Welcome to the IPL, England-style

May 14, 2023

The ECB’s resistance for the IPL has vanished in the last few years, with Englishmen now playing key roles at almost every franchise

Welcome to the IPL, England-style

It’s 6.15pm at Bengaluru’s M Chinnaswamy Stadium, the evening before Royal Challengers Bangalore play Kolkata Knight Riders. The teams are training on either side of the square and in between them, two men are chatting - one in KKR’s training kit, the other in an RCB polo.

James Foster, KKR’s assistant coach, is catching up with Mo Bobat, who has come to India for a week in his role as a performance consultant for RCB. Foster has regularly worked with England as an assistant coach in the last three years, while Bobat is the ECB’s performance director.

David Willey walks past them and towards the changing rooms, having finished his pre-match net. When he re-emerges, ball in hand, he wanders over to RCB and England white-ball analyst Freddie Wilde and the pair discuss plans for the following evening: how should Willey attack Jason Roy?

On the other side of the square, Roy is waiting to bat in the KKR nets, having started his session slightly later than his team-mates because of media duties. “To play here, in front of these crowds... it’s incredibly special,” he said, the night before hitting a 22-ball half-century. “The passion over here is second to none.”

Back home in the UK, KKR are being supported remotely by Nathan Leamon, Wilde’s predecessor with England. James Bell, a psychologist who works regularly with England teams, is available to RCB’s players remotely, before joining them during their stretch of five consecutive away games.

Welcome to the IPL, England-style. Eight years ago, after England failed to reach the quarter-finals in an abject ODI World Cup, only two of their players - Ravi Bopara and Eoin Morgan - made an appearance in the IPL, and contributed 332 runs and six wickets between them.

Now, there are Englishmen playing key roles at almost every franchise - both on and off the pitch. “It’s been a big shift,” says Moeen Ali, who has played in each of the last six IPL seasons. “Before, you had some English guys playing but definitely not as many as you would do now.”

On Monday, Chris Jordan became the 17th England player to have been under contract at some stage in IPL 2023, a record for a single season. Nine of the league’s ten teams have fielded at least one Englishman over the last six weeks; the only exception, Gujarat Titans, have one as their director of cricket.

“You expect it,” says Joe Root, who finally made his IPL debut on Sunday for Rajasthan Royals. “When you look at that [England] T20 team at the minute, you’re looking at some of the world’s best players. The fact that the guys have got the exposure to it, I think’s excellent. It will only better the game in our country.”

Morgan, Paul Collingwood and Kevin Pietersen - three of the IPL’s early advocates in England - have been involved in commentary on various platforms during this season, and all three may look back with some bemusement at the resistance that they encountered from the ECB when trying to make themselves available to play in the IPL’s early seasons.

Pietersen memorably compared talking to Andrew Strauss, his England captain, about the IPL to “speaking to the vicar about gangsta rap” in his 2014 autobiography. On Friday night, Strauss’ face briefly flashed up on the big screen at Jaipur’s Sawai Mansingh Stadium; he was wearing a pink Rajasthan Royals polo shirt, and was there in his capacity as a consultant to the franchise.

In truth, Strauss’ approach towards the IPL was never quite as Pietersen described. “Going to India, surrounding yourself with the best players in the world and learning how to innovate and adapt in vastly different conditions must surely be of huge benefit to players,” Strauss wrote in his own autobiography, Driving Ambition - which was published a year before Pietersen’s.

“If England are serious about being a force in the shorter forms of the game, one thing the administrators have to look at is creating a window to allow our players to participate,” Strauss continued. When he became England’s managing director of men’s cricket in 2015, Strauss set about doing just that.

After the 2015 World Cup, in which England were eliminated before the quarter-finals, Strauss noticed a huge contrast in IPL experience between England’s squad and the four semi-finalists (Australia, India, New Zealand and South Africa). It confirmed his belief that the benefits of spending two months alongside the world’s best white-ball players were competitive, as well as commercial.

Players were actively encouraged to enter the IPL auction, even though it meant missing two months of County Championship cricket in the build-up to the first Test series of the summer. Where going to India had once counted against players in the selection, IPL form was now actively considered: Jos Buttler won a Test recall in 2018 after five consecutive half-centuries for Rajasthan Royals.

And gradually, the ECB’s desire for players to experience the IPL has been reflected financially, too. Since inception, centrally-contracted players were deducted a percentage of their annual retainer for every day they spent at the IPL; in the last few years, that arrangement has quietly been dropped.

Now, England’s status as double world champions - the first men’s team to hold the 50-over and 20-over World Cups simultaneously - means that franchises are desperate to tap into their white-ball culture. “It just shows that we’ve been quality for a number of years in international cricket so, most of the time, teams are going to want to pick your players in the IPL,” Moeen says.

Three of the top five buys at December’s auction were English (Harry Brook, Sam Curran and Ben Stokes) and while none of them have had the tournaments they envisaged, Brook scored this season’s first century and Curran was entrusted with the Punjab Kings captaincy when Shikhar Dhawan was unavailable.

But now, even players who are not guaranteed selection in a full-strength England team find themselves in demand. “It is great to see even guys like Phil Salt step up, take his opportunity, start making some scores - guys that aren’t always regulars on the international scene start making their way in this tournament,” says Root, who himself has not played a T20 international for four years.

And now, the transition extends beyond the pitch. Take Bobat, for example. “I’ve worked with Mo for three years now,” says Mike Hesson, RCB’s director of cricket. “In white-ball cricket, England have without a doubt made a good transition. Obviously in 2015 - which I was part of [as New Zealand coach] - England were not at their best.

“And we certainly saw from a New Zealand perspective, how England changed. I saw it first-hand, with Brendon [McCullum] and Eoin being great mates and sharing a lot of similarities. That flowed into white-ball cricket, and now it’s a big part of their red-ball stuff.

­Mo has been a part of that journey, in terms of how that transition has happened. We’re lucky to have him.”

Where once Australians dominated among IPL backroom staff, Englishmen are gradually replacing them. After working closely with the franchise while Jofra Archer was returning to fitness, Ben Langley left the ECB to become Mumbai Indians’ global head of sports science and medicine earlier this year.

The fear, in the medium term, is that others could follow him. The expansion of IPL franchises overseas means that staff are signing year-round contracts; it is only a matter of time until players follow suit, with informal discussions already underway in some cases.

In the ECB’s financial statements for 2022-23, the “emergence and growth of global franchise leagues and pressure on player wage inflation in a highly competitive market” is identified as a “major risk”. The board is in the process of overhauling its central-contract system, recognising that the T20 leagues’ pulling power is not going anywhere.

But if IPL franchises trust Englishmen much more, so too do England trust franchises. Both Archer and Stokes were cleared to travel to India for the 2023 season, and the ECB has managed their injuries with their respective franchises throughout this campaign; Rob Key, the managing director of men’s cricket, believes the competition is “only good” for players to be involved in.

Perhaps the most influential Englishman in the IPL is among the least heralded. Vikram Solanki left his role as Surrey’s head coach 16 months ago to become Titans’ director of cricket: in their first season, Titans won the IPL; in their second, they are the league’s pace-setters.

Solanki personifies the shift in English cricket’s relationship with the IPL. Once, England were laggards in T20 cricket; now, they have ever more influence at the format’s cutting edge. – Cricinfo

Welcome to the IPL, England-style