County cricket June 2, 2011

Shankargate: how did it happen?

George Dobell
A look into Adrian Shankar's past, and at Northamptonshire's success

Were it to turn out that Adrian Shankar was actually Lord Lucan and that he'd last been seen riding off with the Holy Grail on the back of Red Rum, the last couple of weeks could scarcely have been more… weird. Shankar's CV is reminiscent of a Martin Escher drawing. Nothing makes sense. Nothing fits.

The Shankar story is all at once complex, amusing and, perhaps, rather sad. When a fellow has to make-up a false life, it suggests he's not terribly happy how his real one has worked out. Shankar, I suspect, needs some help.

So far the spotlight has fallen on Worcestershire. The club were duped, for sure. But while they may have been guilty of some naivety, they have been nothing less than honest. Officials at the club are keen - very keen - to see the ECB publically acknowledge that Worcestershire are an innocent party in the situation.

Perhaps there should be more attention on Lancashire's part in this debacle. A former Lancashire player insists that he actually made the club aware of Shankar's real date of birth when he first signed for them in November 2008. Simon Marshall, who had played with Shankar at Cambridge and had just been released by Lancashire, says he informed members of the club's management. Remarkably, they didn't act upon the information. Shankar was only released towards the end of the 2010 season.

Perhaps that's understandable. Perhaps they, incorrectly but understandably, dismissed Marshall's information as the bitterness of one man seeing another usurp him. It's not as if Shankar ever made it to the first team, either, so issues surrounding Performance Related Fee Payments (or young player incentives) are not relevant

But, bear in mind that Lancashire were also contacted by Cambridge coach, Chris Scott. Scott had seen quotes, purporting to be his, on a Lancashire statement extolling the virtues of Shankar and contacted the club to clarify that he'd never said anything of the sort. Lancashire deleted the offending paragraph, but still didn't smell a rat.

And then, towards the end of the 2009 season, other young players at Lancashire reported issues with Shankar. He had been bragging in the pub that he'd been offered a two-year contract extension. And, ridiculously, he claimed that he wasn't going to sign it as he wanted to keep his options open. As a result, another promising youngster who was doing rather better but who had been offered only a one-year deal, went to see John Stanworth (the Lancashire Academy coach) to complain about the inequitable treatment. Even when it transpired that the club had made no such offer to Shankar, still Lancashire didn't act.

Meanwhile Shankar's age discrepancy became a running joke at Old Trafford. When Shankar joined a side of the 'youngsters' playing against the 'oldies' in pre-game football warm-up, his colleagues openly joked that he was on the wrong team. There was no sign of the talent that supposedly persuaded Arsenal to sign him to their academy, either. Incidentally, Arsenal confirm that the club has no records of Shankar having been part of their academy. He MAY have played in a trial game - for which records are not kept - but he was certainly not a squad member.

The truth about Shankar only emerged after he turned up at New Road and journalists started asking questions. It seems surprising that Lancashire, out of professional courtesy if nothing else, didn't at least make a private phone call to Worcestershire at the time.

To be fair to Lancashire, they did ask Shankar for his documentation. He provided it and it was sent off to the ECB to complete his registration. They are not obliged to do more and could, perhaps, be forgiven for dismissing any other information as mere tittle-tattle. Maybe accusing them - or Worcestershire - of any wrongdoing is akin to blaming a victim who has allowed himself to be pick-pocketed. Shankar is, after all, the only person involved in this episode who has been reported to the police. Everyone else involved is, to a greater or lesser extent, one of his victims.

Yet it is Worcestershire who have borne the brunt of the flak so far. Perhaps, however, Lancashire and the ECB have the awkward questions to answer, too.

Capel builds winning formula

To hear some talk about Kolpak registrations, you'd have thought they were sheep-worrying, puppy-drowning, baby-eating monsters who may well have been on the grassy knoll when JFK was shot.

At the same time, however, it's generally accepted that the Zimbabwe-born pair of Andy Flower and Duncan Fletcher have made hugely positive contributions to the English game. Seems a bit inconsistent doesn't it?

It's an irony that struck once again when considering Northamptonshire's remarkable start to the season. At the time of the writing, they are the only unbeaten team in the county game and top both the Division Two table and their CB40 group. Few could have predicted that at the start of April. Key to their success has been the influence of captain, Andrew Hall. The 35-year-old wouldn't pretend to be the most talented all-rounder South Africa have ever produced, but he's tough, resilient and experienced.

Once you've been shot at point-blank range (as Hall was in South Africa a few years ago) the fear of facing a large deficit must pale into insignificance. And, in tandem with Northamptonshire's director of cricket David Capel, he's making the most of the county's modest resources.

Northamptonshire have a pretty good record for producing England players of late (Swann, Panesar and Loye all emerged from the county's system), but it would be disingenuous to suggest that many of the current squad are bound for international glory.

But that's not entirely the point. Even if none of the current crop of players go on to represent England, they still have a role to play in the success of the England side, simply by providing tougher opposition for other counties.

Consider the alternatives. Northamptonshire could have gone into the season without either Hall or Chaminda Vaas. They could have maximised the money they earn from the ECB's young player incentives, by dropping the likes of Stephen Peters, David Lucas, David Sales and James Middlebrook - all of whom are in their 30s - and flooding the team with youngsters from the Northants Academy. But they would, almost certainly, have struggled to match the success of their more experienced colleagues.

