July 29, 2015

Do professionals raise the standard of club cricket?

Or does the practice of employing them encourage clubs to take shortcuts?
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Would a 14-year-old fancy facing a current Pakistani quick? © AFP

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.

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

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.

Great.

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.

Marvellous.

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.

Junior players need the cut-and-thrust of hard league cricket to develop © Getty Images

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Debonair on July 31, 2015, 11:50 GMT

    Ya. Dodgy wicket down Stone though

  • darren on July 31, 2015, 8:51 GMT

    Well , I agree that the lower levels should be prohibited from having pros! this way the lower leagues can just concentrate on bringing through home grown players that will help when they eventually promote to the top leagues and can then get a Pro.

    As pretty much a premier league standard second teamer for my whole life I used to love facing the first team quicks when they played against us what ever the reason but this was as a large 18 year old and older, how these 14 year olds must feel is another thing or even the guys in their 50's who just want a decent game on a Saturday without be hurt by express pace.

  • Dummy4 on July 31, 2015, 3:22 GMT

    Brings back memories of my teens playing club cricket. Loved it for the most part. Never played anywhere near high enough to play against pros but there were days when an opposition 3rd team would have a 1st teamer playing for the day and instead of some dolly dropper running in off five paces we've have some gun storming in off twenty and ripping through us, particularly as my team was made up of a couple of older guys and then mostly kids (some as young as 10), most of us playing for the simple joy of standing out on a cricket field on a Saturday afternoon. Regarding pros, there should be limits for sure. No lower than County 1st or 2nd tier definitely. Any lower than that and it starts ruining games for those of us who aren't either ex-pros or wannabe future ones.

  • Dummy4 on July 30, 2015, 22:11 GMT

    One thing that could possibly be considered would be to prevent a pro/overseas who has played first class cricket playing below a certain level, thereby limiting the overseas spot below a certain division to guys who are there for the overall experience. As someone who spent a season playing in the UK and came away with many life long friends and treasured memories I think it would be really disappointing if that opportunity was limited to elite players being hired in the top tiers.

  • Jason on July 30, 2015, 17:25 GMT

    The further down the leagues you go, the more people are playing for fun, and the more the presence of a pro can suck that fun away. I used to play in a league that had playing conditions where nominated first XI "star" players (based on performance) could not play for second or third XI's, and where players of obviously disproportionate ability could be reported to the League and match results overturned, even in the higher divisions. This worked pretty well.

  • Joost Kroesen on July 30, 2015, 14:30 GMT

    definitely allow professional overseas players to play league cricket. At least in the top divisions of amateur cricket.

  • Rob on July 30, 2015, 13:56 GMT

    Going back to my mid teens (around 16 years ago); one of our neighbouring villages roped in the 'town pro' for a mid week T20 game. More of a batsman, the affable Kiwi was known as a tidy off break bowler too - something that did not unduly concern me until I realised the pace he pushed it through at! A valuable learning experience for me as a junior cricketer. (He went on to obliterate us with the bat mind, making it something of a non contest in the end)

  • Aaron on July 30, 2015, 8:44 GMT

    It really depends on the aim of the squad. If you're playing at a level where you're trying to expose the kids to higher level cricket for their development and hopefully have them playing at high levels in the future, then the challenge of playing top class opponents is a good thing. However, if you're playing at a level where you've got juniors filling in for senior cricket in the same team as their dad, and a bunch of other guys just playing for fun with no aim of playing higher then it's not on. As someone who's played a fair bit of cricket at a level that could best be described as the dregs, there's nothing more frustrating than coming up against a team stacked with older guys who could play higher but simply want to win premierships. In the specific example in the article, I think that's fine. Clubs should be able to acquire and use the best players they can get in their first XIs.

  • John on July 30, 2015, 8:26 GMT

    Very good article, I remember playing against a couple of IPL players on an absolute road and feeling like a million pounds!