Players may strike over ECB reform plans
The ECB is facing a serious backlash from professional players over radical plans to reform domestic cricket. Such is the level of concern that strike action has been mooted, with the ECB coming under increasing pressure to abandon the scheme.
The disagreement concerns incentive payments designed to encourage counties to field two players under 22 and three more under 26 in Friends Provident and County Championship cricket.
From 2010, counties will be rewarded around £80,000 if they maximise the incentive opportunity. Those payments will rise year-by-year and are expected to be worth £200,000 per county, per year by 2013. Those are sums that many clubs will be unable to ignore and several have already committed to embracing the scheme to its full potential.
That, however, could well limit the opportunities for more experienced players. The ECB already pay incentives for counties fielding English-qualified players, but cap those payments at a maximum of nine per side in order to allow room for two non-qualified players, be they overseas or Kolpak registrations. That leaves only four places per side for England players aged over 26.
As a consequence, county players are deeply concerned. Many of them feel the plans will dilute the quality of county cricket and threaten their livelihoods. While Vikram Solanki, the chairman of the Professional Cricketers' Association, has made no threats, he does make it clear that there are serious reservations over the issue.
"There are good cricketing reasons to suggest this will not help English cricket," Solanki told Cricinfo. "Merit should be the only criteria for selection. Unless that's the case, the quality of English cricket will be diluted.
"It seems artificial to force this upon counties. If young players are good enough, they will play anyway. But if you force them in too early, you may damage their development and cause resentment in the dressing room. We've seen the damaging effect of quotas elsewhere.
"Young players can learn a great deal by being around experienced players. When I started, I batted inbetween Graeme Hick and Tom Moody. Fine, they'd make it in any system. But I also learned from the likes of David Leatherdale and Stuart Lampitt. That was hugely valuable for me and I've no doubt that any young player will learn from playing with and against experienced professionals.
"This system will make it much harder for late developers, too. We've seen the likes of Michael Hussey and Marcus North come into Test cricket in their late 20s and do well, but this system will make that much harder for English players.
"I don't doubt that the intentions behind this are honourable, but the ECB are trying to solve a problem that will no longer exist. One of their motives is to reduce the number of players in county cricket who are not qualified for England. But the work permit situation changed this winter which makes it vastly more difficult for non-qualified players.
"The other concern is that this will increase the divide between the richer counties and the rest. While the clubs with Test grounds might be able to ignore the incentives, the smaller ones can't. It's likely to artificially inflate young players' wages, discourage them from going to university but then, potentially, leave them in a very difficult position in their mid-20s if things don't work out.
"It is felt by the PCA that there was a lack of consultation," Solanki continued. "There is a concern among players that these plans will not benefit cricket in anyway - in fact they're likely to harm the game - and there will also be implications for cricketers of a certain age.
"We want to express those views and voice our members' concerns. At this stage I don't know what can be done, but we do need to canvas the opinions of our members and see what they think. Then, at least, we can have discussions with the ECB."
There will be some mitigating features for the smaller counties. A salary cap will be introduced from the start of next season, with no club allowed to spend more than £1.85m per squad, per year. That figure is still some way in excess of the amount paid by most clubs, however, so will come as scant consolation.
George Dobell is chief writer of Spin magazine