The young player approach has been adopted by some other clubs. Worcestershire, Essex and Gloucestershire are among the sides to have thrown teenagers in at the deep end in recent weeks. Some of them - such as Essex's Reece Topley - are swimming. Others - such as Worcestershire's Ben Cox - have come close to drowning. Premature promotion of young players does not necessarily advance their progress. It might just kill it off all together.

The great thing about being a young player at Northants is that they know that if they break into the first team, they know they've done it on merit
David Capel on how the club are getting the balance right

Cox, for example, is a talented young keeper-batsman who could well go on to enjoy a distinguished career in the game. But he's the sort of developing player for which second XI cricket was designed. It's an environment where players can learn without suffering the mental scars that could impede their long-term progress. And compromise the standard of the entire English game.

It's a subject on which David Capel, Northants' director of cricket, has interesting views. "Young players need role models," Capel explains. "If you just throw a group of young players into the same team, you have the blind leading the blind. You'd see mediocrity breeding mediocrity.

"I'm very mindful of the financial incentives for fielding younger players, but I don't want to compromise the competiveness of the team. By using some more experienced players, the youngsters will learn winning habits and winning behaviours.

"What was I going to do: leave out a player like Loye or Sales, who has scored 10,000 first-class runs, or pick a guy who hasn't scored a championship hundred?

"The great thing about being a young player at Northants is that they know that if they break into the first team, they know they've done it on merit. That means that once they have made it into the first team, they can go out and play with confidence.

"So, a guy like [23-year-old] Ben Howgego has worked really hard, scored heavily in the seconds and has earned his place when Loye had a bit of a niggle.

"Besides, we are fielding young players who could go on to represent England. Jack Brooks is bowling with genuine pace and is one of the sharpest new-ball bowlers around. He's only 26 and has his best years ahead. He's one to watch. And then there's Alex Wakely. He's 22 and beginning to show his quality. He could go a long way in the game.

"We're about halfway through a six or seven-year plan here. The aim is to go into the top division and do well there. And the guys we're brought in - the likes of Nick Boje and Andrew Hall - have done a fantastic role for us in bringing on young cricketers. It's not just good for us; it's good for the whole of English cricket."

Pitch imperfect

Let's clear up what actually happened during Warwickshire's Championship match against Worcestershire at Edgbaston.

While it's generally established that it was the media who first alerted the ECB to the poor condition of the wicket, it's not quite right to say they the media reported the pitch.

Here's what actually happened. After it became apparent that the pitch was unusually poor, a journalist in the press box phoned Alan Fordham - head of first-class cricket operations at the ECB - and left a message on his answer phone enquiring whether a pitch Liaison Officer was at Edgbaston. While Fordham didn't call back, he did send a text message to one of the umpires asking about the pitch. It was as a result of that text exchange that the pitch liaison officers descended upon the ground.

The ECB receive much criticism - some fair, some unfair - but on this occasion, their action - an eight point penalty - that took into account the extenuating circumstances (a new outfield, new drainage and new development that had wrong-footed the groundstaff), was spot on.

Entrepreneurial spirit

And so to Riki Wessels. A few weeks ago this column asked a series of questions about the signing of the 25-year-old on an entrepreneur's visa. It took some time but, to their credit, Nottinghamshire agreed to answer all the queries.

Wessels, it transpires, is not directly employed by Nottinghamshire. Instead the club have a contract with his company, LBM Sports Management. Asked to define the percentage of time cricket plays in Wessels' career, the Nottinghamshire chief executive Derek Brewer replied: "Playing cricket for us is part of his portfolio of interests."

Nottinghamshire also point out that it was the UK Borders Agency who granted Wessels the visa in May 2010. The club have merely exploited a loophole; or "explored an avenue" as Brewer rather elegantly puts it. Neither the club, his agent or the player have done anything wrong. Indeed, they've been rather inventive.

And Wessels can really play. Opening the batting for Nottinghamshire this week, he demonstrated a compelling package of patience and skill; of technique and flair. He wants to qualify for England one day and it's possible that he could even make the national side.

Peter Wright, meanwhile, also agreed to meet and talk through the situation. Wright is both chairman of the ECB cricket committee and chairman of Nottinghamshire. As the former, he's (arguably) been at the forefront of the moves to tighten up the rules over the registration of non-England-qualified players. As the latter, he's presided over a non-England-qualified player joining his club.

Wright insists there's no conflict there. As chairman of Nottinghamshire, he's not involved in the day-to-day executive function of the club, while he sees Wessels' recruitment as part of the club's overall strategy of augmenting their locally-developed players with quality recruits.

Wright also points out that he was not chairman of the ECB cricket committee at the time the Performance Related Fee Payments were introduced and that it is the ECB Board, not the cricket committee, that determine policy. Which is all quite true.

Whether the signing of Wessels is in the spirit of the cricket committee's work in recent years may be debatable. And whether the UK Borders Agency should be granting entrepreneur's visas to sportsman is questionable, too. It's a unique situation, in cricket, at least.

But Wessels himself has cleared every hurdle and answered every awkward question. Good luck to him.