May 4, 2011

Are you sitting uncomfortably?

George Dobell
A curious signing by Nottinghamshire and an impending court case for Giles Clarke have left some tricky questions needing answers

It's not often that news of a second-team wicketkeeper joining a county arouses much interest, but Nottinghamshire's decision to recruit Riki Wessels could have far-reaching ramifications.

Wessels, you see, was signed in highly unusual circumstances. Formerly with Northamptonshire, the 25-year-old was one of a bunch of players forced out of county cricket when the ECB decided to implement a crackdown on Kolpak registrations at the end of 2009. Wessels, Australian-born but a South African national, was unable to gain a work permit under the new criteria.

Or so it was thought. Then, however, Nottinghamshire signed Wessels on an "Entrepreneur Visa" at the start of April. While Wessels has yet to break into the Nottinghamshire first team, the club hopes he might develop into a replacement for top-order batsman Mark Wagh, who is retiring from the game in August.

But then people started asking questions. And, to date, they've been questions that Nottinghamshire have been either unwilling or unable to answer. Which is all a bit odd.

It would certainly be interesting to know how Wessels qualifies for an Entrepreneur Visa. What is his business (regulations state he must fulfil a senior management position and that it should constitute his main income)? Who does he employ (regulations state that he has to employ at least two European Economic area nationals) and when exactly was he registered? As of the second week of April, an Entrepreneur Visa specifically forbids an individual working as a sportsman. Regulations also state that the individual should be able to invest a minimum of £50,000 in the business and that the money must not come from a loan.

Why do we have a right to know such details? Well, over the last couple of years, a host of other counties have lost their Kolpak players. Indeed, a host of players have lost their ability to earn a living. It would be interesting to learn how Wessels - and Nottinghamshire - have succeeded where others have failed. It may be that they deserve praise for their innovative approach.

Let's be clear: no one is accusing anyone of anything untoward. But the registration of Wessels is unique and has left many within the English game deeply underwhelmed. The ECB have already moved to close the loophole allowing such signings.

It's understandable that some other players might feel unimpressed, too. Consider the case of Iain O'Brien. The former New Zealand fast bowler is now resident in the UK and has married a British woman. But not only did the ECB turn down his eligibility appeal, they then billed him for the cost of the hearing. He was even charged for room hire. It left a recently unemployed man with a bill of little short of £10,000. Oddly, it appears that had O'Brien's wife been European, rather than British, he would have qualified. Sussex's Naved Arif, for example, qualifies through his Danish wife.

Now that might be fair enough - harsh, but fair - as long as it is seen to be a consistent approach. But the signing of Wessels does open the game up to accusations of double standards.

And that's where this story becomes really interesting. For the chairman of Nottinghamshire, Peter Wright, is also the chairman of the ECB's cricket committee. That's the ECB cricket committee who have sought to clamp down on non-England qualified players in county cricket.

So, even if Nottinghamshire are able to demonstrate that the signing of Wessels fully complies with the rules, it's hard to equate Wright's position with that of the ECB cricket committee. Not only does he have questions to answer about a conflict of interest, but some may feel his moral authority has been compromised. His position as chairman looks highly precarious.

Wright, it should be stated, was given every chance to contribute to this article. As was Nottinghamshire's chief executive, Derek Brewer.

Sitting uncomfortably - part two

Wright may not be the only man sitting uncomfortably within the ECB at present. Giles Clarke must be, too. In more ways than one.

Clarke, the chairman of the ECB, is currently recovering from a hip replacement operation at his home in Somerset. But in the longer term it is his impending legal battles with Lalit Modi, founder and former chairman of the IPL; and IMG, the multinational sports-marketing giant, that are more likely to keep him awake at night.

Clarke is being sued for libel by IMG and Modi after an email he sent on May 2, 2010 alleged a plot to set up a rebel Twenty20 league in England. In the email, sent to Shashank Manohar, president of the BCCI, Clarke wrote of "a plan to destroy world cricket's structure and especially that in England, and create a new rebel league".

Clarke accused Modi of "offering financial inducements to the counties" and states his "wish to take legal action against IMG for promoting this along with Mr Modi and to seek their banning from world cricket".

IMG claim that other officials were copied into the email and that it was subsequently leaked to the media. They also claim that the suggestion they might be prepared to promote a league outside the jurisdiction of the governing body has "exposed [them] to public scandal".

In his defence, Clarke will claim that IMG and Modi held discussions with counties about "Project Victoria", a rebel Twenty20 league to be set up as a model of the IPL and contested by franchises rather than counties. Clarke also alleges that it was to be run by a new governing body, quite separate from the ECB. Modi and IMG categorically deny such claims.

