Spongers or smart operators?

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

Christopher Martin-Jenkins

May 21, 2008

Comments: 14 | Text size: A | A



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
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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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Posted by Danny143 on (May 23, 2008, 1:57 GMT)

Aussie flavour in world cricket has become quite common these days. But the standard that they maintain in home or in the ECC are at the highest. The influnece that ECC has on Aussie players is reducing. ECC teaches you to play in more proffessional way and only "in the cricket book shots", but most of the Aussie players are sloggers. You always feel that they are playing baseball than cricket. They trend in cricket is changing and the focus is on the very limited over matches(T20). No wonder if we have one more form of the game 10:10. Players in the ECC should focus on these aspects and learn a bit of slogging than the perfect shots. IPL has become a real threat to Countys in England. With the number of foriegn players reducing in the ECC, it is becoming a sunset for them. Nottingham a team with great names has all new faces today.

Posted by The_Magicians_Apprentice on (May 22, 2008, 4:07 GMT)

But look at the very clear example of Worcs. Bumpy Rhodes has made it very clear the way forward is with young English players - not just players who can't get into the South African National Team. Yes, first class figures may be flattering ... but what of their international careers?

Let's be honest. Leics want to win trophies and the income that comes with it. Yet they have forgotten their successes in 20:20 and one-day games which was built on players like Maddy and Masters who have since left. Only Nixon seems to be left.

We have a £1100 fine per non-English player in county games. About a point reduction instead?? I want to see England win the Ashes again, not just a County team possibly winning an one-off Trophy or Championship. The Kolpak ruling and the individual county understanding of it is surely working against this.

Posted by drinks.break on (May 22, 2008, 2:56 GMT)

NeilCameron wants a "reciprocal arrangement" for OS players. That'd be fair enough if English county players could actually IMPROVE Aus state sides. The fact is, they can't. Take NSW's 1st XI: they're only 3 batsmen short of an INTERNATIONAL-strength team already - Jaques, Katich, M Clarke, Haddin, Lee, S Clark, Bracken, MacGill. The Zim players (Goodwin & Ervine) who went to Aus first had to prove themselves in grade cricket before they were allowed to play for state sides. Flower went straight into the weakest state side (SA), but then he was without doubt in the absolute top tier of international players at the time - certainly a class above Ramprakash, et al. Face it: the ECC is basically on par for quality with the Sydney grade competition.

Posted by drinks.break on (May 22, 2008, 2:55 GMT)

NeilCameron wants a "reciprocal arrangement" for OS players. That'd be fair enough if English county players could actually IMPROVE Aus state sides. The fact is, they can't. Take NSW's 1st XI: they're only 3 batsmen short of an INTERNATIONAL-strength team already - Jaques, Katich, M Clarke, Haddin, Lee, S Clark, Bracken, MacGill. The Zim players (Goodwin & Ervine) who went to Aus first had to prove themselves in grade cricket before they were allowed to play for state sides. Flower went straight into the weakest state side (SA), but then he was without doubt in the absolute top tier of international players at the time - certainly a class above Ramprakash, et al. Face it: the ECC is basically on par for quality with the Sydney grade competition.

Posted by drinks.break on (May 22, 2008, 2:24 GMT)

CMJ's comparison with Australian domestic cricket just doesn't hold water, because it's impossible to compare the Australian comp with the ECC. A couple of years ago I suggested on a cricinfo blog that the ECC should try to emulate Aus's 6-region comp (I'm obviously not the only one who thinks so!), because the concentration of international players you get in Aus domestic teams is something the ECC can only dream about. NSW reached the Pura Cup final this year without the services of Lee, M Clarke, S Clark, MacGill, Bracken & Jaques. How did they survive the loss of 6 world-class players? Well, they still had Katich, Haddin, & Hauritz with international experience and Thornely, Casson, Bollinger & Henriques with Aus-A experience to anchor the team. What county team can compare with that? Either the ECC goes for 6 regions as a finishing school for internationals, with 6 regional grade comps under that to identify up-&-comers, or they go the way of Leicester.

Posted by MadderDog on (May 21, 2008, 16:52 GMT)

Kolpaks, EUs and overseas players in county cricket won't go away. What will go away will be a quality England cricket team - look to the Football Premier League as an example.

