May 17, 2012

I long for white flannel-wearing Velociraptors

According to the recent BBC series The 70’s, my formative years were played out in a country enjoying an enormous Space Hopper bounce forward in socio-economic progress

According to the recent BBC series The 70’s, my formative years were played out in a country enjoying an enormous Space Hopper bounce forward in socio-economic progress. A kind of Generation Game era second enlightenment that gave us anti-discrimination legislation, foreign holidays for the masses and Brut’s ‘Splash it all over’ campaign inventing the metrosexual man. I can’t say that it made much of an impression on me at the time. My childhood memories have more clarity about TISWAS, my uncle’s Reliant Robin and the weird kid at junior school who liked to pretend he was a cat.

But I also remember Sunday afternoons spent watching cricket on TV with my grandfather. And there I witnessed one of the true highlights of the 1970’s - the heyday of the county cricket overseas player. The proper overseas pro, I mean. The mutton chop sporting, chain smoking, barmaid chasing, wake up with a hangover in the penguin enclosure at Flamingo Land but still manage to put in a match winning performance, global superstar. I miss those guys. They rampaged through the county circuit like white flannel-wearing Velociraptors.

Not quite the same now is it? Take Somerset. Once they could rely on Viv Richards and Joel Garner turning up in time for the first game of the season, then spending all summer as fixtures at Taunton. Year in, year out, there they’d be; winning games, making friends, part of the furniture. Till they got booted out, anyway.

This year Somerset have Vernon Philander for the early part of the summer. A bowler who comes with a remarkable record in Test matches, as well as a note from Cricket South Africa excusing him from overly vigorous activity during PE lessons and a private hospital room on standby 24/7 in case he gets a nasty paper cut.

Sometimes it is hard to believe we are just 14 years on from Courtney Walsh bowling 774 overs during a season for Gloucestershire before taking 48 wickets in eight Tests the following winter. That is a 6ft 6insle, right there, in the modern international coach’s insistence that playing county cricket gives Test bowlers the cooties.

But South Africa’s desire to wrap Philander up in cotton wool is just part of the nightmare counties now face in acquiring quality overseas players. Just look at Somerset’s attempts to recruit for their Twenty20 campaign, which has been even more problematic. Their initial signing, Chris Gayle, looked a great piece of business given he is so experienced in the format it's impossible to imagine a Twenty20 game taking place without him. Try it. I’m imagining an England v South Africa match right now and Stuart Broad is rocking a suspiciously funky hairstyle. Yeah, in my mind’s eye he’s just hit a six; that’s definitely not an England player, it’s Chris Gayle.

Well, imaginary sixes will have to do for Somerset this summer as Gayle has somehow patched up his differences with the West Indies Cricket Board and his replacement, Faf du Plessis, has just been ruled out after selection for a South African A series helpfully scheduled slap bang in the middle of the English season.

And thereby hangs the problem. The English season no longer exists in a bubble. It’s not just the IPL that has belly-flopped all over the championship. Every single Test nation has international matches scheduled during the coming four months. Add in the various touring A sides and an U-19 World Cup being played in Australia throughout August and it is little wonder that the best players are only available for a fragment of the English season.

That makes the recruitment of an overseas pro one of the biggest headaches for a county coach. They are left with the choice of either creating a patchwork quilt out of current Test players, plumping for an up and coming talent who could become a surprise tour selection should he show enough form playing for you, or, increasingly, go for a proven cricketer who has given up on, or has no chance of, an international career.

That is why so many counties have gone down the Kolpak route. It’s often the only way of bringing in an experienced pro who will be consistently available for team selection in the same way as the overseas stars of the 70’s and 80’s.

We have to accept that the days of the overseas Test star who becomes part of the fabric of a county are gone. It’s only Kolpaks that can provide that kind of long term commitment. They might not be of the same quality as a Mike Procter or a Gordon Greenidge but unless the ICC start trimming the future tours programme it might be time we stop viewing Kolpaks as mercenaries blocking the progress of young English talent and accept that in reasonable numbers they perform the same role as the overseas stars of the past. Unless you’re the penguin keeper at Flamingo Land, that’s got to be welcome news.

Kenny Shovel has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses