County cricket – A finishing school?Benjamin Haynes-Greenwood |
For the past forty years the English county game has welcomed players from all over the globe.
During this time county cricket has had an era of glory from the sixties to the start of the nineties, when it could boast talents such as the three Sirs – Viv Richards, Garfield Sobers and Richard Hadlee, as well as many more. More recently however county cricket has begun to flounder.
Big name overseas players have still graced our competition, Stephen Fleming, Graeme Smith and Shane Warne to name a few, but the intensity, and entertainment levels have declined dramatically.
The new threat of the Indian Premier League further looks to confound county cricket to depression, perhaps beyond recovery.
Hampshire captain Dimitri Mascarenhas chose to leave the county game at the beginning of the season for a few months to represent the Rajasthan Royals, at an inflated wage rate, as well as a supreme playing standard increase.
Key overseas players are now deciding to desert their counties in light of greener pastures. David Hussey agreed a deal to abandon Nottinghamshire for the start of the 2008 campaign, as did Brad Hodge, who left Lancashire for five weeks to join Hussey in Kolkata.
A survey conducted earlier this year by the Professional Cricketers’ Association discovered that 45% of English County professionals would be willing to accept a yearlong ban from the domestic game to join the Asian sensation.
There are many reasons for this. The English domestic season is gruelling, not through intense competition levels, but through the sheer amount of cricket players are forced to play.
The IPL offers more than double the yearly salary of a county cricketer, for four months less cricket.
The accompanying PCA report concluded that an amazing 35% of England players “would consider retiring from international cricket prematurely to play IPL, primarily to avoid the grind of cricket and spend more time with their family”.
English county cricket now faces a double dilemma – one where top overseas stars pitch up for half a season, following an Indian twenty:20 blast.
With so much money elsewhere in the globe, it seems the only benefits players such as Hodge and Hussey can get from county cricket is match practice and an understanding of the conditions.
Many believe that if a batsman can look assured in the morning session, on a seaming April wicket in England, particularly at Headingley – ‘horses for courses’ selections aside, then they can bat in any scenario.
Many of the Australian overseas players that featured in 2007’s county competitions had thumping seasons back home.
Somerset’s Cameron White plays alongside David Hussey as captain of Victoria, and White has been quick to praise the effect that county cricket has had on Australia’s newest ODI star.
“I’ve no doubt county cricket has definitely helped his game”, stated White. “Over the last four winters he’s been playing county cricket, he’s probably faced a couple of thousand balls out in the middle, while everyone else who’s not playing cricket is hitting indoor bowling machine balls.”
White is of the opinion that Australians, and International players from all parts of the world have a lot to add to their game by spending time in county cricket.
“There’s no doubt – I think it makes you a better player being over there, batting all that time”, finished White.
Hussey himself agrees with White, denying that county cricket has completed him as a player, but underlining the benefits.
“One thing county cricket certainly did was allow me to develop new areas of my game”, spoke Hussey.
“I know if I toured England with the Australia squad I would be more successful than if I toured India or Pakistan first up.”
Of course, counties are well within their rights to enlist the help of a seasoned overseas professional, but the problem occurs when counties acquire controvertible Kolpak players.
The issue of Kolpak players is a long-running one; but the newest phenomenon is the dropped international star looking to improve their game.
Jacques Rudolph and Justin Kemp both claim to have dismissed their South African allegiance, but after the ECB’s nightmare with Phil Jaques, the truth is left to be seen.
Author Joseph Maguire writes passionately in his book Zones of Prestige, about the subject of overseas players.
“England is world cricket’s finishing school” suggests Maguire. “It is in this role of helping opponents to gain experience of English conditions that also features in the criticisms levied against the importation of overseas players.”
Maguire seems to have hit the nail on the head. It is the English national system that is harming the English national side.
In 2007 English Counties fielded just 8.15 players eligible for England on average per fixture, the Australian average was 10.95.
The ECB has to do more in order to produce better English players. The current method is only diluting the talent pool, with too many substandard county players lining up against each other, leaving counties all too ready to rely on their overseas purchase.
The Australian system is more readily geared towards success, one of the reasons for this is a six-state competition, compared with 18 counties.
Historical factors intertwined with tradition will surely prevent the ECB from making the radical changes required in order to bring the county game up to speed with their southern hemispherical counterparts.
A twenty:20 regional competition has been proposed, but seemingly dismissed. As twenty:20 appears to be controlling the future of all cricket – the British Universities Sports Association have recently contacted all institute chairmen in order to suggest a permanent change from a 50-over to a 20-over format – then maybe regional twenty:20 could have been the catalyst for a regional system in other forms of the game.
If that did ever happen, along with a dominant ruling against Kolpak imports, then the finishing school tag could be cut-off and discarded.
County cricket is desperately searching to regain a lost image. It may have taken almost two decades for failures to be recognised, but perhaps the ECB could be ready to start moving in the right direction.
Let’s continue the pressuring, and continue the lobbying, in the hope to ensure that the ECB endeavours to do what is best for the game.
That must be to keep English county cricket, firstly entertaining and competitive, but secondly, and more importantly, English.