Loss of identity, but it's the new way
There was a time when you could go to watch your county team and feel a sense of empathy with the players the other side of the boundary rope. They might have the same accent as you; have attended the same school; drunk in the same pubs and played for the same clubs. Even overseas players, the likes of Malcolm Marshall or Viv Richards or Richard Hadlee, spent so long with their adopted counties that they became part of the fabric. Each team had its own identity and character.
Those days are, largely, gone. County cricket is fast becoming a homogenised mass where players flit from team to team with little sense of the identity or the history of the club they represent. It's not that they don't care - of course they do - but they don't know. They haven't shared the same experiences as the spectators. They don't share the same hopes. They're strangers. Perfectly committed, talented and charming strangers, perhaps. But strangers nevertheless.
It's no-one fault. It's just a reflection of our more mobile society and of our more flexible employment laws. In the grand scheme of things, it's a reflection of progress. But there is a sense that something has been lost from the county game.
Maybe such sentiments are overplayed. The example of Allan Jones, whose career ended in 1981 and who represented four counties, suggests there has always been player movement. The likes of Marcus Trescothick, at Somerset, Ian Bell, at Warwickshire, and James Anderson, at Lancashire, show us that some true superstars remain at the clubs that developed them, too. The current Yorkshire team is also largely 'home grown.'
And it would be quite wrong to suggest that all the change has been for the worse. The influx of players from overseas has done much to improve the standard of the county game, while the movement of players between counties has helped revive careers and stimulate competition.
But few would deny that the domestic game has changed. And that it will continue to change. A future of transfer fees and, perhaps, transfer windows, appears inevitable. Cricket is becoming more like football by the day. It's not hugely appetising, is it? But it's the reality. We may as well get used to it.
It's an issue seen in microcosm in Hampshire's attempt to lure Essex's James Foster to The Rose Bowl.
It is, in some ways, a surprising approach. Foster, Essex born and bred, is not only the club captain but is midway through a benefit season. The club - and the club's supporters - are underwhelmed by the approach and Foster's apparent open-minded response. Some will bandy around the term 'disloyal'. It won't do his benefit proceeds much good.
Others will criticise Hampshire. Not only will they be accused of trying to 'buy success', but they'll be criticised for not backing their own young players.
But is any of that criticism fair? Foster, at 31, knows he has perhaps five or six more years as a professional sportsman. It is, at least, understandable if he is seeking to maximise his earnings over that period. If an accountant or builder moved to a rival firm for a significant pay rise, their success would be celebrated. Only in sport are the expectations different. Besides, Foster may well remain with Essex, but if he does so it will be on an increased salary. Perhaps, in retrospect, Essex might reflect on how they allowed one of their senior players to come within a month of the end of his contract?
Hampshire, meanwhile, are simply looking to strengthen a squad that has underperformed horribly in this Championship season. While some will feel sorry for 20-year-old Michael Bates, who has kept impressively when the opportunity has arisen, the harsh reality - and life in professional sport is sometimes horribly harsh - is that he hasn't scored the runs required by a wicketkeeper in this day and age. Bates averages 14.91 in the first-class game and just 7.20 in List A cricket.
Nor is it true that Hampshire do not develop their own players. In Danny Briggs, James Vince, Chris Wood, David Griffiths, Jimmy Adams and Liam Dawson, Hampshire have the nucleus of a decent, home-grown side that could serve them for years to come. The best county teams are nearly always a mix of home grown and recruited talent. Hampshire are just looking to complete the jigsaw of a developing team and feel Foster would help them do that. If they fail to sign him, they may well turn their attention to Northamptonshire's Niall O'Brien.
The oddest thing about Hampshire's approach is that they don't seem to be able to afford it. This is, after all, the club that was recently obliged to request more time from the ECB to pay the staging fee for the Sri Lanka Test. While they'll save some money withMichael Lumb moving to Nottinghamshire - a move that may well see him open with Shane Watson for Nottinghamshire next year - they will still have a large salary bill for a club that looks certain to be playing Division Two cricket.
Foster is not the only long-serving county player considering his options. Jon Lewis, the 36-year-old Gloucestershire swing bowler who has seemingly been running in at Bristol since the dawn of time, has already decided on a fresh start and will finish his career with Surrey. While his decision surprised a few, he had good reasons. Gloucestershire had yet to commit to a new deal and, after the last few years, when the club has released several players who thought they had been given assurances over their future, Lewis had grown nervous.
