Are overseas players worth the bother for counties?
Surrey's capture of Graeme Smith suggests that county cricket still retains the ability to attract the world's best players. But thanks to a combination of Surrey's cheque book, Smith's willingness to forego a potential IPL contract, and his lack of involvement with South Africa's limited-overs sides, his recruitment will remain exceptional: Ricky Ponting has already indicated he will not be playing county cricket. Rather than search for another Smith, county coaches would be better occupied asking: who's the next Jeetan Patel?
Patel, the New Zealand offspinner who averaged almost 50 in Tests at the time, was few people's idea of an overseas star when Warwickshire signed him for the 2012 season. Yet he bowled with intelligence and control to claim 51 wickets at fewer than 23 apiece. The Championship title, and an international recall, were well-earned rewards.
The challenge for counties is to find players to match Patel's impact. As James Cross, an agent with Target Sports Management says, "It's very difficult with the amount of money on offer with the various T20 leagues all over the world." Even with counties no longer participating in the Champions League from next year, Cross says, "a lot of the budget that counties put aside for an overseas player may well be put into the T20 competition." This is in part due to the difficulties of getting overseas players to commit for the whole season.
That task will be harder than ever in 2013, with the Champions Trophy and the Ashes following the IPL. Angus Fraser, Middlesex's managing director of cricket, admits that it is getting "harder and harder" to find overseas players of sufficient quality. And even when there is a gap in the schedule, "countries are very protective about the volume of cricket that their best players play". Centrally contracted players require clearance to play for a county, and countries can put limits on the amount of bowling players are allowed to do, as with Vernon Philander at Somerset this year.
In such circumstances, it is easy to write off the overseas market as a mixture of has-beens and never-will-bes. But overseas players remain worth the bother: along with Patel, Steve Magoffin and Chris Rogers probably made the most impact of overseas players in the county game last season. They each played for a side that finished in the top four of the Championship.
Fraser believes that it's crucial that overseas signings can commit to more than just a few matches. "You obviously want a high-quality overseas player but I know commitment comes by being there the whole time," he says. "If you're only there for ten weeks or whatever, it tends to be a bit more of a fleeting romance than a real commitment to what you're trying to do at your club." His words are borne out by the performance of Rogers, who scored 1086 Championship runs for Middlesex in 2012, and research showing the link between settled sides and success.
When it comes to counties signing global stars, Fraser says: "The only chance you've really got is when a player retires from international cricket." For the 2013 season, one such player stands out: VVS Laxman. He has retired from India duty and crucially no longer plays in the IPL, but two hundreds in his last four innings for Hyderabad show he is not lacking in first-class motivation. His previous success in county cricket (he averaged over 60 in 16 Championship games for Lancashire between 2007 and 2009), strong team ethic and the potential boost to ticket sales adds to his attractiveness.
While no other player who could play for close to a full season rivals Laxman in stature, there is no shortage of viable propositions for counties. The postponement of South Africa's Test series in Sri Lanka means their Test specialists will be in demand: Jacques Rudolph and Imran Tahir (see below) would be canny county acquisitions. And after the conclusion of New Zealand's tour of England, Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum could offer counties both runs and flair.
A more intriguing Kiwi signing would be Jesse Ryder. His destructive talents may too often extend beyond batting but few possess superior ball-striking ability. Given his current international and IPL situation, he could be available all season.
So too would Daren Ganga. He has never played county cricket before, but for any county wanting a captain from abroad he would be an outstanding candidate. Ganga had an unfulfilled Test career as a batsman, but as a domestic captain he is perhaps unrivalled in the world today: his calm and tactically astute leadership of Trinidad & Tobago underpinned their run to the 2009 Champions League final.
Counties have seldom displayed much appetite for recruiting from outside the eight main Test-playing nations. Given next season's schedule, that could change. Two Bangladesh players, IPL commitments notwithstanding, are particularly appealing. Shakib Al Hasan took 35 first-class wickets at under 22 apiece for Worcestershire in 2010, while his batting is also worthy of a county top six, and Tamim Iqbal proved against England in the same year that his technique and scything off-side play could thrive in English conditions.
In 2010, Shakib became the first Bangladeshi to be signed as an overseas player in England: how long until we see the first Afghan? You may be disappointed. Thanks to the inflexibility of the ECB's eligibility criteria, no players outside the ten Full Members are permitted to play as overseas players. That seems a depressingly close-minded attitude, given the excitement that would be provided by Mohammad Shazhad's switch-hitting or Hamid Hassan's reverse-swinging yorkers.
Nevertheless there is no absence of foreign talent for counties to sign, even as they confront the reality that it has never been harder to recruit established international stars (Smith at Surrey excepted). As for Patel, Devendra Bishoo, the West Indies legspinner with impressive variations, including a dangerous topspinner, could be the 2013 equivalent. He took 3 for 34 on debut against England in the World Cup last year, and as he looks to rejuvenate his international career, he might find that there is no better way than exposing English frailties against spin.