August 7, 2009

Fit for a benefit

Surrey's Jonathan Batty is a deserving beneficiary of a system that doesn't always work the way it should

To parody for a moment: county cricket's benefit system is either a deserved tax-free handshake for a stalwart's years of service or an unsubtle form of legalised begging that encourages time-servers and blocks the potential influx of young English talent. County cricket's supporters and detractors can leave little room for grey areas, yet the experience of Jonathan Batty, Surrey's beneficiary this summer, suggests the benefit system can both transcend the bottom line and provoke debate about the unquestioning acceptance of all things under-30.

A youthful 35, Batty is the kind of character the benefit system might have been invented for. Times have changed, of course, since benefits were first introduced in the 19th century as a means of topping up the wages of poorly paid professionals (think MPs and their expenses but without the subterfuge). But the principle remains the same: Batty made his first-class debut for Surrey back in 1997 (even getting a bowl in a draw at Northampton), since when he has been as resolute a one-club man as you will find in an era where players are happy to forego the chance of a benefit to chase better wages in greener pastures.

And despite the effects of the economic downturn - Batty says he will be lucky to make half as much as some of his recent Surrey colleagues earned during their benefit summer - there have been other rewards. "Of course the financial side is hugely important," he says. "It's the reason benefits exist. But the recognition side of things is great too, especially from a club like Surrey.

"I think they've only had 170-odd capped players in over 150 years. Not many get capped, even fewer serve the time they need to get a benefit. Fourteen years ago I was struggling to get into the side and for a while it didn't look like I'd be lucky enough to get a contract. It's awesome that I'm still playing cricket for a living and still living the dream."

The chance to connect with the members - an oft-maligned breed regarded by some as the reason for county cricket's occasional reluctance to modernise - has made an impression on Batty too. "I've always struggled with people paying me compliments and there's been a lot of that," he says. "Fans come up to you and say how much they've enjoyed watching you play. It's quite humbling, even if it has made me feel a bit uncomfortable at times.

"But this is a great way for members and fans to say thank you. You realise how much people care, and maybe you haven't always realised that in the past. If you have a bad day, you can hear mumblings, but this reminds you what you give back, and that, at the end of it, you're in the entertainment business."

The organisation of a benefit season can be harrowing in itself. The county network is full of horror stories about players making a loss after hoping for a windfall, generating a sense of injustice that can be fuelled further when an England international who, in the age of central contracts, is barely seen at his county ground, rakes in millions. But Batty has seven or eight helpers - including his sponsor, Barry Kitcherside, and the tireless Tawny Hazlewood - who have made his life easier.

Well-organised dinners, Q&As and themed balls - with part of the proceeds going towards the CHASE Ben Hollioake fund and the PCA benevolent fund - have all allowed Batty to concentrate on his cricket and not fall into the trap described last year by the Sussex allrounder Robin Martin-Jenkins as "benefititis", whereby a beneficiary's bank balance is in diametrical opposition to the number of runs he has scored and wickets taken. If the runs haven't flowed, he says, it's not because he has been distracted.

But what of the accusation that beneficiaries are clogging up the system? Back in 1995, when a capped county cricketer could expect to earn £14,500 a summer without the guarantee of any winter work, the Northamptonshire slow left-armer Nick Cook wrote in the Independent: "The benefit breeds greed and is bad for the county game, and therefore the Test game. Sometimes players stay in the game when they have just about achieved all they are going to achieve, because a benefit is around the corner, depriving a young talent, and maybe a future international, a county contract and valuable experience."

A youthful 35, Batty is the kind of character the benefit system might have been invented for. He made his first-class debut back in 1997, since when he has been as resolute a one-club man as you will find in an era where players are happy to forego the chance of a benefit to chase better wages in greener pastures

Cook did not speak from bitterness: he was Northamptonshire's beneficiary that year. But he touched on an age-old complaint, and it is one Batty is aware of. "Time-serving can happen, and I'm sure some players do that," he says. "But if the club's structure is right it shouldn't happen. Older players should only be kept on if they're good enough. If youngsters are coming through then they should prove themselves ready to do better than the seniors. It's the Mark Ramprakash scenario: are others really ready to come in and replace him?"

Batty himself remains a championship regular, but he has been eased out of Surrey's one-day set-up as part of what he calls the club's "succession planning". This may not necessarily have thrilled him. "I feel I'm keeping as well as ever and I'm feeling great with the bat," he says. "I haven't made any big runs yet, but I don't feel my skills have been dropping off. I still think I'm at the peak of my powers and I still want to be playing. Look at Alec Stewart: he was still playing for England when he was 40."

Batty's lack of international recognition rankles, as you would expect it to rankle with any ambitious county pro. "I try not to think about England too much," he says. "But I look at some of the guys who have been picked while I've been performing well and I think I've been a bit unlucky not to get a go. But I have no regrets. I've had a fantastic career, we've won championships and the Twenty20 Cup. I've got trophies under my belt. I take a huge amount of pride from my 18 first-class hundreds, which I think places me seventh or eighth in the all-time wicketkeepers' list around the world."

He hopes to play for another two or three years, by which time he could be closing in on 10,000 first-class runs and 600 dismissals. He may have a tidy sum in his bank too, but the memories of his stint as club captain, of trophies won and of friends made are likely to be far richer.

Click here for more information on Jonathan Batty's benefit season
Lawrence Booth is a cricket correspondent at the Guardian. He writes the acclaimed weekly cricket email The Spin for guardian.co.uk

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