April 27, 2010

Beware the new rules

George Dobell
Tighter regulations on overseas players gives young British cricketers more opportunities, but is that the blessing it seems?

Do you remember when the IPL was launched? It was going to be revolutionary. It was going to be brilliant. It was going to offer the chance to see the world's best players in a domestic tournament.

Sounded marvellous, didn't it?

But then reality dawned. The IPL wasn't new. It was just repackaged. It only offered what county cricket has offered for several decades. In the same way that putting a policeman in a cape doesn't transform him into a superhero, adding a few dancing girls and some fireworks didn't suddenly make the IPL a new game.

Hadn't the likes of Sobers, Richards (Viv and Barry), Warne, Hadlee, Miandad, Tendulkar, Lara et al. graced our county grounds (and out-grounds) for years? Didn't some of us grow up watching Botham, Garner and Richards at Taunton? Weren't some of us inspired by watching Daniel, Thomson and Gatting at Lord's? And weren't many of us entertained by Greenidge, Richards and Marshall at Hampshire?

County cricket takes a lot of stick. It's accused of being reactionary. Of being irrelevant. Of being subsidised. But answer me this: where did limited-overs cricket start? And where did Twenty20 cricket start? Yup. In county cricket. In 1963 and 2003 respectively. Again and again, county cricket has led the way.

But that's the problem with progress. If you keep going after reaching the top of the hill, you just come back down the other side. And that's what we're in danger of doing now.

The impact of new regulations has made it far more difficult for foreign players to appear in county cricket. At a time when the rest of the world is attempting to attract more international cricketers to their domestic competitions, England are going the other way.

Why? Well, there was a concern that too many cricketers who did not qualify for England were filling spaces in county teams and thereby impeding the progress of young Englishmen. There may have been an element of legitimacy about such concerns, too.

But the change in the rules is taking matters too far. Over the winter, Northants had to accept they couldn't retain the services of their fine fast bowler Johan van der Wath; Lancashire had to accept the loss of allrounder Francois du Plessis; and Kent had to accept that Justin Kemp, an exciting batsman, would not be returning. All were ineligible for work permits under new rules.

And that's to name but a few. Who knows who else might be lost to the England game? Under current regulations, Viv Richards wouldn't have gained a work permit to represent Somerset. Instead, the likes of Mervyn Kitchen could have played on for a few more seasons. Is that what we want? Is county cricket better for the loss of such players? Is it more entertaining for spectators? Does it offer better preparation for international cricket?

The answer to all those questions is surely "no".

Their absence does achieve one goal, however. It opens up opportunities for young British cricketers. But there's some doubt as to whether that is an entirely good thing.

Suggesting that the likes of Pietersen, Trott and Kieswetter are not, in some way, completely British, is wrong. It's also dangerous. If we start to apply that faintly xenophobic logic to other areas of society, we quickly descend a very slippery, very unpleasant slope

Here's what Peter Moores, Lancashire's head coach, has to say on the subject: "You don't want to make things too easy for young players. Professional sport is a competitive world and you don't want a situation where young guys can just walk into the team. Really good players find their way into teams whatever, so my view is that, if we're able to bring in someone who raises the standard, then that's probably a good thing.

"The important thing is to see English players in key positions: bowling with the new ball, or at 'the death'. But someone like Francois du Plessis, who we couldn't re-sign for this season because of tightening of the regulations, was totally committed to the club. He's one of the best fielders in the world and his presence definitely rubbed off on other people at the club."

The problem is compounded when taken in conjunction with other measures. The ECB have also introduced incentives for fielding young players, a salary cap, and effectively, started to penalise clubs who field more than two players who are not qualified to play for England. The outcome? Well, there's a danger that the quality of county cricket will be compromised. That young players will be promoted beyond their station purely because it is cheaper to field them than more experienced professionals. That county cricket will be unable to sustain itself as a breeding ground for international cricket and that the standard will not be as appealing to spectators.

There's an interesting example of the benefits of Kolpak registrations at Leicestershire. Over the last few years the club have lost a host of international players to other counties: Stuart Broad, Luke Wright and Darren Maddy.

So they invested in Kolpak registrations as "role-model" cricketers. The policy, which was always meant to be short-term, was to help the club's admirable contingent of young players - the likes of James Taylor, Nathan Buck and Josh Cobb - continue their development without undue pressure and in an environment where they could learn from experienced players. Did it impede the development of young English players? No. Quite the opposite. It helped them.

Consider these comments from Taylor, who might just be the brightest young batting talent in the land. "HD Ackerman, Boeta Dippenaar and Claude Henderson were brilliant for me," Taylor told Lawrence Booth. "It was great to speak to the likes of them because they're so experienced and knowledgeable about the game. It was great to be able to tap into them all the time."

To be fair to the ECB, their intentions are understandable. They now invest over £100,000 a year in each county academy and they want to see from fruits from their investment. And they probably had to act. As Leicestershire's chief executive David Smith puts it, "The ECB had to bring in new regulations as the counties showed they can't be trusted to find a suitable balance between home-grown and overseas players.

"It may be that the new regulations do go a step too far, but many of the bigger clubs had become lazy about their player development and could afford to just cherry-pick players from the smaller clubs."

Sadly the debate about "Kolpak" (perhaps the most over-used word in cricket) has become hysterical. There are times when it seems anyone who has even holidayed in South Africa is deemed a baby-eating mercenary. Even if their presence in our game raises the standard and increases the entertainment value. Even players in the England team are not beyond rebuke. How many times have we read that the English team is full of South Africans? Recently Michael Vaughan commented that he'd like to see "11 complete Englishmen in the team" and that he had "a problem" with "the likes of Jonathan Trott and Craig Kieswetter" playing for England.

That's nonsense. Kevin Pietersen, Trott and Kieswetter all have British parents. All three, therefore, qualified for British passports. Two of them have British wives and are expecting British children. Suggesting that they are not, in some way, completely British, is wrong. It's also dangerous. If we start to apply that faintly xenophobic logic to other areas of society, we quickly descend a very slippery, very unpleasant slope. We live in a mobile, multi-cultural society. It would be odd, and quite wrong, if our sports teams did not reflect that.

Current rules will only encourage mediocrity. We have made a negative out of a positive. Instead we should have celebrated the fact that English cricket attracted the best players. We were lucky to have them.

An interesting gathering took place earlier this week. Responding to a private meeting between the nine Test-hosting grounds (TMGs), the nine non-Test hosting grounds met to discuss their options. Their primary concern was to prevent the TMGs establishing a city-based franchise for Twenty20 cricket. Most of the non-TMGs know they will be sowing the seeds of their own demise if they allow such a system. Yes, they may be offered a profit share. But such a move would establish a dangerous precedent and, over time, increase pressure to amalgamate for championship cricket. The short-term gain will quickly be offset by long-term pain.

But it's an unlikely scenario. Many of the Test-hosting counties are far from convinced about the attraction of franchise cricket and the discussion about it took up only a fraction of their meeting. Instead the TMGs talked about the possibilities for further revenue-raising measures. They talked about Twenty20 Cup double-headers - where two or three Twenty20 games could be held at the same ground on the same day - and they talked about persuading the ECB to aid their financial planning by confirming the allocation of international fixtures up to 10 years ahead. Yorkshire and Surrey currently have long-term staging agreements - over 15 years apiece - which allows them to satisfy lenders. Other clubs, reasonably enough, are demanding similar treatment.

Meanwhile, it appears there has been some reflection taking place over the movement to a conference system in championship cricket. While a reduction in the programme remains likely, a prominent member of the ECB cricket committee tells me that "the passionate support shown for the championship in the last couple of weeks has reminded people of its popularity". A rethink could yet take place.

Odd though it sounds, the fate of Lalit Modi could also be crucial. It was the desire to squeeze in the Champions League that necessitated the season finishing two weeks earlier, only for Modi to then schedule the league impossibly early. The counties are still keen to participate in the Champions League, but were reluctant to dance to Modi's tune. If Modi is out of the picture, it is even possible that the league could be scheduled late enough to allow a full championship programme. All of a sudden, anything is possible again.