A cricket club in Essex is pursuing legal action against its local league in a move that could have far-reaching consequences for the recreational game.
Frinton-on-Sea CC are seeking an injunction against the Two Counties League (TCL), which is open to clubs in Essex and Suffolk, on the grounds of discrimination after they were penalised for fielding an overseas player deemed to be ineligible.
The case is due to be heard in court in Chelmsford on Thursday and, if Frinton win, it could eventually set a precedent that would clear the way for many other players to return to action in club cricket across England and Wales. While around 110 players are understood to be directly affected by the ruling, the consequences for future generations could be far reaching.
At the heart of the case is a largely unspoken intention to reduce the reliance upon overseas players in leagues and create more opportunities for young, England-qualified cricketers. At the same time, however, there is a growing realisation that such a policy could compromise the intention to encourage those same young, England-qualified cricketers from gaining experience overseas.
The issue has been brought to a head by the case of Blake Reed. While Reed, a 22-year-old Australian, was initially registered without complication by both the TCL, an ECB feeder league, and the East Anglian Premier League (EAPL), an ECB premier league, in May and holds a Youth Mobility Visa (granted in April 2016 and valid for two years), which allowed him to play as an amateur at Exeter CC last year, Frinton were informed in mid-June that he should not play until further documentation was provided supporting his eligibility claim.
The TCL was concerned that, as Reed had played six times for the Western Australia Under-19 side in 2013, he had been on a "player pathway", which had effectively made him a professional player. As a consequence, he was not eligible to be considered as an amateur. The judgement, which was supported by the ECB, suggested that anyone who had played Grade cricket in Australia (the equivalent of ECB premier league club cricket) would also be considered to have been on a pathway and effectively end their hopes of ever playing as an amateur in England or Wales.
Officials from Western Australia have confirmed that Reed was never paid by them and has not been considered part of their pathway since 2013.
When legal advice taken by Frinton-on-Sea, who have hired an experienced QC, suggested Reed should be deemed an amateur, they decided to play him once more on July 1. As a consequence, the TCL imposed a points penalty upon them on the grounds that Reed was an ineligible player.
Now Frinton-on-Sea hope the injunction will allow them to field Reed, a top-order batsman and seam bowler, until there has been a thorough hearing into the issue on the understanding that they will pay any losses incurred by the league should the club lose the case.
Frinton claim there is no mention of "player pathways" in the relevant Tier Five visa regulations and that such stipulations cannot be added once the visa has been granted. They also claim that such an interpretation should not have been made without parliamentary approval. Reed would not, they say, have flown to the UK had his registration not been accepted. They further claim the ECB is aware of numerous cases of English players being paid to play club cricket while still being considered as amateurs so the "inconsistent" action against an Australian is discriminatory.
They also claim that, if the measures are enforced, it could lead to other nations - particularly Australia and New Zealand - applying similar policies to UK passport holders. That could lead to a situation where young players from the UK would no longer be eligible for Grade cricket, where so many have honed their skills over the last few decades.
The ECB declined to comment.