Daniel Vettori was driving his car when he found out the results of the first IPL auction, in 2008. Vettori was 29 and in his pomp, a senior cricketer long-established on the New Zealand board’s highest pay grade.
He’s hardly a flashy type, or a mercenary, resembling instead a likable, furry, wise old water vole who plays the accordion and smokes a clay pipe and who has somehow learned to stand on his hind legs and wear clothes and play a sedate and quietly tactical team sport. Vettori had just been bought for $625,000 by the Delhi Daredevils. He parked and sat there beeping his horn for 20 minutes until people started looking and he had to stop.
This week, AB de Villiers revealed that he’s been in negotiations with his tyre manufacturer about his schedule over the next few years. De Villiers wants to play less. His tyre manufacturer is keen for him to play as much as possible. De Villiers might not be coming to England for the Tests this summer but he is “very happy to be with” Indian rubber giants MRF, who this week signed him to a new £1.7m bat sponsorship deal, and who seem as a result to have a say in exactly how one of the world’s best players intersects with the international calendar. Hopefully this can resolve itself. At the end of the day there is no greater honour than playing for your tyre manufacturer.
It is of course easy to take the high ground here. What would any of us do in this weird, unprecedentedly fluid cricketing landscape? All professional sports are built on anxiety and ambition, and it was inevitable that T20’s global franchise circuit would change both cricket and cricketers. The real A-listers have been lavishly enriched but the expectations of a decent top-grade player have shifted too, every career shot through now with a sense of some other level to be mined, a world‑in‑waiting. The IPL remains the key, a presence that touches every surface however lightly.
And now it’s back, already looming over an England team in which four of the top five to date have expressed an interest in being offered for sale as lots in the auction on 4 February. Finally England’s players have not just the acquiescence of their board but its blessing, although there has still been a peculiar dance of interests, with the ECB keen to ensure a credible team to face Ireland in early May, while on the other side agents and interested parties fret over their clients’ full availability.
The expectation is Eoin Morgan will be made part-available, decreasing his value to the extent he may even duck out. Ben Stokes and Jason Roy have already declared. Alex Hales’s broken hand, which has ruled him out of the rest of the limited overs series and may keep him out of the West Indies tour to follow, might just have thrown his chances of doing the same. Jos Buttler and Sam Billings are already going.
At the end of which it’s possible everyone in the England top five bar Joe Root has at some point here been playing a series in and against a country where they might just be offered a life-changing amount of money three days after the final ball is bowled. Here it comes, England: the audition, one dead-rubber ODI and three all-but pointless T20s. Together these are surely four of the strangest, most jarringly glazed and modern cricket matches any England team has played.
This isn’t meant to be an IPL scare story. For all the reflexive urge to hunker behind the chesterfield, to froth about hot-panted-flamethrowing-live-streaming-no-foot-movement-fun-having, maybe, just maybe, it’s even quite a good thing.
Being around cricket in India is exciting. What a relief, coming from England, land of the shrunken summer sport, to feel all that heat and joy, the way the game is still pretty much everywhere like a constant warm wind, even on the airport security notices where cricket bats are listed specifically on the roster of banned carry-on items alongside scissors and guns.
You forget in England how trying it is constantly building up and working away at this sport in retreat. Whereas in India cricket is already oozing out of every surface, glooping up over the edge of the cake tin, filling every space and silence.
Who’s the biggest star in English cricket? Root, you say. No, it’s Virat Kohli. Which one of these could cause a stampede on a walkabout through the centre of London or Birmingham? Clue: it’s the one with 13.7m Twitter followers.
In Kolkata, as the players wandered out through arrivals at the airport on Friday morning, Billings was next to MS Dhoni and felt the full force of the wall of noise from the surging crowd behind the cordon. Which is certainly a change from Beckenham.
So the players will think about it. They’re not machines. Albeit, they have been put in a genuinely unsettling position. The question has already been raised, mischievously, on social media: play for the team, dig in, work the middle overs and try to chase some distant target in the third match of a losing series? Or go for broke, swipe a mercurial 60 off 30 balls and bag a life-changing invitation beyond the velvet rope of VIP T20 cricket?
This is of course far from serious. It couldn’t really work like that. For a start England’s players are an utterly professional bunch. They’re tightly bonded. They’re honourable. Not to mention very well paid already, while IPL contracts are always much less than you think after tax and pay-per-play. Plus in the real world franchises do their homework. These are not impulse buys. Likely auction targets are staked out through the year, trailed, tapped-up.
And yet it still hangs there, not just the chance of the most money any cricketers anywhere have earned for a month’s work, but an experience Buttler said was the best he’d ever had in cricket earlier this week.
Individual scores in the run-in have been a factor in the past. An eye-catching surge, a volley of sixes, an innings that fires the imagination. Well, India is watching after all, land of constant growth and possibility. Nobody asked for this. But the fact the players are even being required to shut such things out is an oddity in itself.
It is all very apt, too. This is the prevailing weather of Big Cricket now as it shakes itself down into new forms and patterns, a feeling of competing interests, noises off, alternative gravities.
England’s players are right to try to thrust themselves into the place where the heat and light is, not least when the only real fear is being left behind, English cricket finding itself where some part of itself sometimes wants to be, stuck on the hard shoulder, engine killed, parping its horn to itself while the traffic thunders past on its way to somewhere else.