Jason Roy’s Stateside jaunt the inevitable endgame for cricket as we know it

There was something weirdly gripping about the sight of the Sky Sports punditry team reacting live on a deliciously sun-dappled Oval outfield to the news on Thursday that Jason Roy has accepted an offer to play in the new US-based T20 league, in the process ripping up the last few months of his England contract.

This is both something and nothing, a tell, a symptom, a creaking of the weather vane. Such has been the pace of change in the wider super-structure, cricket’s ossified old board-led calendar blown simply away by a series of pop-up leagues conjured out of the air on fumes and paychecks, that it already feels like an inevitability.

Here we have the irresistible triumph of global hyper-capitalism, as expressed via Andre Russell inside-edging a flat muscle-six over long-on while the man on commentary who just shouts “wow!” shouts “wow!” and an advert for industrial-grade sealing compound scrolls across the eyeballs of half a billon captive consumers.

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Not that you’d know it from the telly. The key message from the Sky team, still out there passing the port to the left as the windows shatter, the chandelier falls into the soup tureen, and Sid James brushes the dust from his epaulettes, is that it’s all fine, that this is all very mature and grown-up, that nothing of any great significance is happening here.

This is not a criticism. The other side of this, the end of the world as we know it stuff, will be forcefully put elsewhere. It was instead fascinating and instructive to hear what Eoin Morgan, Ian Ward and Mark Butcher thought, because all three know how it feels to navigate the life of an international cricketer, the most capricious of alleged team sports, and an enterprise riddled with pitfalls, bogus loyalties and snakes disguised as ladders.

Morgan is a deeply politicised free marketeer, whether he would choose to put it that way or not. He was always going to support the right of a player to determine his own path. Butcher and Ward were England players in the 1990s when cricketers were basically disposable pieces of furniture to be worn thin and then briskly dispensed with when they were done. Nobody here is going to say, hey, wait, what about the board, guys.

Jason Roy hits out for the Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL at Eden Gardens in Kolkata.
Jason Roy hits out for the Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL at Eden Gardens in Kolkata. Photograph: Dibyangshu Sarkar/AFP/Getty Images

At the same time there was an element of double-take about this, the voices of Sky Sports cricket, a world built on the certainties of England, central contracts, the calendar, that is about to be pushed aside like an outdated combine harvester; out there in a nice jacket and white-soled trainers assuring us that it’s all just going to be fine. The death of incremental contract, 17 days of yee-hawing crick smash entertainment product. This may all be something and nothing. Is it though? This is also a serious notch on the timeline; a sign that your old world really is rapidly fading; not to mention another note of doom for the Hundred, the would-be franchise league that keeps on complaining that franchise leagues are killing cricket, and which might just be about to discover that this is a self-fulfilling prophecy.

One thing is certain, and this was in fact the Sky guys’ central point. Roy himself has done nothing wrong here. There will be talk about loyalty, service and doing your duty. His own announcement was accompanied by a fevered statement emphasising, then re-emphasising that he really, like, wants to play for England still.

But England have already dropped him from one white-ball squad. There is no serious clash on the horizon. The US jamboree is £300,000 for a fortnight of fun, as opposed to £70,000 for his entire England contract. This is simply rational behaviour from a cricketer who turns 33 this summer, and who has been living this thing, the hotels, the aching tendons, the cutthroat selection, for years now, and who has, in his basic style, his energy, the delicate violence of that bat swing, always seemed to be a little bit ahead of the curve.

If this is the way this thing is going to go, there is something deeply fitting about the idea of Roy as an incidental poster boy for the most profound structural shift in the history of this global sport, the move away from boards and central regulation, to a kind of rootless mobile TV product.

Here is a cricketer whose entire career has been about disruption, who still has that sense of a gunslinger, a frontiersman, some no-fear bounty hunter walking out, bat slung like a club, ready to beat the world into shape for your entertainment.

This has already been one of the great modern England careers, perhaps one of the last great England careers, full of jeopardy and desperation and the pursuit of trophies, at a time when all this really did seem to matter more than anything else. It seems fitting that Roy will be remembered as master of a format that is already dying, the ODI, where his record is all-time top four for England. Mainly though it is simply his presence, the thrilling certainty of his batting, those early Morgan years when Roy and Alex Hales reinvented how to bat in 50-over cricket.

And now here he is, following that same vibes-based path, out there empowering Major League Cricket, which will, it is said, expand to a full month-long slot all being well, and in the process cast a massive cloud over the ECB’s own plastic project, the Hundred, whose budget is, absurdly, already dwarfed by the money pumped into setting this thing up.

Frankly, there is a sense of destiny here, and of just deserts. Cricket has slept on this, has followed its nose blindly, produced no resistance, no sense of oversight or push back against full subjection to the latest revenue stream grab, to the dominance of India’s franchises, to the idea this sport can be anything other than a homogenised global noise, out there blindly chasing the sun. And really, the Sky guys are right. It feels like a natural end point.