As he put it: "I wasn't really prepared to hang around for ifs and buts. I have a mortgage to pay. I need to be employed. My business is cricket and I needed to make a business decision."
It will have escaped nobody that it is normally a Test-hosting club that lures a player from a smaller club. Not always - Tim Groenewald and Jack Brooks, for example, have just ignored the advances of bigger clubs to remain with Derbyshire and Northamptonshire respectively, while Warwickshire's Rikki Clarke is the subject of a tempting offer from Sussex - but normally. The simple truth is that clubs such as Worcestershire - who have lost a host of players in recent years - and Leicestershire simply can't afford to compete with the salaries offered elsewhere. The salary cap is irrelevant to all but three or four counties.
But perhaps the most interesting transfer case this year concerns James Taylor. He is just 21 years old and is quite rightly considered one of the brightest young talents in the country. It's no surprise that he's wanted by several clubs.
The crucial difference with the Taylor case is that he is contracted to Leicestershire until the end of 2012. Warwickshire have, quite legally and responsibly, approached Leicestershire with a view to signing Taylor. Warwickshire are prepared to pay Leicestershire the best part of £100,000 in compensation and have even suggested offering another player in part payment.
The instinctive reaction from Leicestershire was to fight to keep Taylor. They declined Warwickshire's approach. But is that really in the smaller club's best interests? Remember, if Taylor declines a new deal, he could leave Grace Road at the end of 2012 and the club will not receive a pound in compensation. Should Taylor go on to play for England - and he surely will - Leicestershire (and Worcestershire, where Taylor spent a little time) will still receive some payment from the ECB as the county where he developed.
It's fatuous to blame Warwickshire. Or Hampshire. Or Surrey. Their ambition is, in many ways, laudable. And they've done nothing to break any rules. They're just adapting to the new world order. Maybe it's a less charming, attractive world, but bemoaning a lost age isn't going to change anything.
It would be unwise to predict the outcome of the Taylor episode. But, for Leicestershire, a club whose very viability was questioned by the auditors in their end of year accounts, the prospect of saving £100,000 from their wage bill and earning another £100,000 in compensation payment might be too attractive to turn down. It will be an uncomfortable truth to a club with a superb record of producing talent (Stuart Broad, Luke Wright, Darren Maddy and Darren Stevens all developed at Grace Road and the current squad boasts several more excellent prospects), but they seem to have become a feeder club. With a turnover of around 10% of Surrey's and 20% of Warwickshire's, how can they compete?
Why would Taylor want to go? Well, he might feel he needs to be playing Division One cricket to prove himself at a higher level. But the argument that the selectors don't watch Leicestershire holds little water. Geoff Miller and James Whitaker, a Leicestershire man to his core, are both frequent visitors to Grace Road.
Nor would it be true to suggest the facilities are better elsewhere. Grace Road's outdoor net area is reckoned to be as good as any in the country and their indoor centre is fine. Taylor's lack of a Championship century this season - and a batting average of under 32 - are surely the reason that Ravi Bopara finds himself in front of Taylor in the queue for an England spot. Geography doesn't come into it.
If Taylor does leave, it will not be the first case of a compensation payment in cricket. Derbyshire received a small fee from Warwickshire when Ant Botha moved between the clubs towards the end of the 2007 season. John Crawley was also obliged to buy himself out of his contract when he left Hampshire, while Hampshire paid a small fee when Kabir Ali left Worcestershire. Surrey paid a fee for Tom Maynard, too. And there will be many, many more to come.
Cricket, like society, has changed. And it's not all for the better.
One door closes…
Days after ensuring that his fine playing career will end in the high-profile manner it deserves, it is understood that Paul Nixon has been appointed batting coach at Leicestershire. As things stand, he's been appointed until the end of the season, though it seems highly likely that he'll have a broader coaching role in the future.
They may well be similar opportunities for other senior players, too. Matthew Hoggard's playing contract ends at the end of 2012 and the smart money suggests he'll then be appointed as director of cricket at the club.
Thanks for all the emails about the supporters' association. The response has been overwhelming.
If it's shown anything it is that there is a huge amount of passion among cricket lovers for the county championship in particular. But there's also frustration. Many feel that their voices aren't being heard. So, in the next few weeks, we'll send out a questionnaire and we'll hope to continue to pick up members. More info can be found here: http://cricketsupportersassociation.wordpress.com
George Dobell is chief writer for Spin Magazine