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English players must get IPL chance

Published: 15th April 2013 01:16 PM  |   Last Updated: 15th April 2013 01:16 PM   |  A+A-

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There probably will not be much play for a couple of days, which will lead players such as Durham captain Paul Collingwood to gaze enviously at the Indian Premier League.

They can watch and enjoy Chris Gayle attempt to pulverise the bowling of the bionic Brett Lee on a hot afternoon in Bangalore or see the ageless Muttiah Muralitharan try to outwit Jacques Kallis in front of a capacity 40,000 crowd.

As a happy beneficiary of the county game, it hurts me to say this but every season the County Championship seems less relevant to the world of cricket. Look back 10 years and beyond and the first round of county matches featured a decent spread of home and overseas talent.

In 2003, for instance, you could find Nasser Hussain and Andy Flower playing for Essex, Robin Smith and Wasim Akram at Hampshire, Stuart Law and Andrew Flintoff at Lancashire, Kevin Pietersen and Chris Cairns turning out for Nottinghamshire, Michael Vaughan opening the batting and Darren Gough the bowling for Yorkshire.

Who are the draws this year? Surrey have big-name signings in Graeme Smith and Ricky Ponting, though the latter is only temporary cover for Smith when he plays in the Champions Trophy in June.

Nottinghamshire have recruited Australia  opener Ed Cowan and Somerset have South Africa’s Alviro Petersen to make up for the absence of last year’s star turn Nick Compton, who is not playing this week and whose appearances will be restricted by England commitments.

Even though a few more reputable names will appear in our T20 tournament in mid-summer, the cast list will not reverse the declining county memberships that last year totalled 88,502 across the 18 teams. More than half of them made an operating loss in 2012, though that improved on the previous few seasons.

However, it is the IPL’s dynamism not its financial aspect that makes it so enticing, as the leading players in the world test themselves against each other, urged on by packed houses. Cynics will argue that it is not “proper” cricket and even that it is rigged, although that is unproven.

The competition does not offer the stern examination of a Test match and it is reassuring to discover that leading IPL players such as India’s Gautam Gambhir – the most expensive player in the tournament, costing Kolkata £1.5million – still covet the Test game above all other formats.

But, like county cricket in its 1980s heyday, the IPL is a hotbed of international talent. In 1980s England, you shared dressing rooms with all-time greats such as, in my case, Jeff Thomson, Desmond Haynes and Ian Botham, and looked forward to challenging yourself against (or strategically avoiding) players such as Viv Richards, Imran Khan, Malcolm Marshall or Allan Donald. Dull days were soon forgotten if you were thrust in as nightwatchman at Bristol to face Courtney Walsh and David ‘Hissing Syd’ Lawrence.

Such exhilaration is found only in India now, encapsulated by a super over in Hyderabad on Sunday that pitted the world’s most destructive batsman in Gayle against its No1 bowler, Dale Steyn. In the most compelling duel you are likely to see this year, one man tore in, eyes nearly popping out of his head with commitment, to an Incredible Hulk seeking 20 to win and bent on depositing his opponent into the crowd. That Gayle only managed it once and fell short of his target is testament to Steyn’s ability and self-belief.

The shame of it all is that, with Pietersen injured, only Eoin Morgan from these shores has so far featured either on or off the field. The IPL is littered with Australians, South Africans, Sri Lankans and West Indians, both players and coaches, but because of the championship’s early start, almost no Englishman can get a gig. Owais Shah, Luke Wright and Dimitri Mascarenhas, all of whom secured a release from sympathetic county employers, at least wait patiently in the wings.

Modern reputations are made at this extravaganza and many more English players and coaches should be involved. They have so much to offer.

But how? The solution is to move the county season back a month. No one wants four-day matches in early April – not players, groundsmen nor spectators. The season could easily extend to late September. But that is unlikely to happen with an infrastructure that moves slower than a tectonic plate. Instead, at this time of year, English players sheltering around dressing-room TVs will continue to look on and lament.

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