The summer of 2018 saw Sam Curran’s bat morph into an epee and his waspish left-arm swing pick locks at crucial times as England swept to a 4-1 Test series victory over India. Surrey’s academy had polished up a gem for the national team and, after the 20-year-old was named player of the series, his first Test central contract soon followed.
But Curran’s rewards for two game-changing half-centuries and 11 wickets, in a season that when England won every Test he played, did not end there. Downing India with such panache also caught the eye of the Indian Premier League franchises and at the next auction a bidding war broke out between Virat Kohli’s Royal Challengers Bangalore and Kings XI Punjab, the latter winning out with a £800,000 bid.
A hat-trick and a spunky strike rate of 172 with the bat made for a promising first season in Indian cricket’s great tamasha but the market corrected itself slightly. Curran went back under the hammer and joined Chennai Super Kings for a still none-too-shabby £590,000. MS Dhoni’s side finished second bottom in 2020’s delayed campaign but Curran impressed enough to be retained for two more months starting this April.
Before then Curran is back with the England set-up in Ahmedabad as part of the Twenty20 squad soaking up five games of experience in India ahead of a World Cup later this year. He is still paid roughly £650,000 a year to play Test cricket yet, after featuring in the 2-0 win in Sri Lanka, he sat out the entire 3-1 defeat in India, rested for the first three games as part of the rotation policy and then unable to make a slated return for the fourth when travel issues held sway.
Ed Smith, the English national selector, previously claimed all-format players such as Curran, Ben Stokes and Jos Buttler would have been handed breaks during the three-month subcontinental winter regardless of the IPL. However when Curran's delayed return was announced, and the question was asked why his initial three-Test break was longer than others, a spokesperson replied that he had spent a long time in bubbles since last summer and needed "switch-off time", with the IPL listed as a contributing factor.
“The task of flying to Sri Lanka, playing all four Tests in India, playing IPL and then straight into the summer was probably going to be five months straight in a bubble and I think the players have to get out,” said Curran on Monday.
“Coming back after my break, I do feel really refreshed and raring to go for this white ball series. There’s been a lot of stuff spoken about rotation. I think as a player, I’ve found it beneficial.”
Now you can argue the toss about how much Curran would have played in a full-strength England Test team in India – just ask his fellow all-rounder Chris Woakes, who hasn't actually turned out for his country since being named man of the summer last year – and it is highly doubtful he would have changed the result. Nevertheless, here was the breakout star of the 2018 series sitting out the rematch to accommodate the tournament that those performances alerted.
This is not to blame Curran. Careers in professional sport are short and the IPL is unignorable by way of pro-rata remuneration and self-improvement (see Stokes at Headingley in 2019, or Rishabh Pant’s electric century last Friday, for more details on the latter). Nor should the all-rounder have been forced to plough through an entire winter of hotels and cricket grounds. That road leads to the “zombies” which Kohli felt his India players had become before a heavy defeat in the first Test in Chennai – and the return of crowds – jolted them back into life.
Still, his case highlights how England haven't just lost full control of their mega stars but how the career paths of younger, less-established cricketers have also become a custody battle. Moeen Ali and Jonny Bairstow have drawn some ire from supporters for their IPL allegiances recently, despite neither actually having red-ball deals, but a Test-contracted rookie being handed tours off because a domestic tournament is a non-negotiable? That should be a louder alarm bell as regards the health of England's international offering.
What to do? The pandemic has left English cricket even thirstier for broadcasting money but ladling more fixtures on top is akin to quenching this with salt-water. The IPL isn’t going anywhere either. And so once the backlog of postponed games is shifted over the next 12 months – England’s men still have an eye-watering 43 bilateral matches from now to the end of the Caribbean tour in March 2022, as well as that T20 World Cup – those in charge must draw up a calendar that ensures their international offering and the IPL can co-exist without the latter diluting the former.
They must accept that less is more, that quality trumps quantity. If not, talents such as Curran, beamed up to the IPL starship by his initial exploits in Test cricket, will continue to miss England series for rest and leave the audience feeling short-changed. – Guardian