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Northamptonshire hardly sprang a surprise when they appointed Mike Hussey as captain, making him the third Australian, along with Somerset's Jamie Cox and Yorkshire's Darren Lehmann, to lead a county in 2002. In addition to scoring most runs in English first-class cricket in 2001, he had impressed members by his positive attitude and approach on and off the field. Yet when Northamptonshire originally announced that he was replacing Matthew Hayden as their overseas player, there weren't many who didn't ask, "Mike who?" It would not have been the first time cricket followers around the country had raised their eyes from the morning newspaper on reading of a county's choice to fill a vacant overseas slot.
It is not surprising, then, that the debate about overseas players, something of a perennial topic, has recently concerned not so much their presence as their quality. Certainly the argument that overseas players take places that could go to aspiring youngsters has become less tenable. Receiving more credence is the view that their presence gives county cricketers the chance to pit themselves against quality opposition - something often lacking now that centrally contracted England players make ever more fleeting appearances for their counties.
During the last ten to 15 years, though, there has been a shift in the type of visitor plying his trade in county cricket. Where once world-class names with established Test pedigrees could be found in every shire, the increasing demands of international cricket mean that such cricketers no longer have the time, or the energy, to commit themselves to a full English season. Counties are now faced with the reality that the days of fielding an international star for a whole season have gone.
Two ways round the problem have emerged, polarising the counties into two groups: a diminishing faction who sign a major star and accept he will not be available for the whole term, and an increasing number who opt for a lesser-known name - good players, but ones who are not proven at international level. The 2001 cohort of overseas players illustrates the point. Test spinners Muttiah Muralitharan and Saqlain Mushtaq were available for barely half of Lancashire's and Surrey's games, while New Zealand captain Stephen Fleming was absent from Middlesex for the middle period of the season. Meanwhile, the Ashes summer meant that the top 16 Australians were otherwise engaged, forcing the counties to examine the next tier and sign names unfamiliar to many English supporters. Michael Di Venuto, Martin Love, Jimmy Maher, Ian Harvey, Andrew Symonds, Dan Marsh, Hussey and Cox had no Test caps, while a further three - Stuart Law, Andy Bichel and Lehmann - had five or less.
This dichotomy can only become more distinct. Under the newly implemented ICC Test Championship cycle, more international cricket will be played between May and September, traditionally the exclusive preserve of English cricket. Test stars will be more jealously guarded by their national boards. Those counties who have not already followed the trend for fringe players will be forced to reconsider their positions.
This is why the questions regarding the employment of overseas players have become more insistent, with critics suggesting that, if the best are not available, the practice should be scrapped. This fails to take into account the full nature of the overseas player's role. Although it might be pleasant for county members to watch a world-class cricketer at their local ground, the responsibilities of the modern overseas professional are far more wide-ranging. Tom Moody, a former overseas player himself and now director of cricket at Worcestershire, believes that the job is not just about runs and wickets. "One of the most important roles is leading by example, and showing professionalism both on and off the field. But more than this, the overseas professional should have the ability to finish games, to turn games and, most importantly, make the team operate as a team."
A side effect of signing a star name is that it promotes individualism in the game and complacency in other players. It is right to place a large burden of expectation on the player concerned, but not to the extent that the team find it difficult to function without him. Consider the Somerset side of the post-Richards and Garner era, or the more recent example of Sussex. Michael Bevan produced outstanding individual performances throughout the 2000 season, but the side faltered during his absence on international duty. They performed better collectively a year later when he was unavailable and replaced by the lower-profile Murray Goodwin, topping Division Two of the County Championship.
Cricket is, after all, a team game, so the ideal overseas cricketer is not the star who - inadvertently or otherwise - individualises it; rather, he is the man who fits in and helps his county do well. The overseas player who leaves the field with a century or five wickets and considers his job done is not taking his responsibilities seriously. He has to make contributions off the field as well, by acting as an unofficial coach, for example, aiding those very same young hopefuls whose progress he is accused of thwarting. The situation is succinctly encapsulated by Andy Bichel, Worcestershire's overseas player: "You only get out of this job what you put in, and if you're not putting in, then what are you doing here in the first place?" If the overseas player is to be judged on how well his side performs, the so-called "second stringer" often makes the greatest contribution. As Jamie Cox points out, the international stars may not be concentrating exclusively on their county games. "The temptation might be there to start thinking about a forthcoming Test match, whereas if counties sign somebody who doesn't have any international commitments they can get more out of him, as his focus remains with the club." Cox himself is a good example: unheard-of in many English quarters before arriving at Somerset, he led them to their most successful season in 2001.
Although there have been murmurings that a minimum standard of international experience should be set for overseas players, the question is a thorny one. Such a criterion might have worked a few years ago but, owing to international demands, it is now unfeasible. Nor is it necessarily desirable. Ask the members of Yorkshire, Somerset and Northamptonshire whether they would implement such a system, so denying themselves the services of their present incumbents, and the reply would surely be in the negative.
Another point to consider is the cyclical nature of national cricketing strength. If one country is so strong that it has a surplus of good players who are not required for the national team, why not take advantage of the situation by having them play in England? After all, many of these players would be automatic selections for the Test teams of other countries, or in another era. Their presence in county cricket could only be beneficial, apart from being valuable for the player himself. It would encourage spectators through the gates by providing them with the opportunity to see more high-class performers, a commodity often in short supply.
There is a future for the overseas player in county cricket, but his role will continue to evolve away from the model of the latter part of the 20th century, and the type of player will change. "Different", however, does not equate with "inferior". As Tom Moody points out, there is more to an overseas professional than just his name or profile. "Whoever he is, he can offer a lot, and help the club forge ahead very quickly if you get the right type. County cricket would be very much poorer without overseas players."
Catherine Hanley is a post-doctoral research associate at the University of Sheffield, a Somerset supporter and a contributor to Wisden.com.