The IPL is back: cue bedlam, squeals, thunder and pure cricketing energy

The commentary is awful and the fielding is terrible but T20 franchise cricket positively writhes with energy – the counties cannot ignore the heat and light

Ben Stokes held his nerve pretty well for the first half of the opening over of his Indian Premier League career in Pune on Thursday afternoon. Gliding up to the wicket in aubergine pyjamas, pumped and sweating, endorsing at least seven high-end products and services simultaneously, the most expensive overseas import in the history of domestic cricket fizzed down a couple of tight, straight dot balls and a single to the Mumbai Indians openers Jos Buttler and Parthiv Patel.

His fourth ball was pitched up. Buttler stood still and clubbed it hard and flat over long-off for six. The next was short, and Buttler produced something ludicrous, pirouetting outside his off stump and persuading the ball away for a six looped straight back over his left shoulder. Cue bedlam, squeals, flashes, thunder, Kevin Pietersen on comms cooing about “wonderful, wonderful cricket shots” and what looked close to a small riot in the stands.

Yes, it’s back. The IPL is upon us once again, here for another very special season just a little bit more special than the last very special season. This week marks the start of the 10th edition, billed as an anniversary affair in its opening exchanges. Hence the extra layer of jollity to the festivities, with fireworks, dancers, speeches and a beaming, waving David Warner being driven around in a spangled golf buggy, like a very jolly cartoon tiger running for president.

The IPL does feel a little different this year. Mainly it feels a little closer to home, and not just because of the presence of Stokes, Buttler, Tymal Mills, Eoin Morgan, Sam Billings, Chris Woakes, Jason Roy and Chris Jordan. The IPL has always been a shadow presence in England at this time of year, kicking off at the same time as the County Championship, and providing its own point of contrast, and indeed some genuine anxiety too.

Not that English cricket needs much encouragement in this, a summer game where the default setting has often tended to be angst, gloomy lament, a conviction that all that is good has long since passed. The September sun is setting. Cut grass lies frail. The weeds grow thick around the clapboard pavilion. Blot the scorebook. Sweep the crumbling steps. Last teas in the clubhouse, boys.

Against this, Twenty20 franchise cricket – which is brash, new and unforgivably successful – was always likely to be cast by some as a malign alien influence. This has been given an extra rev on the throttle by the spectre of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s own plans for a competition to piggy-back the IPL/Big Bash format from 2020, an evisceration of the domestic status quo that is already casting its shadow.

Change is coming. And once again the most striking thing about all of this is the sense of febrile, urgent cricketing life. No matter how much you might recoil from the style and the rhythms of the format, the fact is T20 franchise cricket positively writhes with energy.

Even Sky Sports’ coverage of this IPL has been ramped up. Day one saw not just the excellent Matt Floyd and Rob Key in matching deep blue shirts around the studio dais, but special guest stars Moeen Ali and – hang on! – the great Shane Warne himself, looking tremendously excited and full of vim, and resembling more than ever a charismatic US celebrity preacher who also films gurningly upbeat TV commercials for his discount waterbed warehouse just off highway 59.

True, the IPL TV commentary is, if not the worst TV commentary ever conceived by any industrialised society, then certainly up there, the worst yet. Danny Morrison in particular seems to be astonished by pretty much everything from dot balls to thrashed sixes. Listening to his T20 commentary is like listening to a child’s toy that has mysteriously come to life – a friendly rocking horse, a bouncy space hopper – and which just wants to share its potato-eyed joy in every single object that swims into its line of sight.

The fielding is still terrible. At one point in Hyderabad Shane Watson seemed to spend a whole half-hour looming into shot looking baffled and muscle-bound as the ball plonked on to the turf a few yards in front of him. Later Watson bowled a few overs of medium pace, waddling in like a man in a bomb disposal blast suit very carefully and deliberately flinging a custard pie.

There was plenty of craft and beauty in the opening games too. First from Yuvraj Singh, elegantly brutal as ever; and then from Steve Smith, the best batsman in the world seeing home Rising Pune Supergiant with consecutive clubbed and flicked sixes. Mainly there was confirmation that for all the perils of dissolving the county identities, of haring off in pursuit of that hypothetical cricket-curious eight year old, this form of cricket really is the most viable lure, the most powerful source of energy, out there.

Resistance among the counties is of course entirely legitimate. Many who have supported and protected these delicate institutions fear the new franchised world will allow them to wither, that existing support is being neglected in search of as-yet nonexistent new consumers. It is a gamble. But then so is doing nothing, ignoring those signs of heat and light.

In practice the best way of reassuring yourself all-star franchise cricket really can snag and catch fire is to talk to some children about it. My own random, anecdotal, but relatively wide experience of this target audience suggests even the pre-converted, the ten year old Test Match obsessive, not only gets franchise-style T20 but feels quite proud of it. Here is a form of their favourite sport that can be shared with their football-mad mates, that isn’t a posh voice droning on the radio, or an opaque, academic that can look like a closed shop to those not bred into the game by family or school.

The day before Stokes and Buttler, Mills, a genuinely likeable, sui generis English cricketer bowled the first ball of this IPL. Later Mills touched 93mph, bowled his party-piece fast-arm slowie, and looked handsomely cinematic in the TV lens, with that bounding run and bulging, gladiatorial physique. Mills was bought for £1.5m. In all he’s going to bowl around sixty overs in India, which works out at about £4000 per ball. Not bad going for a state school kid who hadn’t played a game before he was 14 years old and who was hooked by stumbling across the 2005 Ashes on Channel 4.

Right now Mills stands as a model for other ways of entering this shuttered world. Not to mention an inconvenient truth for those who still scoff at the idea putting cricket on non-specialist, less lucrative television might actually be key to its spread and reach.

Ten years down the IPL track it is time for English cricket to take a proper bite out of this new world. And to do so without a backward glance, or any kind of illusion that the real enemies of cricket are not arguments about team names or overly-managed excitement; but indifference, stasis, drift and above all fear of the gaudy, chancy, intoxicating future.


Barney Ronay

The GuardianTramp

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