IPL and Jos Buttler show ECB how to make cricket work as entertainment

·6 min read

Jos Buttler stands outside a hotel room door bouncing a ball on his bat. Trent Boult opens the door carrying a guitar, which he strums as they stroll off together. Buttler plays a game where the object is to throw nuts and berries into your partner’s mouth, Buttler cradling the baby-faced left-handed opener Yashasvi Jaiswal in his arms and saying: “Yes, yes, get in there mate,” with a surprising degree of tenderness.

Buttler sits on a stool as Ravichandran Ashwin describes his earliest memory of cricket: an enormous tree where, as a very young child, he was dropped off alone with his kitbag from a motorbike driven by his father, a tree he still revisits when he can.

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These are the Buttler-themed videos on the Rajasthan Royals YouTube channel, nine of them in the past two weeks alone, and they’re genuinely good. The Boult/guitar/hotel one has 1.8m views to date. To give a sense of scale, to stare for a moment into the night sky of Indian cricket and feel just how small you really are, this is a hundred times more than the ECB’s Ben Stokes captaincy exclusive over on its own channel.

Buttler’s real showpiece is a Jos: My Story-type number, with soft-focus shots of him talking sadly about losing his England Test spot, then laughing, hugging and being reborn with his Royals teammates – “It’s the feeling, the people around you” – all the while looking, as ever, as if the world’s most handsome and lovable cartoon golden retriever has somehow learned to stand on its hind legs and play the check-slog helicopter-whip shot.

“I’m Jos Buttler, opener for Rajasthan Royals,” he says at one point and, watching all this, you think: “Yes, you really are.” Buttler has played 44 games for the Royals in the past three and a half years, his most for any team in any of the formats, and 43 more than he has racked up in the County Championship. He is, a month into the English season, being weaponised brilliantly to promote and decorate his de facto cricketing home, the Board of Control for Cricket in India’s jewel, the biggest event in the sport’s calendar.

And this is all good, and right and entirely apt, not to mention instructive. First, because it is just a lovely moment for Buttler. It is worth noting the altered dynamic. By any old‑school metric Buttler looked like a cricketer on a downswing after his dropping by England: deflated, snookered, confined to interminable what-do-we-do-with-Jos stuff. Ten weeks later he is instead the biggest star in world cricket.

Buttler has been a kind of tournament overlord at this IPL, with 824 runs at 58.86, miles clear of the chasing pack, with the most sixes, fours, hundreds. What strikes one watching him is his stillness. Buttler really moves only his hands these days, letting the cacophony wash over him, trusting the brilliance of those brutal, fast-twitch hands. This is a man reaching right out into the edges of his own talent and above all finding a stage.

This is the second point. Above all, it really would be a good moment for English cricket to start understanding the IPL a little better, not just releasing its players, seeing this thing as a problem to be managed, but understanding why the IPL works, what the source of that energy is.

There is one game to be played, Sunday’s final between Buttler’s side and Gujarat Titans in Ahmedabad in front of a rumoured 100,000 people. And as this thing has narrowed to a point what has really stood out is the startling quality of the cricket.

In its early years the IPL would often get a little baggy and vague, sweaty legends in gut-hugging Lycra, groin-thrusting podium dancers, the same substance stretched thin across an endless, interchangeable stage. Not so here. Just watch the batting for a bit, that beautiful sense of hard-honed orthodoxy behind the power game of this generation of players. Watching say, Sanju Sanson drive the ball over cover, elbow balletically cocked, bat-face gleaming, hands whipped through with a thrillingly modern flourish, there is sense of this thing being elevated to other levels, other gears, an entity with its own life.

This is the real lesson to be taken from the IPL. There is still a tendency in England to see a gaudy and inauthentic money-making machine, to get tied down in all the Primula Cheese Superpowered Six Hit of the Day stuff, the shrillness, the naked commerce. And yes, the IPL is expected to rake in £1.5bn this year, or three times the ECB’s entire annual turnover.

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But look away from the money and the point about the IPL is that it is authentic. It expresses and reflects a culture, which just happens to be bright and energetic and confident, to be visibly nationalistic, just as baseball in the last century captured America’s feeling of being a young and vigorous country, a place in need of legends, show, self-mythologising theatre.

The IPL makes its own stars these days; it has become a kind of dream factory for someone such as Umran Malik, who has come from nowhere, aged 22, and is now bowling at 97mph in front of a billion people. There is a soulfulness here, and a sense of something speaking to the culture around it.

What part of England own sporting culture does the ECB’s attempt to mimic this, the Hundred, reflect? Greed? Recklessness? Asset stripping?

What the IPL tells us is that the way to build something new is to find what was there, to reflect and glorify the culture, to find the part that is real and water those roots. Unable to see past branding and noise, governed by underqualified marketers, English cricket has instead concocted the most plastic tournament imaginable, has aimed simply for the dollars, the shirts the logos. Watch the IPL, watch Buttler, feel the life in this thing. There are lessons here that can still be learned.

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