July 29, 2010

Amateurs show their value

George Dobell
As the counties face crucial decisions about the game's structure, many are struggling to stay afloat, although the Unicorns have shown money isn't everything

A minor chord
The final delivery pretty much summed it all up: a waist-high full toss that was thrashed with contempt to the midwicket fence. This was amateurs against pros; men against boys.

Only, it was the professional doing the bowling. And the amateur who smashed the winning boundary. The Unicorns, a collection of unpaid cricketers from the recreational game, had beaten a Worcestershire side containing three men with experience of ODI cricket, who only three years ago won the 40-over competition.

Now if this had been the Unicorns' only success, it might be wise to read little into it. After all Worcestershire are in a fearful state of disarray and, on current form, would struggle to give Pitcairn Island second XI a decent match.

But it's not just been Worcestershire. The Unicorns have also beaten Glamorgan and, most impressively, Sussex. Indeed, in that game the Unicorns set a record for a 40-over run chase by scoring 327. That's not a bad effort against a side that won two limited-overs trophies last year and included seven international cricketers and five international bowlers. As things stand, the Unicorns are fourth in Group A of the Clydesdale Bank 40 table, above Lancashire, Glamorgan and Worcestershire.

Only the most partisan of supporters could fail to be cheered by the Unicorns' success. They've played wonderfully selfless cricket. Instead of simply utilising the games as a chance to showcase their individual skills, they have bought into the team ethic; testament, surely, to the excellent spirit instilled by the impressive captain-and-coach combination of Keith Parsons and Phil Oliver.

It's a classic case of the underdog enjoying a day - or three - in the sun. They are a hastily arranged squad of amateurs from the leagues, the minor counties, MCC Young Cricketers and the universities, and they are clearly revelling in their chance.

Or perhaps that should be second chance. For that's what this is for most of them. The likes of Wes Durston, Jackson Thompson, Josh Knappett and Mike O'Shea have all had a taste of life as professional cricketers, but were jettisoned after it was decided they wouldn't make the grade. The Unicorns has given them another chance to prove their doubters wrong.

They're seizing that chance with some style. Durston has already signed with Derbyshire until the end of 2012, Thompson with Middlesex for the Twenty20, and several others are enjoying trials with first-class teams. O'Shea will, I suspect, have a choice of which county to join; Gloucestershire are the favourites.

There have been difficulties. A couple of the players - one of whom was Carl Greenidge - were jettisoned when they tried to lead a rebellion asking for payment, while one of the selectors felt his opinions weren't adequately valued. It's been hard for some of the players to make themselves available, as work commitments or commitments to their cricket clubs have sometimes had to take precedence. There's no natural support base for the Unicorns either, so crowds at one or two games have been a little sparse, while the administration of the team is provided, free of charge, by the minor counties.

But that just makes their success all the more laudable. As does the fact that it has been achieved on a budget of somewhere between £100,000-120,000 and that the Unicorns have fielded a side of 11 English-qualified players, without an overseas signing or Kolpak registration. Of late, they've also selected nine men aged under 26. How many first-class counties can say that?

The minor counties have quite a distinguished history as a breeding ground for first-class cricketers. Around 20% of those playing in the County Championship have, at some stage, played minor counties cricket. Among them are Andrew Strauss, Graeme Swann, Steve Harmison, Alastair Cook, Monty Panesar and Dominic Cork.

Perhaps even more relevant is the number who have used minor counties cricket for rehabilitation. Ian Ward, Joey Benjamin, Aftab Habib, Chris Schofield, Paul Taylor, Pete Trego, Neil Burns, Steve Adshead, Ismail Dawood and Alan Richardson had all dropped out of the professional game before rediscovering their form at the lower level. Several of them went on to represent England.

Indeed, bearing in mind how little funding they receive (around £30,000 for a county cricket club and around £200,000 for a county cricket board, most of which only field teams up to U-17 level), the minor counties have produced a remarkable number of cricketers. Staffordshire, for example, has seen 20 of its young cricketers progress to first-class county academies in the last six years years, while in 2008, four Staffordshire graduates represented England at various levels. Some first-class counties can't compete with that record.

And there's the rub. For the success of the Unicorns - and the minor counties - sheds a most unflattering light on the work of some of the first-class counties. These counties benefit from £1.8 million a year from the ECB central pool, they have large staffs on 12-month contracts, excellent indoor schools, several well-qualified coaches and all the training advice and facilities they require. The Unicorns shouldn't be able to live with them.

So it seems a shame that the influence of the minor counties has waned. At a time when they're providing excellent value for money, their funding is ever more jeopardised. As things stand, the Unicorns have no idea whether they will be invited to compete in ECB competitions next year, and there is, seemingly, little chance of the minor counties ever being invited back into a mainstream competition such as the old-style, knock-out NatWest Trophy.

That strikes me as a shame. The idea of an FA Cup of cricket (ideally played as a Twenty20 knock-out) retains lasting appeal to many spectators, and would also provide a shop window for players outside the first-class system and an opportunity to take professional cricket to different geographical regions. From a sponsor's perspective, that's an attractive proposition.

What the relative success of the Unicorns has highlighted is the depth of talent outside the professional game. So it may well be that the ECB should think about allocating the minor counties more resources. In terms of value for money, they're consistently outperforming many of the first-class counties.

