Do professionals raise the standard of club cricket?
A couple of weeks ago I completed the ECB's National Playing Survey, which offered those involved in recreational cricket the opportunity to offload their accumulated gripes and grievances in one place. After breezing through various sections ascertaining habits and preferences, the final question was open-ended (and I'm paraphrasing here): anything else you want to get off your chest?
Suppressing the urge to have a rant about umpiring, I suggested that it wasn't serving the best interests of the game to allow professionals in the fourth (and lowest) tier of the league, since at that level it should primarily be about having a game - providing a game for people. Participation. Clubs that can't afford to primp their facilities (and perhaps don't have the ambition to move up the divisions), shouldn't be coerced into spending money on pros. Clubs that can afford pros are probably cutting corners, papering over cracks. The lower the level, the more the presence of full-time cricketers distorts the competitiveness of fixtures.
All of this had only recently flickered into view. I had "retired" in 2010 after 22 years' 1st XI cricket predominantly played in the top tier (from 2000, ECB Premier Leagues), but that turned out to be a three-year sabbatical. After slowly falling back in love with the game - accepting the "existential death" of the old me (the young me) - I returned as a diminished player to captain my club's A team in Division 3A. Although this team is to all intents and purposes our 2nd XI, we play exclusively against the 1st XIs of clubs further down the pyramid (or against a couple of other such A teams). While a disadvantage for knockout competitions (players who play for the A team being cup-tied), it provides an excellent platform to develop youngsters for our first team.
Anyway, it was as if the gods were mocking me when I turned up the following Saturday to discover that the usually pro-less opposition, Hem Heath A, had roped in Pakistan fast bowler Bilawal Bhatti.
Nothing is more certain in club cricket than a team informing you, with something between a smirk and a grimace, exactly how quick their quick-bowling pro is. When our young keeper limped off in the second over having taken a blow on the inside of the knee, Hem Heath sent on a sub-fielder - "Acko", an old sparring partner since our Under-18 days - who, with little prompting, gave us three-dimensional representation by walking back a dozen yards from second slip to where he'd be stationed after tea. "Mate, he's quick. Quick quick…"
Of course, anticipation is often the killer with pacemen. Back when I was 16, and having my foreskin trapped in my so-called "protector" by a Dean Headley nip-backer, all we had was our febrile imagination and the salty tales of opponents to crank up the anxiety sweats. Not now. Now you can watch these star pros on your phone. Video analysis. Thus, the interval saw YouTube being consulted, images of Bhatti bowling 147kph yorkers for Pakistan, and bouncing out Mahela Jayawardene on a docile Abu Dhabi strip.
Once upon a time I relished the opportunity of playing against the likes of Shahid Afridi, Nathan Astle, Albie Morkel, Tino Best and dozens of other internationals. Indeed, that was a huge part of the attraction, a unique opportunity for the recreational sportsman. But in the fourth tier, at my age? And the ages of my team, which were: 14, 17, 42, 20, 15, 15, 19, 13, 14, 17, 18?
Nevertheless, with international schedules encroaching on the English summer and various T20 leagues offering better paydays, it has become increasingly difficult to get top-line players for a full season, and with a system of "open payments" (where clubs can pay as many players as they like) having replaced the one-pro-per-club limit, clubs are opting to spend their budgets on a couple of local players.
You have to wonder whether this is really "Raising the Standard", to cite the publication announcing the overhaul of recreational cricket and formation of the ECB Premier Leagues. Or does it serve to divert money from facilities and infrastructure into mediocre cricketers' pockets, with the increased movement of opportunist players ultimately destabilising clubs that invest in youth development, only for them to be cherry-picked by wealthy rivals?
On the flip side, there are now the means for more young men to make a living from cricket, partly through playing and partly coaching. At a club like ours, with large numbers in the youth section, this creates a positive feedback loop: as the reputation of the junior section grows, more and more kids come (i.e. more revenue), requiring more coaches. And this is where that National Playing Survey resurfaces. As they get older, and regardless of the bewildering amount of age-group cricket they play, junior players' development still requires the cut-and-thrust of hard-nosed league cricket. They need dipping in vinegar.
So: does paying full-time overseas players - or internationals in the case of Bhatti - help raise the standard in the lower echelons (among the whippersnappers, the has-beens and the never-were-but-couldn't-care-lesses)? Or does it encourage clubs to take shortcuts? And without professionals, are you just fostering a culture of mediocrity?
Complex questions, undoubtedly. However, given that our wicketkeeper, Olly, was one month old when the 9/11 attacks occurred, and that Bhatti was playing in the World Cup in March, the game did seem something of a mismatch. Indeed, when he was joined at the crease by an equally diminutive 14-year-old as our opponents pushed for victory, it suddenly brought a moral dimension to the game.
The pitch was worn yet true. Bhatti suppressed the urge to bowl bouncers for a couple of overs until, rather than shooting Bambi, he withdrew from the attack. I gestured to their captain that I had no problem with him continuing. After all, while we are trying to hothouse our youngsters by exposing them to a decent level of competitive cricket, they were ostensibly paying Bhatti to win them the game. It was two ideologies rubbing up against each other.
So, is having professionals at this level a worthwhile exercise? If the look on Dan, our 14-year-old opener's face after he had got through Bhatti's opening eight-over burst was anything to go by, then undoubtedly yes. Had it been on a poor pitch, it might have been a different story…
Scott Oliver tweets here