When the Indian Premier League first emerged blinking into the light some 12 months ago, a loud chorus of harrumphing went up in the shires. Wouldn't this event, naysayers asked, interfere with the county cricket season? What if players chose the IPL over Test matches? Wasn't Twenty20 going to destroy all that we loved about the summer game?
Such protests have since been quietened, as much by the success of the tournament as anything. The second season of the IPL, which gets under way today, may be taking place in its temporary home of South Africa but the event itself has a greater feeling of permanence.
English players, noticeable by their absence in 2008, are this year part of the jamboree: Kevin Pietersen will captain the Bangalore Royal Challengers, who face the Rajasthan Royals today, while Andrew Flintoff's Chennai Super Kings, whose roster includes the remarkably named Napoleon Einstein, take on the Mumbai Indians in the first game of the tournament. Other English players, including Paul Collingwood and Owais Shah, are also expected to feature.
One man who thinks this can only be good news for English cricket is Robert Key, regarded as one of England's finest Twenty20 minds: he led Kent to the Twenty20 Cup in 2007 and then to the final again last year. He argues that if England are to have any chance of success in June's World Twenty20, then the country's top players must get more practice in the shortest form of the game – and where better than the IPL?
"There is the potential for England to be a very good Twenty20 side," he said. "The problem is that the England players haven't got a lot of T20 experience. The England boys need to play more Twenty20 because in that form of the game you have to find your own game plan, your own way of playing. The fact that a few boys are going to the IPL will massively improve them as cricketers, in the 50-over game too. Hopefully, the likes of Pietersen and Flintoff will get some good run-outs for their IPL sides and they will come back giving England a better chance of winning the World Cup."
Dimitri Mascharenas, the only English player to feature in the first year of the IPL with the Rajasthan Royals, agrees. "It can only help," he said. "The best players in the world are here, the standard is so good. Some of the England boys have only played a handful of Twenty20 games. The IPL will help us to start catching the other nations up."
Success in the World Twenty20 would be an undeniable boon for cricket in this country, particularly as England's record in the shortest form of the game is strikingly poor. The national side have lost nine out of the 15 matches they have played: indeed, the only victory against a top side came in 2005, when Australia were beaten at The Rose Bowl at the start of a summer that seems rather more than four years distant. Other than that, they have survived on the thin gruel of triumphs over the likes of Zimbabwe, West Indies and New Zealand.
England could look to those who have been successful in the domestic game to turn their fortunes around: Key has been talked of as a potential captain of the World Twenty20 side. The 29-year-old, though, is taking nothing for granted. He said: "I'm in a strange position because I'm being talked about as captain and I might not even be in the final squad [to be announced on 1 May].
"I never really get too wound up or start thinking too much about things until they happen. It would be an unbelievable opportunity and experience to do it, but I have no idea where I am in the pecking order."
Mascarenhas may be handed the captaincy. "It would be a great honour," he said. "I could bring something a bit different."
One potential hurdle for Key is he has been away from the England set-up for four years, since he played his last Test match against South Africa in January 2005. There have been suggestions that more established England players would not welcome his appointment, but Key is unperturbed. "There's not much you can do about that [England players not wanting him to have the job]. I can't ask them to do any different.
"As captain, you get given the power to do things but you don't get the respect. I think I am respected as a player at Kent but as soon as you get that job [England captain], you have to earn their respect. I've got a few mates in that team that would make my life easier, but it's down to me to earn everyone's respect."
Hit and giggle: Guide to IPL teams
*Bangalore Royal Challengers
Captain: Kevin Pietersen (Eng)
Key Players: Pietersen, Kallis, Steyn
Fact: Last year, Bangalore tried 11 different opening partnerships in their 14 games.
*Chennai Super Kings
Captain: Mahendra Dhoni (Ind)
Key Players: Flintoff (r), Hayden, Muralitharan (r), Dhoni
Fact: Chennai are coached by former Kiwi captain Stephen Fleming.
Captain: Adam Gilchrist (Aus)
Key Players: Symonds, Laxman
Fact: Finished rock-bottom of the table last year, with two wins from 14 games.
Captain: Virender Sehwag (Ind)
Key Players: De Villiers, Collingwood, Vettori, Sehwag
Fact: During the franchise auction for the IPL, the GMR group acquired the rights to the Delhi team for $84m (£56.2m).
*Kings XI Punjab
Captain: Yuvraj Singh (Ind)
Key Players: Sangakkara, Bopara
Fact: Kings can be credited with unearthing the star of IPL 2008 – Shaun Marsh. Marsh finished as the highest run scorer with 616 in 15 games.
*Kolkata KnIght Riders
Key Players: McCullum, Gayle
Fact: Brendon McCullum scored 158 runs in last year's opening match – a record high score in Twenty20.
Captain: Sachin Tendulkar (Ind)
Key Players: Bravo, Tendulkar, Malinga
Fact: England's Twenty20 domestic specialist Graham Napier plays for the Indians.
Captain: Shane Warne (Aus)
Key Players: Smith, Warne
Fact: Celebrity Big Brother winner Shilpa Shetty and her business partner Raj Kundra paid $15m for an 11 per cent stake in the franchise.
*Must haves: Squad: 8 Indians and 4 under 22. team: 4 overseas max. ......... Mark Lomas
Must see: Games to watch
*Today: Match 2
Bangalore v Rajasthan
Kevin Pietersen goes head to head again with long-time adversary Shane Warne.
*Tomorrow: Match 4
Kolkata Knights v Deccan
Kolkata will try out a new system of two captains – one for fielding and one for bowling.
*20 April: Match 5
Bangalore v Chennai
England colleagues Pietersen and Freddie Flintoff clash for the first time.
*30 April: Match 22
Rajasthan v Chennai
Last year's winners take on last year's runners-up.
*7 May: Match 34
Chennai v Kings XI
Flintoff takes on Brett Lee in the biggest pre-Ashes showdown.
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