance has also collapsed beyond the confines of the governing body. The new breed of cricket fan, weaned on Twenty20, actively wants to see Root play in the IPL and even many traditionalists who resent the format because it intrudes so overbearingly on the start of the English county season now shrug that his involvement is inevitable.
“Root’s elite-level performance would be expected to be seen in his average rather than strike rate”
Root is right to join the IPL long list. Not to challenge himself against the best, in the hullaballoo of IPL, would be to limit the extent of his ambitions. Not to learn from the best would be to suppress his potential. IPL is now a central part of cricket’s history. See and be seen: it would be a strikingly non-conformist cricketer who resisted that.
There has been a lot of tosh, nevertheless, about how a sports career is short and cricketers “need” the money. Of course, they are entitled to seek their rewards while they can, but “need” is an inflammatory word when a top cricketer can earn in a single year from England alone what a worker on average wages can earn in 40. And, as for talk of a short career, the support mechanisms that exist for English professional cricketers as they approach retirement are better than ever. They are allowed to work after their careers are over.
T20 data on Root is hardly extensive. He has regularly rested out T20 internationals and such is the all-consuming nature of England’s international summer that he has rarely appeared in the Blast – England’s own T20 tournament. But his strike rates in all three forms of the game are comparable to Smith and faster than Williamson. He is no plodder; indeed, it is his propensity to become over ambitious when set at Test level that has become one of the recurring features of his game.
Dan Weston, a data analyst at Sports Analytics Advantage, calculates that Root will do better than many casual Indian observers expect, saying: “With an Expected IPL batting average of 46.35, and strike rate 134.44, Root would be an excellent acquisition for an IPL franchise looking for a player capable of playing a strong anchor innings at the top of the order.”
As Weston points out, the comparison to last year’s IPL mean batting average of 25.29 and strike rate of 133.36, suggests that Root’s elite-level performance would be expected to be seen in his average rather than strike rate. There are other predictions, too: his boundary count can be expected to be lower with a heavy emphasis on reducing dot balls to a minimum, and potential suitors might fear that his innings may stagnate against spin.
All this conjecture is the very stuff of sport and encapsulates why Root must put his skills to the test.
But there are legitimate worries nonetheless. International cricket and the T20 leagues co-exist not by intelligent consideration of a sustainable international schedule, but by piling ever more demands on ambitious young sportsmen.
Multi-format cricketers feel this burden more than many, none more so, of course, than Kohli, who played 86 days’ international cricket in 2017, plus IPL. Root played 78, plus two four-day Championship matches for Yorkshire, and the sight of him exercising one of the stiffer backs in international cricket have become commonplace. More than double that for practice and travel days. Root, too, has committed himself diligently to regular media opportunities on behalf of various sponsors and charities and surely now that must be curtailed.
Already Trevor Bayliss, England’s coach, has intimated that, if Root wants rest, he might also now have to skip county matches ahead of the England Test summer (he only played two anyway and barely got a run). Just turn up to practice, flick a switch and put on the right coloured clothing. It is now quite possible Yorkshire – the county that nurtured him – will not see him again for the next five years.
Compensation levels to the clubs that produce the players who keep the T20 gravy train rolling are wholly inadequate. The gathering talent drain from county cricket has emphasised the pressing need for England’s 18-team professional system to extend its developmental reach to ensure its standards are not compromised. Proper financial rewards would protect the supply lines – and not just in England.
As far as the players are concerned, to cope with the workload, concessions are already made. International tours have been curtailed by slashing warm-up matches, and too many series have become one-sided as a consequence, but until crowds fall, or TV companies protest, that outcome is not about to change.
In England, some young county professionals excited by a marquee signing for the NatWest Blast have been somewhat disillusioned when the recognition dawns that most of the sporting knowledge they hoped to glean from their overseas import would have to take place on the golf course. The second tier of T20 leagues might still manage to sign the player, but they no longer delude themselves that they necessarily command his full attention.
Eventually, something will give. Just as it takes a tragic accident outside a school for a council to fast-track a new speeding sign, it will doubtless take an overburdened, world-renowned cricketer to suffer a serious health issue to make cricket give the issue serious thought. Unless cricket’s rulers negotiate a responsible outcome, where T20 and international cricket can co-exist in a sensible framework, that one day the whole shebang will explode in our faces is inevitable.