Saturday, 5 August 2006

The Overseas Dilemma

The ECB this week took the decision to restrict the number of overseas players back to just one per county side from the 2008 season onwards. This is a good move by the ECB and is part of a two-pronged strategy to increase opportunities for English youngsters in our domestic game.

When the overseas player quota was increased to two a few years back the underlying theory was to increase the quality of the domestic game for the spectator and provide the young English talent coming through with more experienced overseas professionals to learn from.

Unfortunately though, there has proven to be a lack of overseas players willing or indeed able to devote their time to English domestic cricket. A pertinent example of this declining quality would be Dan Cullen at Somerset, who despite his potential, has failed to live up to his reputation as Australia’s answer to replacing Shane Warne. He was in fact discarded from the Somerset team after only a handful of unsuccessful appearances, for which he collected a hefty pay packet.

The desired quality of overseas player is simply not sustainable throughout the two tiers of top-flight English domestic cricket. There basically are not enough quality overseas professionals to go around and the resulting average-to-good overseas players found in many sides simply take up a position in the team which could otherwise be filled with young English talent, at lesser financial cost.

In Hampshire’s current match with Kent, Dominic Thornely, though contributing well, is in the team at the expense of the emerging Chris Benham who has shown potential to succeed at First Class level. It ultimately comes down to obtaining a comfortable balance between success and opportunity though. Benham still gets opportunities in Hampshire’s team and Thornely brings some additional success with the ball and his speed of scoring.

However, it is very doubtful as to whether Thornely will still be at the club next year and this proves to be the pet peeve of many a supporter and veteran of the county circuit. Why develop a good, but not outstanding overseas player, who will not be here next year, when you can develop one of your own for less?

Supporters like to know that their players are committed to their clubs, but it is hard to claim commitment and attachment when a player spends only one season at a club. This is not to question the determination and effort put in by overseas players who spend just one season at their chosen counties. However, players like Shane Warne, Stephen Fleming, Mushtaq Ahmed and a host of others, who are contracted to their clubs on a long term basis and even Captain them, are naturally more committed to that clubs long term success and the development of the players they play with. The quality of these players is also second to none.

Reverting to the old system of having one overseas player per county side will prove beneficial for our domestic game in the long run. An experienced professional will still be on hand to attract the crowds and nurture our youth at each county and there will be more quality overseas players to go around, enhancing the quality of overseas player at each club and therefore the impact of that player on the county and its accompanying players. Meanwhile, our youngsters will get more opportunities to develop in the bread and butter game that is county cricket.

The second part of the two-pronged strategy was revealed last year, with the announcement that the ECB would be attempting to curtail the number of Kolpak players playing in our domestic game. Kolpak players are players of a foreign nationality who are though recognised as domestic players and not therefore subject to the overseas restrictions. They become Kolpak players by either holding an EU passport, or by living in a country which has an associate agreement with the EU, providing the player in question has not played for their “home” nation within the last twelve months.

Although European Law prevents restrictions on Kolpak players, there is nothing to stop the introduction of financial penalties payable by clubs who play them. The ruling brought in by the ECB states that nine English qualified players must be fielded in every game, or each team will be obliged to pay a fee for each non-England qualified player in excess of the two allowed per game.

The financial penalties came into effect this year but the fees are currently insignificantly small and so clubs have continued to play their Kolpak players. However, from next season, 2007, the fees will start to increase to £1000 per player per First Class game and £250 per player per List A game. The penalties will rise again for the 2008 season.

Therefore, by 2008, counties, under the current plan, will be able to field one overseas player and one Kolpak player in their sides. They will then have to pay significant and unsustainable amounts of money to field anymore Kolpak players in their sides, hopefully ensuring that at least nine England qualified players will take to the field for each domestic game and also ensuring a higher class of Kolpak player. Some will still question the wisdom of having Kolpak players in our domestic game, yet this has benefits as well as drawbacks.

The benefits are that these rules will still allow players like Kevin Pietersen, Sean Ervine and Jonathan Trott to come to England and play out a four year residency period so that we can reap the benefits of playing these players in our international team, as some have the quality and commitment to succeed, as Pietersen has shown. These rules will also still allow unfortunate players, who are victims of circumstance, to continue their careers in county cricket so that they don't disappear into obscurity, the Flower brothers being obvious recent examples.

This new system will work well. Kolpak players will not be priced out of qualifying through residency to play for our country if they desire to do so and are good enough. Quality players who can not play in their own countries because of unfortunate circumstances can still wow the crowds in England and boost quality here. Finally, there will be more opportunities for our own youth players, who will still have the opportunity to learn from an experienced and quality overseas player. Of course counties will not be obliged to have more than one non-England qualified player, or any in fact, but the opportunity will still exist to harness this imported talent which can improve our national team and national game.

Chris Pallett

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