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Mumbai Indians in the UK: The tour that dare not speak its name

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It's the tour that dare not speak its name.

You won't find the scorecards on ESPNcricinfo or Cricket Archive, or be able to watch it on any live-streams either.

It's been rather lost against a backdrop of England men's and women's international series, the County Championship and a home Commonwealth Games.

There are precious few superstars involved in games primarily between county tyros and Indian first-class players yet to nail down IPL spots. The fixtures were inked in only a few weeks ago, and are entirely free to attend.

But, make no mistake, the Reliance cricket team's 2022 tour of the UK could leave a lasting impact on English cricket.

The Reliance team is not quite – as the name might suggest – a corporate side representing the Indian multinational conglomerate.

In reality, Reliance Industries Ltd are the owners of the most successful IPL franchise in history, and this a de facto Mumbai Indians B team.

They were able to embark on this overseas tour without needing BCCI permission because they're not carrying the Mumbai Indians banner, and there is no commercial aspect to the trip – hence why no tickets have been sold, no live-streams available, and why Mumbai Indians' Twitter feed is silent on the matter.

But there's no doubting the calibre of the touring party. At the time of writing, the Reliance team had won all the games on their three-week tour, mainly against county second teams in the full throes of the English season and just coming out of the Vitality Blast.

The Reliance squad is a revolving door of 30-plus names containing some very accomplished T20 players.

The best known is probably 30-year-old Jaydev Unadkat, the left-arm quick bowler who played Test, ODI and T20I cricket for India. He is now onto his sixth IPL franchise. Pawan Negi and Mayank Markande are specialist T20 allrounders who have each played one T20I for India.

Tristan Stubbs made his T20I debut for South Africa only last month, in India, and announced himself to British audiences on Wednesday night at Bristol. Marco Jansen's twin brother Duan has dropped in for a few games.

Perhaps most exciting – and intriguing – is another South African, 19-year-old Dewald Brevis, who has the questionable burden of having been dubbed 'Baby AB', for his perceived similarity to AB de Villiers.

In the Under-19 World Cup earlier this year in the Caribbean, Brevis broke Shikhar Dhawan's all-time tournament run-scoring (506) and six-hitting (18) record.

Brevis is clearly considered a long-term investment by Mumbai Indians, who shelled out US$400,000 for him at this year's IPL mega-auction, on the back of one senior domestic T20 game in South Africa and the Under-19 World Cup. He joined the growing ranks of those players who made their IPL debut before playing a first-class match – and batted at No.3 for a while before being dropped mid-tournament amid Mumbai's eight-match losing streak.

Brevis and Stubbs entered the wildcard overseas longlist for The Hundred, but went unselected. In the last of four back-to-back games between the sides at Chester-le-Street a few days ago, Brevis struck 112 off 49 balls against Durham second XI, including nine sixes.

Durham wicketkeeper Ned Eckersley has been a county pro for more than a decade now, so nothing much will surprise him.

But, he told The Cricketer, this was "a phenomenal innings, one of the better ones I've seen in T20 cricket first-hand".

He added for context: "The pitch was a bit ropey – it was the strip used for the England one-day international a few days earlier, so it had seen 200-odd overs and lots of sun by then.

"He was the only one who managed to time the ball, really. Once he got going, and you see this from the best T20 players, he was just so clear in what he wanted to do. Anything vaguely in the arc he just despatched, and quite a distance.

"He was very intense and serious about his cricket, no matter the standing of the match. I'd be very surprised if there aren't county coaches looking at him for an overseas deal sometime soon. He will go quite far in the game, I think.

"It was a good experience to play against players evidently honed in T20 cricket, day-in, day-out. You could tell that from their execution with bat and ball in hand.

"We were a young team so there were some learnings for us. We got close in a couple of the games and should probably have won one."

After the disruption and insularity caused by the Covid-19 pandemic, cricket clubs are quite understandably wishing to expand their players' horizons.

It stands to reason that English counties wish to improve their players' skill-levels in Asian conditions. Counties have a pastoral duty to develop players for higher honours – which, like it or not, now includes franchise cricket (mainly subcontinent-based) as much as international cricket. Counties also sniff the chance to access off-season winter training opportunities at the fraction of the going rate.

So what's in it for Mumbai Indians? Until now IPL franchises have required high-class players for a specific time of the year in India or the Persian Gulf, and so have had little need for a development tour in English climes.

But Mumbai Indians now think differently. Their general manager, the former India left-arm spinner Rahul Sanghvi, came over to the UK during the winter to meet counties to set up the tour.

