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Five things to watch out for during the 2013 county season
April 9, 2013
The Champions League
Teams from England and Wales will not participate in the Champions League in 2013. While few would dispute that the idea of the league is, in principle, attractive, the practicalities have rendered it far less appealing. The CLT20's owners - Cricket Australia, Cricket South Africa and the BCCI, who are the overwhelmingly dominant partners - were either unwilling or unable to compromise over the rules or the scheduling of the event, meaning that the county season had to be abbreviated or compacted in order to accommodate any involvement. It also grated counties that, despite the inconvenience of participating, they were forced to take part in an extra qualifying event for which there was no prize money. They were also allowed to field just two overseas players, while other teams were allowed four. In 2011, Mumbai Indians were even allowed to field five overseas players to "retain the integrity of the tournament".
The vast majority of county players, understandably, regret the decision to withdraw from the CLT20. The glamour of participating in a high-profile competition and the possibility of using it as a shop-window for the IPL were both motivating factors. The lure - albeit a somewhat misleading lure - of large prize money was also attractive. But, from a financial perspective, the decision is not as serious as is sometimes suggested for the clubs. Indeed, Somerset made more money from one home quarter-final in the domestic T20 competition in 2011 than they did from their entire run to the Champions League semi-finals in the same year. It may even prove that the counties' absence concentrates a few minds involved with the organisation of the League and make it just a little more accommodating in the future.
The heavy roller
After a three-year absence, the heavy roller will return to the County Championship. Without it, county cricket enjoyed plenty of low-scoring, fast-moving games. In terms of encouraging entertaining cricket, the move was a resounding success. But there was an increasing concern that the balance between bat and ball had veered too far towards the bowler and the domestic game was failing to provide adequate preparation for international cricket. With no heavy roller to flatten dents made by the new ball in the first session or two of games, bowlers were able to gain assistance throughout matches. The hope is that, with seamers provided a little less assistance this season, spin bowlers may have more of a role to play as games progress. If county cricket is purely about entertainment, that may be a regrettable decision. But in terms of mirroring conditions in international cricket, it probably makes sense to re-introduce the heavy roller.
The loan system
While the movement of players between counties on loan was introduced in 2005, it is likely to become more common as a result of changes introduced this season. This year the loan system has been adapted so a player may be loaned for a specific competition while continuing to represent their original county in another format. Therefore, a player such as Paul Stirling, who is a key figure in Middlesex's limited-overs team but failed to play a single Championship match in 2012, will be able to continue to represent Middlesex in the shorter formats, but will also have the opportunity to gain first-class cricket with another club. The aim is to both aid players' development and reduce the gap between the richer clubs will large squads and the poorer, who have a smaller pool of players.
The club that takes the loaned player - and a player can be loaned to only one club at a time, though more than one in a season - will be expected to pay the salary and national insurance contributions of the player and any deal will, in the first instance, last for a minimum period of four weeks. Extensions must be for a minimum of two weeks. Checks and balances remain with a view to preventing abuse of the system. Players cannot, for example, be brought in on loan ahead of the "finals stage" (in the ECB's words) of any competition unless they have either played in the qualifying stages or been in a squad and been unable to play through poor weather or injury.
Over the last few years, the ECB has incentivised counties to field young, England-qualified players. Clubs are financially rewarded for including nine England-qualified players in each Championship and Yorkshire Bank 40 side, with the optimum payments being made if two of the players are aged under 22 and three more are under 26 on April 1 of that year. While the richer clubs can ignore such incentives, they are absolutely crucial for the smaller clubs. This, in turn, has seen more mature players - those over 26 - leave the game earlier than was the case in the past and some young players promoted before they are ready. While the aim is laudable, the concern is that the changes came in at the same time as tighter work permit regulations concerning the registration of overseas and non-England qualified players (such as Kolpak registrations), it has increased concerns that it may, in time, lead to a dilution in the quality of some county cricket, particularly towards the bottom of Division Two.
The payments have also acted as a disincentive towards those young players involved in the MCCUs. That scheme, whereby young players can gain a university education while maintaining their cricketing development, plays an important role in preparing young people for a life after cricket. Almost 25% of current England qualified players have come through the system, with Andrew Strauss among the most high-profile beneficiaries. But with players then graduating into the county game at a later date, counties are effectively being discouraged from selecting them as it may count against their young player quota. The MCCU scheme is funded by the MCC, with the ECB not contributing anything directly.
The ECB, mindful of their duty of care towards players, are loathe to be seen to discourage players going into further education and have therefore decided that any cricketer that has completed a degree course on or after April 1 2012 (and can show supporting documentation) will now receive a two-year age credit. That effectively means that any player who has been through the MCCU system could be classed as under 22 until they turn 24. It may well be that the next memorandum of understanding between the counties and the ECB, currently being discussed and due to take force between 2014 and 2017, takes a similar view towards young spinners; ie. counties will be incentivised to field England-qualified spinners with bonuses paid up to the age of 28.
The haves and have-nots
This season will be studded with updates on the negotiation of the England players' new central contracts. Suffice it to say that they are likely to receive very significant pay rises after it was revealed by Angus Porter, the chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association, that Australia's cricketers earn, on average, twice as much. Porter was quite right, too. While Michael Clarke, for example, earns around £1.3m a year from Cricket Australia endorsements and contracts, few of his counterparts in England reach half of that. The ECB's explanation that the cost of living in Australia was much higher than the UK has been met with derisive laughter.
The players (or their representatives) will continue to bemoan their inability to appear more than fleetingly in the IPL but it is a red herring. Over the next three years, the scheduling of two World T20s and one World Cup will push the IPL deeper than ever into the English season. Few players can have realistic expectations of taking part, whether they admit it in public or not. Still, the ECB will need to ensure that central contracts adequately compensate the players for any potential missed financial opportunity and six-figure pay rises are far from impossible. It would be beneficial to the long-term health of the English game if, as part of those new contracts, a way was found to include international players in the domestic T20 competition.
But county cricket will continue to reflect austerity Britain. A handful of players moving between counties may earn eye-catching sums but the majority will be told that pay-rises are inappropriate. Several counties have imposed their own salary cap upon squads and have persuaded senior players to take pay cuts. In short, while the top players demand ever more, the majority at the bottom of the pyramid seem happy to accept ever less.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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