In danger of feeding mediocrity
The ECB announced last week, to general low-level rumbles of approval, that from 2008 each county will only be allowed one overseas player. The knee-jerk reaction from much of the more traditional press and certainly from the majority of the public is this is an unabated "good thing". It will give talented, young English players a chance in first-class cricket where once their passage was barred. The barriers will drop, the pool of excellence will expand, counties will save money and the world will be a happier place with England retaining the Ashes for the next three decades as a result.
What nonsense. The ECB's incentive for restricting the allocation had little to do with developing young players but all to do with levelling the county playing field. They explained: "Counties reported that it has become increasingly difficult to attract a second overseas player for a full season, overseas boards were recalling players at more frequent intervals."
So the perception is there are not enough good internationals to go round, especially with the cluttered international fixture list. If a county is clever enough, and works hard enough, it can make the most of the two overseas players options - and at no greater expense. Even if an international star plays for half a season, surely it is better for supporters and team-mates to have Mushtaq Ahmed alongside Naved-ul-Hasan with Yasir Arafat playing later in the season, than just one of them? Cameron White and Justin Langer have had a huge impact at Somerset. Surrey can play Anil Kumble without compromising their seam attack. These are all good things, raising the spectator value of the first-class game and, most importantly, raising the standard.
This is the nub. The ECB announcement made mention of player development saying: "Counties wished to provide more opportunities for talented players qualified for England." The PCA's chief executive Richard Bevan said: "Having two overseas players has created unsustainable financial pressures for counties, so we believe this change is very sensible." Of course he says that - he's the union leader and, in theory, less overseas players means more employment for his members.
Both ECB and PCA miss the point. David Ligertwood - a player's agent - writes in the most recent issue of The Wisden Cricketer that "English cricket has stumbled across the solution it has always wanted and needed: the concentration of English talent and improved standards."
Admittedly, he has a commercial agenda and some of his arguments are less than watertight, but to develop a good England team, the best players must play the best cricket they can regularly. If a young player's way is "blocked" by an overseas player, is it to the detriment of English cricket? It is up to that young player to work hard at his game, improve, fight, battle - impress with attitude, work ethic and, most importantly, with statistics so the first-team coaches cannot ignore him. And if he can't manage that and finds his way still "blocked" is this necessarily a bad thing? He is not good enough and should stop cluttering the system. This is the road to mediocrity that spawned the dreadful England sides of the late 1980s and 1990s.
Having two overseas players sharpens the pyramid; only the best England players make it into a Championship of high quality. Also, the experience, nous and professionalism international players bring to counties is immeasurable. Just ask Martyn Moxon the coach at Durham. He has made full use of overseas and Kolpak players in a good way, picking the right pros with the right attitude - he cannot speak highly enough of Dale Benkenstein and Mike Hussey. Durham may, at times, field only seven English qualified players but all of them are under 25 and all have serious international ambitions. And Geoff Cook's academy sides are bursting with English talent, all who'll have to excel to force their way into the first team.
And who's doing more for the national side, Durham or the 2005 champions Nottinghamshire - the cuckoo county - employing ageing English qualified pros (so collecting maximum bonus from ECB) who have no prospect of playing international cricket?
Ligertwood argues that this ruling will make no difference - all it will do is increase the salaries of old English pros and increase the proliferation of Kolpak and EU qualifed players (again, not a bad thing if used sensibly). It will not save the counties any money and is in danger of returning English cricket to the lands of mediocrity. A common moan about county cricket is that there are too many professionals and too much cricket. This change in regulations will not help. There'll be more mediocre players picking up hefty county contracts. There is a danger that the English first-class game is hurtling back into the murky comfort zone the ECB spent 10 years rescuing it from.
Edward Craig is deputy editor of The Wisden Cricketer