In this "long read", I discuss the implications of the IPL's schedule clash with New Zealand's two test tour of England, and the likely positive short-term implications, but the longer-term issues at play, that threaten test cricket.
In what is a hectic schedule for England this year, rotation policy has made the news. Ben Stokes and Jofra Archer missed England's tour of Sri Lanka, Jos Buttler was only available for the first test against India, Moeen Ali misses the last two, and, rumour has it, that Joe Root won't play the ODIs. Other than the surprisingly poor media management of the Moeen Ali situation, the policy has been generally well received; an unfortunate necessity of the scheduling in a year where quarantine on arrival is a challenging new norm.
However, the recent news that England's IPL stars (if their franchises reach the finals) may miss the test series against New Zealand, is more controversial. Issues include: What format is England's priority? How should players be allowed to make money? And, fundamentally, what is the future of the game?
In this piece, I'll explore this, with one of my favourite phrases as a guide: the good, the bad, and the ugly. (I've not seen the 1966 film that popularised the phrase!)
The main positive would be, that should a selection of England's test players be still in the IPL, opportunities arise for others. English players contracted to IPL franchises are seen below, divided into categories based on their importance to the test squad:
Would be in the test squad: Jofra Archer, of the Rajasthan Royals, Jos Buttler, of the Rajasthan Royals, Ben Stokes, of the Rajasthan Royals, Sam Curran, of the Chennai Super Kings, Chris Woakes, of the Delhi Capitals.
Would be close to the test squad:
Moeen Ali, of the Chennai Super Kings, Jonny Bairstow, of the Sunrisers Hyderabad.
Would not be in the test squad:
Dawid Malan, of the Punjab Kings, Chris Jordan, of the Punjab Kings, Sam Billings, of the Delhi Capitals, Tom Curran, of the Delhi Capitals, Liam Livingstone, of the Rajasthan Royals, Eoin Morgan, of the Kolkata Knight Riders.
Now, it is possible that none of England's key test players make the IPL finals. And even of those who would be in the test squad, only Stokes would be guaranteed to start, with Buttler and Archer likely to play.
However, should lots of these players be stuck in India, it would do two things.
Firstly, those playing the IPL, especially the finals, would get more valuable experience playing in high pressure situations, in t20s, in India. Why is this so important? Because the next World t20 is in India, in October of this year. England will be desperate to win it, not only to erase the pain of the defeat to the West Indies in the 2016 final, but also to prove that England are the best white-ball side in the world, and that the 2019 World Cup was not won due to home advantage or stupid rules, as some disgruntled fans often complain. The chance to try and perform at the highest level, in India, is of invaluable opportunity to England; it's importance in preparing England for the 2019 success is mentioned in Nick Hoult and Steve James' brilliant book Morgan's Men.
Secondly, the absence of some key test players will create more opportunities for other players. The two tests in early June could see the impressive Olly Stone add to his handful of test caps, which would be more useful experience for him ahead of the Ashes tour. Furthermore, Ollie Robinson, a likely successor to Jimmy Anderson, could make his debut. Ben Foakes may get another chance to prove himself with the gloves, and other county players may find themselves in a test squad. With an ever growing schedule, this would be brilliant experience against a criminally under-rated New Zealand side, who are a deserved number one team in the world, and will be playing in the World Test Championship final.
Of course, this may not be an issue. The BCCI is yet to announce the dates for the tournament, and key English players may return in time for the test series. But, should the schedules clash, it will prove disappointing, but not disastrous, that some players may miss the tests, in this exceptional year.
Bad- My view is that test cricket is the pinnacle of the game. I enjoy watching the white-ball games, and want England to do well, but, there is something about test cricket that makes it that bit better. As mentioned above, with the challenges posed by the pandemic for travel and schedules, and the World t20 later this year, I have no major issue with players missing a few tests to play the IPL. But, it raises bigger questions, around the future of cricket: what if this year isn't a one-off?
Now, I will be long past insane if Covid is still a major issue next year (although, due to vaccine nationalism, it may well be), but cricketing schedules continue to grow. The IPL will be expanding in 2022, with two more teams, and more fixtures, and players will continue to be stretched to all parts. The long-term trend in cricket is already toward more limited overs, and with a growing IPL (April to June), the new Hundred (July to September) competition in the UK, the continued success of the Big Bash (December to January), and the growing prestige of the PSL (February to March) and CPL (September to October), there is barely a month in the calendar without a t20 league.
The over-saturation of t20 cricket, which packs the schedule, and, given the large amounts of money on offer, which can be more than even the more stable central contracts offered by international boards, players are, understandably, more likely to play t20 cricket. It may not be long before missing tests for t20 is the norm, not the exception.
And, what of England's priority? After the awful 2015 World Cup, this rightly shifted to white-ball. And after the 2021 World t20, this will shift back to red, right? But the next World t20 will be in October of 2022 in Australia, and then in October of 2023, there will be the next ODI World Cup. Balancing multi-format players, like Stokes, Buttler, and Archer, will prove near impossible in the coming years. I can only see a scenario, in the next decade, where, should test cricket still be played, it will have an entirely separate XI from the white-ball games, because players simply cannot play to their full ability in all three formats.
Ugly- This brings me onto the ugly very well. Because, despite my doomed predications, I do not think that this is the major issue. The issue, is that the pay for the IPL is huge. Like, huge huge:
Now, you can point out the struggles of a (for want of a better term) "Third World" economy, like South Africa's, exaggerates Fridose's point, but I'd direct you to an English example:
Moeen Ali, who, despite having taken 32 wickets in 7 tests at an average of 28.81 in 2018, lost his ECB test central contract at the end of 2019, despite his five 2019 tests seeing him take 14 wickets in a three test tour of the WIndies, before two poor games (v Ireland, and then Australia) left him dropped. The change to his contract after this, meant his pay went from around £700,000 to £170,000. Now, let me be clear, this is a lot of money either way, but cricketers often have just a few years in their prime to make their money, often for the rest of their lives. Now, why should Moeen try and get back into the test side, after being rather unfairly dropped, when he could go and make £692,000 in one season of the IPL?
I don't blame Moeen here, and lots of players have similar circumstances. Back to South Africa, with the astonishing stat that Chris Morris' IPL auction price is equal to what CSA would have made from the cancelled three test series against Australia. If that is what CSA make from a series, imagine how difficult it is to offer players competitive pay
This is the key issue. International cricket boards, be it the ECB or CSA, cannot afford to match the prices of the IPL. Pay inequality will only push players toward franchise t20 leagues, and when it's the case that even the ECB's central contract system needs a re-work, boards who are financially worse-off have no chance.
Radical action is needed to protect test cricket long-term. But unless some money can be found, franchise t20 will only grow, and test cricket can only shrink.