IPL: Rajasthan and the ‘deserters’

This year, the IPL will get a glimpse of how other T20 leagues operate and the mundane challenges that it has normally been exempt from.

Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler of Rajasthan Royals will not be around to assist the franchise in the latter stages of this year’s IPL as they have World Cup training with England beckoning them.   -  Getty Images

The Indian Premier League proudly wears its status as unequivocally the highest quality Twenty20 league in the world. It is the sole tournament that can relegate international cricket to second-class status — so much so that boards have virtually stopped scheduling competing internationals alongside the tournament.

Yet, in 2019, the IPL will get a glimpse of how other T20 leagues operate and the mundane challenges that the IPL has normally been exempt from. For the IPL, this year’s Cricket World Cup has changed the normal rules of engagement with the rest of the globe. Rather than a monopoly on the world’s best players, instead the IPL — as other leagues have long been accustomed — will be a league in which international stars leave before the climax of the tournament, a competition in which the shrewdest teams focus less on recruiting the biggest names but in getting the best possible players who are available for the final stages.

Consider Rajasthan Royals, for instance. Theirs is a squad brimming with some of the most coveted names in global cricket — Jos Buttler, Ben Stokes and Steve Smith, as well as the emerging star Jofra Archer.

The Royals’ Steve Smith, returning from a ban, may not play the latter part of the IPL. Australia will need him for a World Cup pre-camp.   -  Reuters

 

This year, Royals fans would be advised to enjoy the quartet while they can. Rajasthan look to have assembled a formidable team — except they will only be around to set the Royals up for the competition, not to clinch them the tournament.

That is because of the World Cup. The IPL runs to mid-May, yet all players in England’s World Cup squad are required to be back in England by April 25. The involvement of Australian players will also be curtailed before the final few weeks of the tournament.

The Royals embody the unique challenges of this year’s contribution because in some ways they are being punished for their success. The recruitment of Archer and Ashton Turner appeared to be smart, with both players able to play crucial roles when Buttler, Stokes and Smith had left the stage. Instead both Archer and Turner are likely to be named in their country’s World Cup squads. The Royals cannot completely have enjoyed Turner’s sterling work in the one-day international series against India, for it dramatically increased the prospects that Rajasthan will be deprived of Turner for the crunch stages of this year’s IPL. So the Royals now stand to lose five of their eight overseas players before the end of the league stages, let alone the play-offs. As franchises in other countries have long been aware, assembling a fine team to start the tournament does not mean they will be able to benefit from the same fine team come the competition’s end.

New Zealand is quite happy to let its captain Kane Williamson remain match-fit by playing for the IPL franchise Sunrisers Hyderabad, which entity also he leads.   -  AP

 

As things stand, the Royals face ending the 2019 IPL with only a solitary top-order player from overseas: Liam Livingstone, who is regarded as a fine prospect, but has yet to even play an ODI for England. It is all very reminiscent of the normal challenges in other leagues.

Other countries have taken a very different approach to England and Australia. Notably, the West Indies and New Zealand are allowing all their players to be available for all the competition. This is far from ideal — it means that the West Indies face playing an ODI triseries against Bangladesh and Ireland deprived of at least half their probable World Cup squad.

The reasons for the contrasts are, naturally, economic. England and Australia pay their players far more than their rivals — Joe Root earns six times more from international cricket than Kane Williamson, according to an ESPNCricinfo survey. Ultimately, then, the West Indies-New Zealand approach is borne of pragmatism: by mandating that their players needed to return as early as England’s before the World Cup, they would only be hampering themselves. The West Indies have learned as much through years in which they have fielded severely weakened sides, because their players can earn far more in the IPL, Big Bash or other T20 leagues. Now, the West Indies have essentially embraced Cricket New Zealand’s stance on the IPL: that it is unavoidable and a fact of life, and — by paying their cricketers better and giving them opportunities to mix with the world’s best players and coaches — it is even possible to use the IPL to their advantage. Paradoxically, playing pre-World Cup ODIs with a weakened team is the West Indies’s route to being able to field a stronger team come the World Cup.

For the IPL, this year’s competition will pose unique challenges. It is a bad look for a competition — albeit one familiar in T20 leagues the rest of the world over — for the quality of players on show to become worse as the tournament progresses. Thanks to the World Cup, the IPL will inevitably face a dilution of standards this year. But the gradual increase in standards in the competition in recent years — a function of greater professionalism, shrewd use of analytics to assist player recruitment and in-game strategies, a raising of the quality of Indian talent, and the reversion to eight teams from a high of 10, concentrating talent more — means that the IPL should broadly be able to withstand these unwanted circumstances.

Prithvi Shaw was one of the finds of the IPL last year.   -  PTI

 

A slight drop-off in quality is unlikely to adversely impact interest in the IPL in India — emerging Indian talent, like Mayank Markande, Shubman Gill and Prithvi Shaw last year, is central to the league’s appeal. But it will temper interest overseas, with many of the overseas players in the final stages with pedigree more like Livingstone, and less like Buttler, especially with the looming World Cup dominating attention.

The IPL, like basketball’s NBA, is simultaneously a domestic league and a global league. There is no indication of this broad direction of travel being curbed. But compared to seasons in the recent past and near future, the 2019 IPL will be slightly shorter on overseas razzmatazz, and uniquely susceptible to teams being weakened by international cricket. For one year only, in other words, IPL fans will get a sense of the realities for teams in other leagues. And other countries, just fleetingly, may enjoy the sense of the IPL being secondary to their own wishes, rather than having to accommodate the IPL.