May 21, 2008

Spongers or smart operators?

Leicestershire's avowed strategy is to build a core group of senior overseas pros as mentors for young English talent



Leicestershire have chosen to bank on the likes of Boeta Dippenaar (above) rather than journeyman England pros, but they may be playing into the hands of those looking to reduce them to the status of a minor county © PA Photos

It is a cliche, I know, but the LV County Championship, like any long-running league, is a marathon not a sprint. Last year the early pacemakers, Yorkshire, could not sustain their formidable early form. Durham, the team of 2007, maintained their early impetus better and came close to adding the most prestigious of the four currently available main prizes to their first success in the Friends Provident, but the long uphill run at the end proved too steep.

Surrey, unlikely to lose any players to international duty, are as likely to win this year as the current leaders, Nottinghamshire, but the odds must be shortening on a northern champion this time, not least because Sussex, winner of three of the last five Championships, have had a most ineffective start to the season. With a quarter of their programme completed they had recorded not a single win (only one, indeed, in the Friends Provident too) and they were looking with some concern towards the return of Mushtaq Ahmed for the match against Nottinghamshire this week. The decision by Mark Robinson and his medical advisors to pop the treasured Mushy in for an arthroscopy on a knee that has troubled him periodically through recent seasons was as critical as one of those Grand Prix pit-stops.

Get your timing wrong for a wheel change like that and you can lose the race. Sussex decided to battle on without him for the games against Surrey and Somerset and managed at least to draw both matches, albeit with fewer points than their two opponents. Meanwhile the absence of their star, and two matches lost in the 50-overs competition while Matt Prior and Luke Wright were pushing their individual cases before the England selectors in the England Lions game against the New Zealanders, scuppered any chance they had of reaching the quarter-finals.

Kent and Essex are the two southern counties with the most reason to be satisfied after the first full month of a season that, mainly because of the weather, has produced a high proportion of draws in four-day cricket. Essex are a fixture behind the pacemakers in both competitions, and despite a loss to Kent at Chelmsford last Friday, are the percentage leaders in both the LV and the FP. But the two most satisfied clubs at the moment are the County Championship leaders in each division, Notts and Leicestershire, who have been quick to defend a controversial strategy that has, undeniably, made them far more competitive this year.

The charge against Leicestershire is that they are arch spongers, relying on others to develop their players. No club save Northamptonshire, Leicestershire's opponents last week in a match already notorious for the fact that it was played between two teams who fielded 12 players not qualified for England, is more reliant on South African-bred Kolpaks. That may be true but the general perception is rubbish, according to their bullish young chairman Neil Davidson. He has fought the ECB for several seasons now on the grounds that it does not give a fair crack of the whip to counties whose grounds have seen no official international cricket since the 1999 World Cup.

"I can't speak for other counties but at Leicestershire we have an overt recruitment and selection policy with a two-fold aim - to develop cricketers for England and to provide our members with competitive and entertaining cricket," Davidson said in response to my expressed opinion that the Kolpak "invasion" has gone too far. "You don't seem to appreciate the number of England qualified players aged 25 or under we have fielded in each Championship match so far. To date, we have averaged five a game."

Davidson produced a well argued defence of his county's approach last winter, based on the premise that the counties with Test grounds have such a financial advantage over the remainder that they can tempt the best of both the overseas players and England-qualified ones too. Sussex, to his mind, have been the exception who prove the rule, and in their case the legacy of the late Spen Cama - which could be as much as £10 million - has given them a little more to spend than the perennial strugglers of middle England, Derbyshire, Northamptonshire and Leicestershire themselves.

 
 
With 18 counties and about as many England players absent from county cricket for much of the season on Test or one-day international duty, the standard of domestic cricket will be relatively low if there were no overseas players involved. The fact remains that, partly because this is the only country whose home season coincides with the southern hemipshere winter, no other nation is so obsessed with the need for importing players
 

"My statistically-based study identified the need for a core group of senior role-model professionals," Davidson claimed. "The quality of this group, both in terms of playing ability and character/personality, is essential in helping youngsters make the transition into first-class cricket, and hopefully international cricket. Otherwise a team will simply not compete and youngsters will get over-exposed, which is not in their interests because being part of a team that is always losing has a negative effect. Isn't it better for our young players to have a really good role-model pro like Boeta Dippenaar, and the others we have carefully recruited, rather than some of the England-qualified journeymen I could name?

"The likes of Notts and Surrey are packed with England qualifieds but they don't play many young England qualifieds, unlike ourselves, or Durham. With the polarisation of players based on income, how are small counties like us going to recruit a core group of senior role-model professionals unless we look outside the UK?"

Davidson made the additional point that most counties have some university students who do not become available to play professionally until later in the season. We shall see, for example, whether young Harry Gurney, the bowler who made a name for himself by getting Michael Vaughan for a duck playing for Leeds/ Bradford UCCE in April, will be given a chance by Leicestershire when his exams are out of the way.

It is generally accepted that with 18 counties and about as many England players absent from county cricket for much of the season on Test or one-day international duty, the standard of domestic cricket would be relatively low if there were no overseas players involved. The fact remains that, partly because this is the only country whose home season coincides with the southern hemisphere winter, no other nation is so obsessed with the need for importing players. The New Zealand provincial sides occasionally welcome a wintering county cricketer and occasionally a South African one too, but it is a long time since Vic Marks played a big part in winning the Sheffield Shield for Western Australia.

Once upon a time that competition was occasionally enriched by the likes of Tony Lock, Barry Richards, Colin Milburn or Garry Sobers (as if there ever was anyone quite like Sobers). Not anymore. You are either a fair dinkum Aussie or you come from somewhere else, and if it's the latter you will be welcomed as a tourist but not as a professional cricketer. I understand where Leicestershire are coming from, of course, but not until a couple of their tyros plays for England will anyone listen. By spending so much of the £1.5 million (approximately) that they receive from the ECB on cricketers not qualified to play for England, they are playing into the hands of those who would reduce them to the status of a minor county.

Christopher Martin-Jenkins has been a leading cricket broadcaster, journalist and author for almost four decades, during which time he has served as a cricket correspondent for the BBC, the Daily Telegraph and the Times

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