Associates lose out July 16, 2008

Only one winner in county v country debate

Martin Williamson looks at how the Associate countries will always lose out in the tug-of-war with counties

Eoin Morgan: only one winner when it came to club or country © Getty Images
A common gripe that keeps cropping up, especially where Ireland are concerned, is the number of players who are unavailable for matches because of their commitments in English county cricket.

In his column in the Sunday Tribune this week, Ger Siggins highlighted the problem, laying the blame at the door of the ECB.

"There is ample evidence that Irish cricket is being systematically plundered by English counties," he wrote. "The fact that there are a dozen-odd players attached to counties wouldn't be much of a problem if they played fair about player release. But they don't: already this season Morgan, Niall O'Brien and William Porterfield have "opted" to play for their employers ahead of their country. Even an ICC regulation that players must be released for ODIs failed to prise that trio from the clutches of the counties. And it is a similar story with Scots players.

"It is about time that the ECB showed some leadership and told the counties to allow their Irishmen and Scotsmen to play internationals. A FIFA-style regulation could be introduced where a player who is not released must not play for the club on any of the days of the Irish game."

Siggins' frustration is understandable and you have to sympathise for the Associates who are deprived of their best talent in this way. But, equally, it is too easy to lay the blame at the boards and to demand legislation to force the individuals to play when they are asked to.

As for the argument that FIFA, football's governing body, have such rules in place our colleagues on soccernet point out that in reality such measures are rarely implemented. Forcing a sportsman to do something he doesn't want to do is hardly to way to get the best out of him.

Look at it from the players' point of view. There are those whose ambitions end at playing for their country and who make tremendous sacrifices to do so. Almost all the leading Associates rely on such individuals, as only Kenya have a professional, full-time squad.

But there are others who want to make a career out of cricket. That is not available to them in Ireland, either in terms of cash or consistently high quality of opposition. So they head abroad, mainly to England, to hone their skills and earn good money while doing so. Some, such as Ed Joyce, even go on to play for their adopted countries.

Higgins cites examples of players contracted to English counties who opted to remain with them rather than play for Ireland, recommending that they should be banned from playing while their country is in action as an "incentive".

Take the case of Morgan. Last season he had just broken into the Middlesex side when he got an Ireland call-up. He faced a quandary. Middlesex were happy/obliged to release him, but made clear that he was not guaranteed a first-team place when he returned. If whoever filled his boots while he was away scored runs, Morgan would be back in the reserves with no guarantee of regaining his place. At the end of the season that could have made the difference between him being offered a new contract or released.

One could understand the county's position, and also Morgan's when he chose to remain with them. "He wants to qualify and play for England, and feels that by obtaining a regular place in the Middlesex team is the best way to achieve that," Phil Simmons, Ireland's coach, observed.

In such circumstances, legislation preventing Morgan from playing for Middlesex at that time would be completely counterproductive. It could also be illegal, and would hardly be likely to make the individual more inclined to play for his country in the future. In the case of the Morgans of this world, they might even retire from international cricket, albeit temporarily, to circumvent the problem.

The Associates are rightly concerned and it has been discussed within the ICC. Additional funding due to them from 2009 will help. But while it will reward those who give up so much to play for their countries, cash will not make any difference to those with ambitions to play on a bigger stage that Associate cricket can offer.

Whatever happens, there can be no winner. Either the country loses out or the players do. But to blame the employers or the individual is wrong. After all, how many of us would risk our careers in similar circumstances?

The reality is that the best players will always aspire to play at the highest level, and so they should. All the Associates can hope for is that they play for them as often as they can and bring all their experience into the national side, and act as an inspiration to the next generation.

Rather than reacting with anger when Joyce pulls on an England or Middlesex shirt, Ireland should be proud of what they have produced and wish him well. The hope has to be that the day will come when the Joyces and the Morgans of the future are only too eager to chose country over county.

Martin Williamson is executive editor of Cricinfo