During a rare drinks break last season, the opposition were talking about a guy they'd recently encountered who had taken the field with a ferocious hangover, an obstacle he'd attempted to overcome with frenzied hitting and some loud swearing. He was an Aussie pro who'd come over on a short contract with Hampshire, and I remembered watching him bat on TV in a T20 game, when he'd got out to a shot so terrifying that Stephen King would have struggled to adequately convey its skin-crawling horror.
Fast forward six months or so, and Glenn Maxwell was on the field in Australian colours even as he was being bought for one million dollars by Mumbai Indians. It was the headline figure at this year's auction, and Maxwell, with his promise of either-way explosiveness, became emblematic of a take-a-punt-with-someone-else's-money culture, a world in which a Glenn Maxwell was worth two and-a-half Ricky Pontings; where Matt Prior was left on the shelf while a one-cap South African called Chris Morris (who he? presumably not the UK's arch-satirist, although...) trousered $625,000; where a 21 year old bowler who had withdrawn from competitive cricket to sort out his run-up had been bought up for $700,000 as Big Vern Philander sat forlornly by a phone that never rang.
To fall for this narrative, though, is to enter a maze of relativism from which there is no return. The auction obeys only the internal logic of the market, and although the market is skewed it is a pure thing, about nothing but relentless competition. It is skewed by the the money cap, skewed by the need of individual teams for very specific acquisitions, skewed by the availability and the watchability of players, and this is where it gets misjudged. It works just like transfer deadline day in football, or like sealed bids for a desirable house, on the fear of missing out, on the very human need to get for yourself what someone else has wanted.
However, sport in its purest terms is a meritocracy, and so is the IPL marketplace. Looked at in that light it reveals something about T20 cricket and where it is headed. The teams already have their marquee names and the big beasts from overseas - the Gayles, the Watsons, the KPs - are under contract. The marketplace at auction is about augmentation, about adding to what's there.
So what do they value? It's clear that they want to acquire intensity. Margins in the short form are narrow so advantage can be gained very quickly, and it can be overwhelming. Maxwell made his name at Hampshire by taking 22 from four deliveries off the bowling of James Tredwell, and he holds the record for the fastest 50 in Australian domestic cricket, from 19 balls - essentially three overs. Chris Morris made 12 from seven balls at the death to win a Champions League T20 game. Fidel Edwards bowls very fast for one or two overs. Nathan Coulter-Nile and Kane Richardson both make the ball bounce at pace. It is these small, occasional advantages that are being sought out and paid for. In this, T20 is divorcing itself from the longer game.
The IPL has provided the blueprint for franchise cricket everywhere else. It has offered a heated, accelerated, heightened version of the game, and it has broken the grip of international cricket on the world stage. It has produced a vast informal network for information to pass between players who might otherwise not know each other, and it has been a ubiquitous showcase for the new skills that have arisen as a result. It has offered cricket a celebrity edge that it needs in the new world order. It is mad and deeply flawed and probably financially disastrous, but then so is football's Premier League, and that struggles on somehow.
It's a huge disappointment that Pakistan's players are not there, for they would enliven it greatly. The ECB's and now the counties' myopia and protectionism are damaging to the development of our players and the future of the game. It's no coincidence that England's best T20 players play franchise cricket. There's a vague case to be made for limiting Matt Prior's availability, but Hales, Butler, Wright, Lumb, Bairstow and the rest should be there.
Here's a stat to consider. Ricky Ponting has played a total of 47 T20 games in his career. Glenn Maxwell has played 49. Things aren't always as they seem. Maxwell will never approach Ponting's hem as a cricketer, but then the IPL auction was not about rewarding greatness. It was about novelty and spectacle, reinvention and fun, because these notions drive it quickly towards its future.
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