I have been dipping into the Indian Premier League between taking refuge from the icy winds of Taunton in the same way as my father might have done many years ago or as I did myself as a youngster, though of course it is infinitely easier now.
My father would occasionally go to the County Ground to watch those mystical, legendary figures he had heard and read about but had seldom seen. He went to catch a glimpse of the great Wally Hammond, Denis Compton or Harold Gimblett and hopefully they would oblige with some runs. Likewise I wanted to see Ted Dexter in the flesh or Fred Trueman, Gary Sobers and Greg Chappell. It did not matter too much whether my side was winning, which was often just as well.
Now I am not at all bothered whether the Royals or the Sunrisers are making headway against the Super Kings or the Knight Riders. I have only a mild interest in whether the Royal Challengers are finally going to win a game. But I am intrigued to see some of the players in action. I am becoming acquainted with Sandeep Lamichhane, the 18-year-old Nepalese leg-spinner who is playing for Delhi Capitals. Rashid Khan of Afghanistan is more familiar but equally beguiling. Sadly there is no space in his diary for him to play a season of county cricket – his financial adviser would be appalled at the thought – but what a talent and what a prospect that would be.
Then there is scope to eavesdrop. Virat Kohli at the crease remains a mesmerising sight but an immensely frustrated one at the moment since he is captain of the Royal Challengers. Anyone who is anyone must have a lucrative IPL contract, which has become the ultimate status symbol of the modern cricketer. Yet I wonder about Kohli. His team keeps losing and, as a man who loves batting. how frustrating it must be for him to know that no innings can last much longer than 90 minutes. I have a sneaking feeling that one day he will play county cricket – for Surrey, of course – so that he can broaden his experience and bat just as Kumar Sangakkara did at the end of his career. And Kohli will value all those Test runs and World Cup triumphs more than anything.
The presence of an increasing number of English cricketers makes the IPL more appealing for those in the UK. Jos Buttler is having another good season, even though the Royals are struggling. The simple, maybe sad, truth is that Buttler can walk down the road in Manchester without being recognised but on the streets of Mumbai or Jaipur he will be swamped by hordes of admirers. He is a sub-continental superstar. Meanwhile in the same side Ben Stokes is struggling to make an impact while Jofra Archer, England’s potential wildcard for the World Cup, tantalises. There is something special there but will his obvious talent transfer to the longer format? It is the only place we can glean some more evidence at the moment.
These three are playing alongside Steve Smith. Stare hard at the screen when Smith and Stokes are in partnership. What are they saying? How do they feel about one another? Well, they look like genuine teammates to me with plenty of mutual respect and something in common. Both of them are still engaged in a rehabilitation process, though Stokes is further down the line. Like Kohli, Smith has to be there but this format does not seem to be his natural habitat. His batting is not designed to clear the boundary at will and he wants to be at the crease for a long, long time. But he is reintegrating with cricket – and with all those English cricketers.
More striking is the union of David Warner and Jonny Bairstow. In the last Ashes series Warner was relentlessly bellowing in Bairstow’s ear in a manner that stretched the limits of what is acceptable. Now they are staring into one another’s eyes and punching gloves like long lost brothers as they form the IPL’s most prosperous opening pair. Here is evidence that two stubborn individuals, seemingly poles apart, can function most successfully when thrown together in the most unlikely of unions. At this particular time in the history of our nation this may be construed as a heartwarming source of much-needed encouragement.
As Eoin Morgan has often pointed out, the IPL can enhance a player’s cricketing education by tossing international cricketers who have seldom exchanged a word into the same dressing room. They learn from one another and they get to know one another, which can help to make Test cricket a more civilised contest. This was also the fortunate experience of those playing county cricket in the 1970s and 80s when most of the best cricketers in the world were here.
So I have enjoyed my fleeting visits to the IPL even if I have not stayed for the conclusion of many games – there have been a lot of one-sided ones recently. I admit that I do not regard it a disaster if the sound on my TV is malfunctioning and I’m not a fan of the strategic time-outs since 40 overs is already taking a long, long time. The fervour of the fans is great to see – it seems to matter to them who wins. An IPL game is an occasion and it works.
Indeed I have long been a fan of T20 cricket, even though I may be viewed as something of a curmudgeon at ECB towers because of reservations (to put it politely) about the advent of The Hundred. It is the unbalanced diet that we will be given in 2020 that really grates: short-form cricket throughout the months of June, July and August. Remember Reggie Perrin going out for lunch when his mind is in deep turmoil. He orders ravioli as a starter; then he opts for ravioli as his main course to be followed with a dessert of … ravioli. In the end this is no good for anyone’s constitution.