Intriguingly, Colin Povey's testimony may prove crucial. Warwickshire's chief executive was present at the meeting with Modi and IMG officials at which Clarke alleges the project was outlined. Povey has strenuously denied knowledge of any rebel league and stated at the time: "I had an informal meeting over lunch with Lalit Modi but this was simply part of a wider fact-finding exercise - nothing more, nothing less." It's hard to see how his testimony will help Clarke, isn't it?

The case is due to be heard from July 4 and to last around four weeks. Legal fees will run into the millions, but as a director of the ECB, Clarke's expenses are covered by the board's liability insurance. He is not counter-suing.

It would be foolish to speculate on the outcome of either case and Clarke has, typically, insisted that he has no intention of standing down. Should the case go against him, however, it is unthinkable that he could continue as ECB chairman. That means a new man could - just could - be in place by the end of the summer.

While Dennis Amiss is the official deputy chairman, it is unlikely that he would want to replace Clarke. And in many ways it is the Essex chairman, Nigel Hilliard, who has emerged as Clarke's right-hand man. Hilliard is the most likely replacement.

Whatever happens over the next few months, 57-year-old Clarke could be forgiven for rethinking his role at the ECB. A hugely successful businessman, he is financially secure for the rest of his life and may reflect that he has "done his bit" for the game. The role of ECB chairman, unpaid but increasingly demanding, seems a thankless task. In a game that has never been so professional - on and off the pitch - it does seem peculiar that the senior administrator in the English game remains an amateur.

Not new, just new packaging

"Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone?" We can be fairly sure that Joni Mitchell wasn't thinking about county cricket when she wrote "Big Yellow Taxi", but her words do seem apt as we reflect on the first few weeks of the county season.

It has been, by any standards, an outstanding start. Played largely in sublime weather, the season has already provided compelling cricket, unexpected results and some encouragingly large crowds. If there's a finer place to be than an English county ground on a sunny May day, I've not found it.

But the eyes of the cricketing world are no longer on the English domestic scene. Instead, they have moved to the Indian game and, in particular, the IPL.

The IPL has been marketed as if it was a new idea, but it's not really so. Sure, the IPL has brought some innovations into the game: DLF Maximums, Citi Moments of Success; Max Mobile Time-outs et al. But they're details around the edge, really. The basics of the Twenty20 game are the same as those first seen in England, where Twenty20 was born in 2003.

The idea of attracting the best players in the world to a domestic league isn't new, either. Where did Sobers play in the 1960s and 70s? Or Viv Richards in the 70 and 80s? England. English cricket was bursting at the seams with the most exciting talent imaginable.

But it seems we didn't value it. We didn't market it. We didn't protect it. And we're still not. While the IPL is promoted and marketed to the extreme, county cricket is too often portrayed as dusty and arcane. An old-fashioned relic. Charming but of little interest to the mainstream.

None of this is meant to denigrate the IPL. Far from it. In many ways, English cricket could learn much from the IPL. Specifically, it could learn to value itself. To have the courage to say, "We offer something wonderful." And, most of all, to protect itself.

For it still seems odd that English cricket allows some of its finest players to go and play in another country's domestic league at a time when they should be playing county cricket. They should be offering entertainment to county spectators and helping raise the standard of the English game.

So why does the English game allow some of its finest talents - the likes of Eoin Morgan - to perform in another domestic competition? A rival domestic competition that provides little, if any, benefit to the English game.

Well, there are a few reasons. The first is that English players might learn from playing with and against some of the finest players in the world in the IPL. It was a point argued forcibly by Paul Collingwood after England's success in the World Twenty20, though you could equally argue that if those same players participated more in England domestic cricket, they might learn just as much. And teach their colleagues and opponents in the process.

The more pertinent reason for allowing players to play in the IPL was that it wasn't really practical to stop them. The fear was, initially, that players could earn so much from a short stint in India that, if they were forced to choose, they would simply turn their back on English cricket and embrace life as a freelance.

That's not really the case anymore. For a start, if any player wants to take part in the IPL, they require a No Objection Certificate from their national cricket board. They simply can't play without it.

More to the point, they should risk their contracts, either with the English team or their counties. English cricket should feel no shame in telling players that their primary responsibility is to the English game. If the players still feel they can do better on their own, then let them go. They'll be turning their back on the long-term contracts, the health care, the benefit seasons and the chance to shine in international cricket. How, for example, might Morgan reflect on his experience in India if he misses out to Ravi Bopara in the bid to win the final place in England's Test team?

There's so much to celebrate in county cricket. So many reasons to take pride in it. So much high-quality cricket and entertainment. Perhaps the time has come for the English authorities to protect and promote that as passionately as they do with their game in India?

George Dobell is chief writer for Spin magazine and will be writing for ESPNcricinfo throughout the English season