Report by Abc Of Cricket’s UK Correspondent Neil Robinson 19/04/03
The 2003 County Cricket season has begun and for the first time in nearly twenty years, each team can take the field with two official overseas players. This long-expected move derives in great part from yearning backward glances at the 70s and 80s, when glamorous Test stars graced the County scene in abundance, raising the standard of play to unseen heights and producing a golden age in the popularity of the domestic game. But, in part it is also a more sober reflection on the realities of modern English cricket, in which the international schedule is so crowded that players in the England squad will rarely be seen by their County colleagues through the whole length of the summer, thus lowering both the standard of play and the level of spectator attraction.
The idea of bringing back some glamour to an increasingly unfashionable and disregarded County circuit is a noble one. However, not surprisingly the idea has produced a strong body of dissenters, prominent among which is the players’ own union, the Professional Cricketers Association. The players as a body came out strongly against the move when it was ratified last summer, which raised no eyebrows given the inevitable knock-on effect in opportunities for home-grown players that a further influx of foreign stars would produce. But speaking this week, the PCA’s Chief Executive Richard Bevan, made a telling point about the financial implications of importing more players. “When the ECB are looking to make savings of around £4 million, we can’t understand why Counties are prepared to spend around £3 million on salaries, air fares and insurance for overseas players.” He said.
Mr Bevan’s comments raise a couple of important points. Firstly, the tenousness of the link between the central distribution of ECB funds to all Counties and what the Counties then do with those funds. Secondly, the question of whether such a large of financial outlay will produce the desired result of a more glamorous, popular and prosperous County Cricket scene.
To address the second point first, it seems hard to imagine a return to the glory days of twenty or thirty years ago. Heady days they were. Rice and Hadlee at Nottinghamshire, Richards and Garner at Somerset, Imran Khan and Garth Le Roux at Sussex, no wonder the crowds streamed in. Little wonder they drifted away when the era came to a close. To be sure, there are plenty of players around the world who could pack the crowds in like the stars of old, but the chances of getting enough of them to play here on a regular basis when the international calendar has become so ridiculously crowded are small indeed. Last summer was a case in point. With only one overseas player permitted, there were still few counties who had a current international player available for the whole season. It was a summer of stand-ins and last minute locums, and confusing in the extreme.
Already this summer, the same problems of international call-ups and injuries caused by the wear and tear of the international treadmill are taking their toll. Aussie second stringer Ashley Noffke, is away in the Caribbean with the Test squad and is being replaced by the even more unheralded (over here, anyway) Joe Dawes. Lancashire are left hunting around for a suitable spinner after hearing that Harbhajan Singh’s finger injury will delay his arrival. Hampshire have swung from Shane Warne to Shoaib Akhtar to Wasim Akram in just six weeks . The simple truth is, with international cricket now the game’s bread-basket, top-class stars at the peak of their powers will be too busy, or too knackered, to play County Cricket on a regular basis. The likes of Noffke and Dawes may well be worthy opponents for County cricketers, but they will not bring the glamour back to the competition.
Nonetheless, the introduction of some quality foreign players into a County scene commonly agreed to contain too many journeyman types content to pick up their monthly pay-cheques, would normally be seen as a timely kick up certain hind quarters. But, what complicates matters greatly is the ever growing legion of overseas players who get round the rules by virtue of passports of convenience. European law is quite strict about ensuring that anyone with an EU passport has the right to practise his chosen profession in any EU state. There seems to be little the ECB or the PCA can do about this. Even some form of self-regulation would probably be considered an illegal restraint of trade. The steady exodus of young white talent out of southern Africa and the desire of promising young Aussies like Sussex’s Tim Ambrose, to gain valuable first-class experience has been greatly aided by this legal loophole.
Leaving fewer County contracts available for English players might well be thought a good way of concentrating the best talent at the top, but this overlooks some of the sad truths about the way the County game is run. Many County administrators will commonly look for the easiest way to produce an effective team, preferring to avoid the effort and uncertainty of developing and blooding their own talent. The emerging Lancashire fast bowler James Anderson, is a notable case in point. The director of Lancashire’s academy John Stanworth, had to fight tooth and nail to convince the County’s committee, that offering young Anderson a contract would be a better option than going for a ready made import. Nine times out of ten, he would have failed. Anderson was lucky to have such a determined and persuasive advocate, there was little in his junior record to mark him out as a significantly better prospect than his peers. But, for every James Anderson who is lucky enough to get the crucial break, one can only guess how many more go unnoticed every year.
The question of how the Counties spend their annual ECB handout, could well be one of the most vital of the next decade. By spending a significant amount on expensive imports who will never go on to play for England, some of them (Yorkshire, Durham and a few others deserve to be exempted from this) are doing little to justify the investment. Writing in The Sunday Telegraph this week Scyld Berry, had an interesting proposal to make. He suggested, from now on, each County should receive money from the ECB in proportion to the number of players it has provided for England in recent times. My own mind has been working along these lines for some time. Mr Berry has put a lot of thought into this and covered most of his bases. For example, he deals with the potential problem of players who are developed by one County, but only go on to achieve international honours after moving to another (such as former Gloucs and Notts opener Chris Broad) by suggesting, the original County should receive a part of the payout for that player.
It is a worthy idea and one which will hopefully be debated fully in the coming months. But, I feel it contains the potential for divisiveness. For decades there have been regular mutterings from less fashionable Counties such as Glamorgan or Leicestershire, that their players get overlooked in favour of those from more fashionable clubs like Surrey and Yorkshire. Indeed, the case of Chris Broad would seem to bear this out, his first Test cap coming the very year he moved to Trent Bridge. Whether or not there is any genuine bias on the part of the selectors, there will always be situations where, of two equally talented players, one gains greater favour than the other. This is not the fault of the Counties, all they can do is produce players to the highest possible standard and give them their chance on the field. They cannot be held responsible for the vagaries of England national team selection.
But, the principle behind Scyld Berry’s idea is sound. The ECB keeps the Counties afloat by its handout of central funds, it deserves to get a genuine commitment to the common cause in return. Counties such as Durham, whose vibrant academy has produced the likes of Collingwood and Harmison, as well as a host of likely youngsters, while the team itself continues to struggle through its own inexperience, deserve to be rewarded for their progressive attitudes. Others showing less commitment to native youth, deserve a smaller share of the pie. So, perhaps the Berry system could be predicated upon the number of young English players who appear in a minimum number of Championship games each year, with a bonus payable for those achieving national honours. With such a system, there would be no need for the Counties to get together as some sort of silent cartel, surreptitiously agreeing to limit the number of imports. Each County would itself be aware of how it would benefit or suffer by its own actions.
For now though, we have the prospect of another long summer of County action in our sights. Whether the likes of Andy Flower, Nantie Hayward and Nixon McLean, can lead us forward into another golden age we must wait, and hope, and see. Let play begin!