An all-England clash in the top European cup competition - but with how many England qualified representatives in both starting XIs. And if it were Liverpool or Arsenal it wouldn't have been any better, maybe worse.

And where's the analogy between what's happening in football to what's starting to happen in cricket, you ask? Well, England's absence from Euro 2008, to wit, the national side starting to underperform due to the paucity of available talent. Transfer that to the cricketing scenario and suddenly the national side isn't such a marketable commodity any more - or to put it in blunt terms that county chairman might understand, the cash cow starts to dry up!

Of course quality overseas players help the game - it's just a question of numbers...

Posted by Aditya_mookerjee on (May 21, 2008, 14:13 GMT)

I am a great admirer of Mr Martin-Jenkins. The first encyclopedic book which I owned, was 'The Complete Who's Who of Test Cricketers", compiled by him.

Posted by tomjs100 on (May 21, 2008, 13:56 GMT)

Let's look at the quality of the overseas players at Leicestershire.

Dippenaar: FC bat 43 Ackerman: FC bat 43 Du Toit: FC bat 38 Du Preez: FC bat 20 FC bowl 23 Kruger: FC bowl 29 Henderson: FC bat 19 FC bowl 31 (spinner)

Fact is, these players are exceptional. Especially Dippenaar, Ackerman and Du Preez. The number of domestic players their equal you could probably list on one hand.

I don't think Leicester will be a minor county if they start winning trophies... which they would have a good chance of if they weren't constantly fielding crap local players so people like CMJ can't bitch at them for having cheaper, better overseas players.

The ECB isn't going to act over Kolpak players.... the EC was set up with the idea of free trade of goods and workers at its core. Cases like that of Kolpak are a good example of this in action, and will not be overturned.

Enough CMJ. Don't start sounding like a paid up member of the BNP and quit while you are behind.

Posted by RSG476 on (May 21, 2008, 10:33 GMT)

I think Davidson has a strong point when he refers to the influence of established pros on younger players in the side in place of journeymen. While CMJ and the cricket establishment may cringe at this, my support for Davidson comes from witnessing the effect such pros are having on talented young Indian players in the IPL. Thus Laxmi Ratan Shukla has new found confidence given the support he gets from Ponting. Shane Warne inspires a bunch of young Indian cricketers in Jaipur, and Ashok Dinda, from the back of nowhere (Medinipur in West Bengal)gets the confidence boost of playing along side people like Shoaib Akhtar. That has been one of the biggest benefits of IPL - if this can work in a 20 over game, I would imagine the benefits in a county season, as envisaged by Davidson, would be much higher. The metric for CMJ should not be the # of cricketers not qualified to play for England, but the # of cricketers in the county who graduate to do so, benefiting from the senior pros.

Posted by Munkeymomo on (May 21, 2008, 9:50 GMT)

Whilst I agree that the number of kolpaks in certain teams has reached a slightly OTT level, I feel that leicestershire have a very good point about teams with test grounds having a huge financial advantage. But, having England players in your squad is no advantage if they are off playing for England all season, and it is a testimonial to counties with England players on their books who can give them matches when not playing for their country, I mean it can't be a coincidence that once Trescothick wasn't playing internationally, we (somerset) had an amazing season (Langer helped a lot too!). But what good would it do reducing them to a minor county, so the young English players they do have no longer have the chance to perform for the selectors?

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Christopher Martin-JenkinsClose
Christopher Martin-Jenkins A useful cricketer himself in his time, Christopher Martin-Jenkins was employed on the Cricketer by EW Swanton on leaving Cambridge. He joined the BBC sports team in 1970 and commentated on his first international match, an ODI, in 1972. The following year he succeeded Brian Johnston as the BBC's cricket correspondent, a post he held until 1991, with a four-year break between 1981 and 1984. He edited the Cricketer from 1981 to 1991, was cricket correspondent of the Telegraph from 1991-99 and of the Times from 1999-2008. He has been a member of the Test Match Special team since 1973, again with a break between 1981 and 1985, when he was used on BBC TV. He is also a prolific author, and his accounts of the 1973-74 West Indies tour, Testing Time, and the 1974-75 series in Australia, Assault On The Ashes, set the tone for more than three decades of quality output.

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