Cricket is about to reach tipping point with power grab of alternative season

There is a key scene towards the end of every spy film. The hero-outsider figure, on the run from a corrupt secret service cell (or similar), meets an old contact from inside the organisation, perhaps a bookish ally with a stammer, to share key information and have a wistful exchange in a scenic plaza.

Some terse dialogue happens. Hero-outsider starts to realise something. But too late. Bookish Ally looks sadly into the distance as a squadron of goons fan out from behind the balustrade. The undercover spook at the pavement cafe raises a pistol behind his newspaper. And it becomes clear the game is now up for hero-outsider who must, if American, shout goddammit and say something about the programme; or, if British, put on a noble, pitying smile before being cudgelled on the back of the head, caught by the elbows as his knees crumple, and bundled into the back of a brown Mercedes saloon.

The point being, the end always comes in a rush. Clues are ignored, risks taken, loyalties stretched. Nobody realises the game is up until the moment it is. And from a distance there was a sense of the same process in play this week, the covert ambush, the slick little coup de théâtre, with news of what will come to be seen as the tipping point, the moment it became clear that the game is about to turn into something else.

January 2023 is the key date. Wednesday’s announcement from Cricket South Africa confirmed that its new T20 league will stage its inaugural season from that date, simultaneously – in a weird double whammy – with the new Abu Dhabi-based T20 league.

Both have a significant budget. Both are plonked at the heart of the southern summer. And it is no exaggeration to suggest this is where the ice shelf finally cracks. This is cricket’s own Super League moment, a harbinger of the end for the international game in its established forms. New year Tests. Fond, dull, quietly gripping bilateral series. The grand storied history of stats and tables and rankings. The men in raincoats are coming. The game is, if not up, then decisively on the run.

If anyone is being asked to hold the loaded gun it is England’s Jos Buttler, who is the human embodiment of this change. Under the great Buttler shift, England’s white-ball captain will as of January 2023 be paid more by the owners of the Rajasthan Royals, who are also the owners of his South African Paarl franchise, than he is by the England cricket team.

That conjoined franchise machine will be his primary employer, to the extent Buttler may soon be required to ask for a franchise notice of consent in order to leave and play a few games for England. This is a hard-earned status, reward for talent, graft and 10 years of touring. But like it or not, Buttler is a frontiersman in this thing. And yeah, I really don’t think that Bazball Test recall is going to happen.

This is not a fulminating screed against the evil franchise leagues which are, fun, skilled, essential and a rare source of heat and light in this sport. The game is always good, from white clothes and red balls to Colin de Grandhomme in a purple romper suit muscling his way to a diet Rubicon enjoyable scenario of the match 27 off 23 balls in the Indonesian hyperslam.

This, though, is something else: a power grab, a cash sluicing operation without checks or balances, or thought for what will or should remain. Until the South Africa news the big story had been the Emirates League, which will take a mind-boggling 12 overseas players into each of its six franchises, and where the top earners can make £450,000 a year for a month’s work: more than the Hundred, more than anything outside the IPL, two-thirds of an ECB central contract.

There had been talk of elite Australian players binning off their own summer to take the fun-money. But the recruits so far are mostly thick-necked veterans. It was easy to see this as just another cut, but not the final one.

The CSA league is the gamechanger. Its headline players include Buttler, Liam Livingstone and Moeen Ali. And the CSA competition’s teams are owned by IPL franchise groups. This is what has been created here: an alternative season. This is in effect a seven-month IPL, taking in the Abu Dhabi T10 in November, the two new leagues and the IPL that runs from April to June.

Stitch this together and you have world cricket’s future tours schedule: sign for one IPL franchise and play for it across every territory, venerated by fans, drenched in sponsor cash, freed from the old bonds and burdens. It will be tempting not to look up, to block out the scrub fires, to imagine things can carry on as before. But this is to misunderstand the impact of the vast and transformative recent IPL broadcast deal. It is to misunderstand what has been happening in plain sight to West Indies, to miss the outliers already among us. Tim David, for example, who is basically a vast portable batting wingspan for hire, free from any notion of Baggy Green bondage.

And why not? Much was made of Trent Boult cancelling his New Zealand contract to spend more time with his franchise (or possibly family, definitely one of the F-words) but Bolt is 33 and has earned that pension top-up. The real key is what will this new gravity do to future talent – the likes of Will Smeed, who has a readymade sporting life here, for whom this is just a thrilling time, the most brilliant moment to be a hyper-talented cricketer.