Flying towards a rich destiny


AS Ian Bell flew back as a replacement for Mark Butcher just 24 hours after he arrived in England, he must have felt as if he had been sandbagged; but he will have been consoled by the certainty that he was flying towards a rich destiny.

Bell had a distinguished opening spell with the English Academy in Adelaide and alone of the 20 or so youngsters who went there last autumn returned to England with a report that said: "Can do better and certainly will before very long."

He is the future of England, as much as that smiling cricketer, the late Ben Hollioake was. He may be their saviour in the near future. This teenager is destined to follow Nasser Hussain at No.3; before or after Hussain's retirement. (Strenuous efforts are being made to convince Hussain to move to No.6 but he is a stubborn man and that target will not be reached quickly.)

Success by Bell means - as well as any number of headlines saying Bell Rings In England Victory - that the young Warwickshire star will earn at least &pound260,000 in the next year when the England and Wales Cricket Board plan to have total control of their players, take them away from their counties and pay all their wages.

If any of the players who sign annual contracts - as against the present summer and winter deals - play for Yorkshire, or Surrey, or Warwickshire it will be such a rarity as to startle the diminishing numbers of good folk who watch at Headingley, the Oval or Edgbaston.

This decision is being made partly to wipe out the sight of players turning up for tours half fit as happened in New Zealand recently and partly to define exactly who has full responsibility for their welfare. It is backed by Hussain and the England coach Duncan Fletcher and, if history teaches us anything, the 18 counties will agree, simply to guarantee the hand-out from ECB which is their life-blood.

Without this &pound1 million response to their begging bowl many of the counties would close down and the whole first-class structure tumble round ECB ears. That collapse would please some people who see a leaner competition as preferable to the current two-division championship; but the time may not yet be ripe.

Instead the counties will struggle on. Sussex made a profit of just &pound36,000 last year, hardly enough for Andrew Flintoff's annual salad bill.

Those England men who have taken part in most Tests and one-day internationals in the past 12 months will already have earned in excess of &pound250,000 and with the increase to cover inflation they will be far richer in the future. "Anyone entering the England side for the first time this year can look forward to becoming a millionaire," I am told.

It is a belief that will stagger those match-play, poorly-paid professionals of yesteryear. Despite the eroding value of the pound "millionaire" is still an evocative word.

Visions of a Rolls Royce, dinner at the Ritz, lottery winnings, posh frocks, champagne instead of bottled beer and a life lived in comfort spring to mind. My guess is that the only players to have scaled that height so far are Geoff Boycott, Ian Botham and David Gower; and their high-earning days came after their bats went into the broom cupboard for the last time.

Forty-five years ago Len Hutton and his contemporaries were handed &pound100 for each Test and less than &pound1,000 for a tour abroad. Of course, the pound went much further in those days.

In 1957, for instance, you could buy a dress shirt for two pounds. It would probably cost &pound70 today. A suitcase for &pound10 then will certainly be more than &pound150 now and a brief case, then under &pound4 might be &pound80 to &pound100 in 2002.

The cost of housing alone is staggering. My first house, bought in 1959, cost &pound1,700 and now I see similar houses advertised at more than 100,000 pounds. I have in front of me a table of income tax rates for 1957. There is no listing for an annual salary of &pound250,000; it was simply inconceivable.

None of these figures suggest that the players of today are anything but better paid than those of the 1950-60 era. The comparison is with footballers who, drawing larger crowds and attracting more television and sponsorship cash, have fatter wage packets than even the best paid England cricketers dream possible.

In the last few weeks English soccer has also faced the possibility of disaster because of the failure of their deal with ITV Digital. The future of sports financial backing is in doubt, but for the moment football swims in money.

David Beckham, the England captain and Manchester United star, is ready to sign a contract that will bring him &pound100,000 a week. Transfer fees are heading towards &pound50 million and managers earn &pound3 to &pound4 million a year. It all makes the cricketers' take-home pay pathetic in comparison, since there is no doubt that the best of them work just as hard as any footballer, Grand Prix driver or golfer.

But a government department has just issued figures that show that cricket is now such a small part of the economy that it is no longer taken into account when calculating the inflation rate.

So can poor old cricket - words now literally true - afford to pay these grossly inflated amounts? Or, to put it another way, can cricket afford not to pay a hugely increased rate for the job.

If the game drops any further behind the glamour sports, the result will be that players who might have looked at cricket as a career will instead cast their lot with the high-earners in other sports knowing that even if they are comparative failures they will still be better off.

That's one aspect of the future. I am not so pleased about the future of umpires, even though those on the elite list will obviously be wealthier if they survive those long aeroplane trips to fulfil their 75 days' in the sun every year.

What I fail to understand is the need for ICC to impose a limit on the number of replays the third umpire can watch before he must give a decision. As I have been writing for most of the last 15 years, if cricket is to use new technology it must embrace it wholeheartedly. It is no use dipping the big toe into the water. The whole body has to take the plunge.

Anyone who has watched Test and one-day cricket recently knows that it can take up to ten replays to reach the right decision. Anyone who has been at a ground where this has happened will have observed that the crowd never gets restive. TV replays have become part of the theatre of cricket, alongside such other riveting side-shows as the toss, bringing out sawdust and taking the new ball.

(Imagine going to a sports promoter with a new game and telling him: "The crowd will be enthralled when a substitute fielder runs on with a pair of gloves for the batsman and they will not be able to tear their eyes from the sight of a bowler being handed a bottle of water." He would laugh in your face but he would also miss a great truth.)

If fans can be fascinated by such trivia they will not baulk at waiting 90 seconds for a few replays, many of which will be on a big screen as they wait.

You can call me a sad anorak if you like but I enjoy the two minutes a batsman is allowed to get to the crease, the way he takes guard, the sight of a bowler walking back to his mark. I certainly will not object to the third umpire pausing over a decision. Particularly if it means he gets the right answer.

Surely that is the whole purpose of reviewing the video. Otherwise we might as well stick to the old ways. Heaven forbid.