How the Indian Premier League clean bowled English T20 cricket | Barney Ronay

How the Indian Premier League clean bowled English T20 cricket | Barney Ronay


he weather forecast for Birmingham this weekend isn’t messing about. Usually weather in this country is described in gentle language, using words such as patchy or intermittent, and reflecting the fluid nature of these things on an island of mild fronts and shifting breezes.

Not so here. Frankly the weather forecast is annoyed you’re even asking these questions. “Yellow warning: rain,” was the Met Office’s first draft. This was updated on Thursday to a Danger To Life Alert. To be clear, the Met Office thinks it’s going to rain so much in Birmingham this weekend it might actually kill you.

At which point, time for a game of cricket. By an unfortunate coincidence Birmingham, city of death‑rain, is also due to stage the Vitality Blast finals day on Saturday.

This is no big deal in the wider scheme of things. There was always a chance autumn would intervene. The English cricket season has already been a low-key miracle in its own right, crammed into strange shapes and slots, and emerging through it all as a kind of love letter to the depth of feeling for the sport in this country. But it will still be hard to avoid a poignant parallel on Saturday morning as the players of Surrey, Notts, Lancs and Gloucestershire dodge the bullets from the Edgbaston skies.

Four thousand miles away in Abu Dhabi the temperature will be 38C (chance of precipitation: zero). Jofra Archer, Jos Buttler, Tom Curran and Moeen Ali – not to mention Virat Kohli, Steve Smith and AB De Villiers – will all be present as Rajasthan Royals take on Royal Challengers Bangalore in the 15th game of the Indian Premier League, a tournament that has been so high‑grade in a time of confusion elsewhere, that it already feels like a point of transformation.

It is fascinating to recall that when T20 cricket was starting out there were real questions about who would come to colonise this new world, who might be able to weaponise it most effectively. As the IPL staged its first game in April 2008, the England and Wales Cricket Board was already in talks with Allen Stanford, who would beguile Giles Clarke with his crates of fake dollar bills and promise to fund an English franchise league as a rival and dominant partner to this IPL malarkey.

Stanford, of course, turned out to be the kind of handsome moustachioed jewel thief who seduces your widowed aunt and steals her pension book. English cricket continued to resist, and has been repeatedly taking the shotgun to its own feet ever since in an attempt to catch up.

Jofra Archer bowling for Rajasthan Royals in April last year

Fast forward 12 years to Saturday afternoon and it is clear just how completely India has won this battle. Two hundred million people watched the IPL season opener in Abu Dhabi two weekends ago. Two hundred million people watched Shane Watson wandering off the Sheikh Zayed Stadium outfield like a bereaved antelope after being dismissed lbw for four – more than the Super Bowl audience and not too far off the Champions League final.

The days since have provided a seriously high grade of T20 cricket. There are obvious structural reasons for this. In the past the IPL has been crammed in between tours. With little major international cricket around it has become the main event. Players have planned and peaked for it. Everyone looks hungry. Forget pudgy jobbing superstars or the daily Cement Quango Outrageously Poor Piece of Fielding Award. This IPL is going to end up being the best cricket staged anywhere in the world this year.

No surprise there, some will say. In a time of fake plastic sport, fake plastic cricket is king. But this is to misunderstand the basic nature of the IPL, a model where the staging has always been more light entertainment or reality TV. The great Shah Rukh Khan, the world’s most gorgeously handsome ham, has even turned up in the stands in the United Arab Emirates, all the better to look thrillingly grave at certain key broadcast moments.

The soap opera is one thing. The cricket itself has been gripping and state of the art, with a clear and obvious distinction in forms. Partnerships matter less here. Scoring 50 doesn’t matter. Strike rates, successful match‑ups and winning the moments is where games turn.

Sam Curran basically won that tournament opener in three minutes, with a micro innings of 18 off six balls. Archer has faced 15 balls in total and hit seven of them for six. He is an astonishingly decisive force in this cricket.

In this fast-forward world, even the role of the great longer-form batsman is being re-evaluated. How exactly do you fit (gulp) Kane Williamson into this? Virat Kohli, the only man to average 50 in all three forms, has 18 runs from three innings, to general consternation.

In the past week Kohli’s wife, Anushka Sharma, has become embroiled in a weird Instagram-based row with Sunil Gavaskar after he mentioned on air their tennis ball throwdown practices at home. Kohli will face Jofra on Saturday. Gavaskar will be on comms. It’s not going to rain. What plot twists!

There is, of course, a wider story here, too. Simply getting this competition on, shifted wholesale into the sport-washing arms of the Emirates, has been a vast financial strain. But there may be some broader benefits. International cricket is in chaos right now. The International Cricket Council has no leadership, unable to agree even on the rules under which a new chair should be elected. The Board of Control for Cricket in India has talked openly about “other solutions” to running the sport, cosied up to by the ECB and Cricket Australia, and waving the financial power of the IPL around like a loaded gun.

A macro-power shift seems like just another part of the show. As ever in sport, the revolution will be televised. Although not, on this occasion, from Birmingham.