It seems he desired a step-change from players appearing in front of thousands at the Wankhede Stadium and countless eyeballs on TV. So far they have faced second teams put out by Sussex, Kent, Durham and Yorkshire.

This Friday they will play against a Lancashire Select XI at Emirates Old Trafford – a mixture of county and Manchester Originals players – after the completion of the Championship game against Kent.

On Wednesday they played the recently-established South Asian Cricket Academy at Westhoughton CC near Bolton. Lancashire had been set to play SACA this week anyway, but made a few adjustments so that Reliance could be worked into the match programme. It is a decent fit.

The Reliance team have been put up for a week in the Hilton Garden Inn on-site at Emirates Old Trafford, although such is their busy match schedule that they have made no demands to use the county’s training facilities.

For Lancashire, this is reciprocal: they went for pre-season in Mumbai just before the pandemic, and trained at Reliance Corporate Park, Mumbai Indians' training ground. Mark Chilton, Lancashire’s director of cricket performance, told The Cricketer: "It seems to work well for both parties.

"For me this trip is mainly about building relationships around cricket development, and the prospect of possibly returning to Mumbai for pre-season training camps.

"We're quite keen to get back to Reliance Park. It's a private facility, invitation-only, so we were quite lucky to use it. That was arranged by Paul Allott during his time here, and we never would have been able to get access to it unless we had made that contact.

"Why wouldn't we want to go out to a phenomenal facility? Mumbai Indians are probably the best-resourced cricket team in the world.

"We're in discussions about maybe sending our bowlers to go over for two weeks prior to the IPL starting – to be net bowlers, basically. They would learn a lot.

 

 

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"From their perspective, Rahul tells me they're looking for different experiences for their young players. On IPL match days their social media accounts go through the roof. But playing at county and club grounds is a bit more humbling for them, and shows them what other cricket is out there.

"I don't think this will be a one-off. I think Mumbai are keen to send sides over on a fairly regular basis."

But, beyond cricket development, this trip will encourage speculation about the never-ending expansion of the IPL.

The IPL has secured a two-and-a-half-month window in the ICC Future Tours Programme from 2024, and the former India team director Ravi Shastri predicts the tournament will eventually run in two tranches across the year. If that happens, IPL contracts would inevitably tie players – domestic and overseas – to their franchise for longer.

Meanwhile, IPL owners are busy buying into overseas franchise leagues. In the case of Mumbai Indians, Reliance chairman and managing director Mukesh Ambani this year became Asia's richest man. (Owning the world's biggest petrol refinery presumably helps.)

Last November, Reliance acquired a team in the UAE's new International League T20 tournament. A few weeks ago, they bid successfully for the Cape Town-based franchise in South Africa's new league. Both leagues aim to stage their inaugural tournaments in January 2023.

While The Hundred and the Big Bash are owned by their respective national governing body, some kind of private investment into England and Australia's headline short-form competitions is now being seriously considered in both countries.

Both Cricket New South Wales and Cricket Queensland are proposing privatisation, as is Brisbane Heat's captain Usman Khawaja. And recent history tells us that where Australian cricket goes, English cricket tends to follow.

As for Lancashire, this has been a two-pronged approach, with the commercial side of the club developing an Indian business strategy aimed at developing the club's brand in the subcontinent (for more, see the upcoming County Focus feature in the Summer edition of The Cricketer magazine).

Lancashire chief executive Daniel Gidney and independent director James Sheridan have travelled to India before with business delegations from Manchester.

On Lancashire's agenda is to monetise their burgeoning live-streaming service, which is very well produced, and now features David Lloyd on commentary, among the massive subcontinental cricket-consuming audience. They are already streaming games to the FanCode and Jio platforms in India, and 40 per cent of their YouTube views are from India.

Gidney said recently: "We'd love to get an IPL team over here to play a game at Emirates Old Trafford. That would be absolutely amazing and a huge thing for the club and our fans."

Counties haven't been able to do that on this tour. ECB rules prevent counties from putting out first XIs against a Reliance team.

But, 13 years on from Rajasthan Royals playing the British Asian Cup against Middlesex at Lord's, and nine years on from Hampshire severing their tie-up with Rajasthan, this tour is the closest English counties have come to overtly engaging an IPL franchise.

For English cricket, this is just the start of a charm offensive towards IPL franchises.

As Chilton says: "The global cricket market is shifting all the time. And there's no doubt IPL teams are going to be at the forefront of it."

 

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