County circuit and overseas players

ENGLISH cricket has come a full circle with regard to the overseas players that can play in their County Championship. It was in 1968 that they allowed two players to play for a team in the counties of whom one could be instantly registered and the other had to qualify by residence for two years. Most counties took the opportunity to sign top players from other countries not only to draw crowds but also to boost their memberships. Over a period of time this changed to counties going for what they thought were promising overseas players because they would be less expensive than engaging established stars. What this did was to lessen the standard of county cricket and at the same time give these youngsters the opportunity to improve their cricket simply by the number of first-class games they played which would have been at least twice the number that they played at home. The former English players grumbled about it for they believed that it deprived home grown players of the opportunity to play. While that was true to some extent because some of the overseas signings were themselves young the presence of established Test stars would have definitely helped the local youngsters to see and understand what made them such top players. Spending time in dressing room with the likes of Clive Lloyd, Barry Richards, Viv Richards, Andy Roberts, Richard Hadlee, Malcolm Marshall to name just a few would have been worth many matches played in the company of ordinary players. The problem with County cricket has been that as the season progresses and days get warmer and longer, the early enthusiasm wanes and players just look to do enough to get themselves a contract for the new season.

Then a few years back perhaps due to pressure from media and former pros the ECB decided to restrict each County to just one player and that registration too had to be done earlier and if then the overseas player was somehow unable to come then it needed special permission to register another one. The restriction of one overseas player per County did not seem to help English cricket to find more local players but it did have an effect on the gates and the membership.

Now this season we even had the ridiculous substitution for an overseas player by another overseas player even if it was for a short period. So Mohammed Kaif substituted for Javagal Srinath till he arrived in England to replace Michael Bevan who had to go to join the Australian team as it takes on Pakistan in a Tri-Series in Kenya. Imagine allowing a substitute for a substitute for a week. It shows England has come a full circle as far as the overseas players are concerned. Today of course very few of the top echelon of international cricketers play County cricket because their international commitments have increased and one finds a lot of other international players or those from Australia and South Africa who are deprived of the chance to play for the countries because there is no room for them in the first eleven even if they are good enough to play. They find it a lot easier in County cricket because the standard of their first class cricket is higher than English County cricket.

Next year when India do not have too many international commitments after the World Cup it may well be a season for more Indian players to be playing in England. In recent times with India playing a fair bit of cricket between July-August no county has been keen on signing up Indian players but next season may well be different. Already Harbhajan Singh has signed with Lancashire and by the end of the current tour there could be more from the current tour party signing up for other Counties. Hopefully Harbhajan will not aggravate the shoulder injury that ruled him out of the first Test in the West Indies. Don't forget Anil Kumble and Javagal Srinath both developed shoulder problems after playing County cricket. The Counties expect the overseas professional to bowl maximum overs and so the strain on the body especially the shoulder is tremendous. Harbhajan is young and very fit, so he should be able to bear the brunt of the load asked of him. His main problem will be early in the season when the North of England can be pretty cold and he may struggle to grip the ball. But he may well get a bit more rest because it also rains a lot more there.

Not a lot of Indian players have done well in County cricket especially those who have been established at the Test level. It is hard to motivate one self when there are no people in the stands as it happens from most Mondays to Fridays unless of course it is a one-day game. In India even a three-day Ranji game where the Test player plays there are more than a thousand people, so then to find less than a hundred is no incentive to perform. That of course is not an excuse but the fact is that it is extremely tough to give it the best shot when you know there is no appreciation to be had. That is mainly applicable to batsmen who seem to thrive more on the crowd's appreciation and applause than the bowlers.

It is an experience that can be great or ordinary depending on the individual and his personality and with the bubbly Harbhajan one can be sure that not only will he come back with great memories of his season but also leave pleasanter ones behind!