War zone
Short of a trip to Helmand Province, you'd be hard to find a place as war-torn and bursting with conflict as Grace Road, the home of Leicestershire CCC.

Chief executive David Smith has already tendered his resignation and initiated legal proceedings against the club. He is claiming constructive dismissal and points out that he is the fifth chief executive to leave the club in the last half-dozen years.

Meanwhile a number of the club's members have secured the necessary backing to force a special general meeting. The rules of the club dictate it must be held on or before October 8. At this meeting, they will call a vote of no confidence in the chairman of the club, Neil Davidson, and the board. If the disaffected members win 75% of the vote on the night - which is no small ask - they will elect an interim board to manage the club until the next annual meeting.

The reason? Well, Smith claims that Davidson has tried to interfere in team selection. Davidson denies this, though emails that have leaked out of the club suggest Smith, who chaired the club's selection committee, has a point. In one email, sent by Davidson to the coach and chief executive, he strongly suggested that Will Jefferson should open the batting and Jigar Naik should be selected ahead of Harry Gurney. It includes the phrase: "The most disappointing aspect was that, having spent an hour and a half discussing cricket at the Board on Thursday, and in particular team selection, it appeared to make no difference." Davidson, to be fair, claims that some aspects of the leaked emails have been doctored.

Either way, he faces a tough few weeks. While little may be heard from Smith for a while - it's common practise for most settlement packages to include a non-disclosure agreement - it is anticipated that both Leicestershire's captain and coach, Matthew Hoggard and Tim Boon, will speak in favour of him. The vast majority of players also sympathise with him.

Smith, who played over 300 times for Warwickshire, has a pretty good track record at Leicestershire. When he took over, in January 2008, the club was in a shambolic state. It made a loss of around £300,000 in 2007, was living off its overdraft, had no major sponsor, no caterer, had lost several of its better players (Stuart Broad, Darren Maddy, David Masters and Luke Wright) and was overly reliant on its six Kolpak registrations.

While Leicestershire has hardly challenged for trophies since, they have been making quiet progress. Not only is the club now producing its own players (having provided six to England age-group squads in the last two years), but they have turned away from the Kolpak reliance and now aim to play nine English-qualified players in the Championship. The club also made a modest profit last year (£685).

Can Davidson survive? Possibly. While it will be hard for the members to ignore the views of captain, coach and chief executive, Davidson is a strong, charismatic and intelligent fellow with copious business experience. He's not the sort to be intimidated by such a challenge.

Whatever happens, it's a shame that one of Smith and Davidson looks certain to be lost from the club. They had both always struck me as very likeable men, with the best interests of the club at heart.

Money troubles
We live in interesting times. While we've known for a while that several clubs were suffering financial hardship, the full extent of that trouble is only now becoming clear.

At least three clubs - Kent, Yorkshire and Hampshire - are reliant on an individual benefactors. Several others have received either loans or advances on money from the ECB. Without such help, they would have been unable to pay their bills and would, even now, be insolvent.

Earlier this week the chief executives of the Test Match counties held an emergency meeting to discuss the situation. Their chief gripe remains the system by which major matches are allocated. The present arrangement, which encourages clubs to bid against one another, is causing an unsustainable arms race. Unless things change there will be casualties. And it won't be in the distant future.

Change is likely, however. The ECB are certainly sympathetic to the counties' plight and are working with them to find a better system. It seems probable that, in future, major matches will be allocated much further in advance, giving clubs more opportunity to plan their finances.

Matters came to a head after Yorkshire's much-publicised losses from the neutral Test between Pakistan and Australia. Disappointing ticket sales resulted in the county losing £700,000 on the game. For a club that had already been obliged to renegotiate the repayment schedule for loans used to redevelop Headingley, that is a burden they could have done without. Payments totalling £2.5m due to Leeds City Council and Leeds Metropolitan University over this year and next will now not be made, though the club will still have to pay interest.

In all, the club owes about £11.5m before interest. Leeds City Council lent £9m, while Leeds Metropolitan University lent £3m. Had the loans not been personally guaranteed by club chairman Colin Graves, founder of the Costcutter supermarket chain, then the club would be insolvent. "There's nothing new in that," Graves says. "I've done that for the last eight years."

Cuts will be made, however. Graves, who has become the executive chairman after the departure of Stewart Regan, says £500,000 will be trimmed from Yorkshire's budget. He insists, however, that none of those cuts will come from Martyn Moxon's cricket budget. "He won't lose a pound," Graves says, "and we won't be putting our players out on long-term loans. That's not on the agenda."

Other clubs are not be so fortunate. Worcestershire have already cut their cricket budget by £300,000 and others will have to follow suit.

So this winter, we'll see some decent players released by clubs that simply can't afford to keep them. One club will release their long-serving head groundsman, while another is talking of utilising a clause that is inserted in all contracts but never previously actioned, that entitles them to release any player who has been injured and unavailable for selection for more than 13 weeks.

There is a lifeline. At the end of 2011, the ECB will make payments of £200,000 to any Category C ground (that's a non-international county ground) that complies with the latest facility specifications. Most are expected to fulfil that requirement. Those who achieve "model compliance" will receive £300,000. Counties can seek an advance on that funding - as they can on money from the central allocation - and that money is keeping some of them afloat.

It does seem odd, however, that first-class counties are struggling to get by on budgets that run into millions, while the Unicorns are proving competitive on a fraction of that.

Makes you wonder, doesn't it?