Foreign invasion, a curse for locals

WHEN the prize for the Cricketer of the Year was called at the annual dinner of the Professional Cricketers Association recently there was no answer.


Sussex's Mushtaq Ahmed was named the Cricketer of the Year for his 100 plus wickets during the county championship.-SANDEEP SAXENA

WHEN the prize for the Cricketer of the Year was called at the annual dinner of the Professional Cricketers Association recently there was no answer.

Chris Adams, the Sussex captain, had to collect the trophy and the cheque on behalf of Mushtaq Ahmed. Of course, at the end of the season Mushy, as he is affectionately known to one and all, had gone home.

Back to Pakistan where, and who can blame him for this ambition, he hopes to regain his place in their Test squad. Their chairman of selectors Aamir Sohail is not so sure that Mushtaq is ready. He seems to think that easy county victims ought not to count and wants to audition, that is, a spell in the nets from Mushtaq — before he makes a decision.

Mushy's 103 wickets won the championship for Sussex for the first time and, to be fair, everyone in cricket was pleased for a club that has always been to the forefront through players like Ranji, Duleep and Pataudi; C. B. Fry and the Tates father and son; Ted Dexter and now Mushy. But I doubt if it would have been accomplished without his leg breaks for all the express bowling of Jason Lewry and James Kirtley and the batting of Adams and Murray Goodwin.

Therein lies one of the biggest problems in English cricket. Never mind the supposed softness of the county game. Ignore the need to reduce the number of county clubs. Forget the high pay, the excessive amount of cricket or the poor state of some of the pitches.

The trouble with English cricket is that it is dominated by players who have no right, wish nor intention to play for England. You may think it was generous of the assembled players to vote for Mushy as he was doing his best to make some of them redundant.

In fact, the overseas professionals are holding back English youngsters, by batting when England players should be practising for Tests and bowling out tail-enders when home Test players ought to be gaining the confidence that comes from easy victims.

Most important of all in a game that is starved of money, they are grabbing cash that ought to be supporting home players.

Just let me give you a few examples of the way the invasion of the foreign hordes is affecting England.

Damien Martyn, the Australian Test batsman, went to Yorkshire as a replacement for Yuvraj Singh, whose own stay with the county was justified by one of his team-mates with the phrase "he batted well at the nets" which a lot of fans don't see, of course, and played three innings.

He had his nose broken in one but in his final knock, a ferocious affair, he hit a 65-ball century off Gloucestershire which gave him the five thousand pound prize for the fastest hundred of the season. It also meant he won the Walter Lawrence Trophy, a traditional award dating back to 1934 which has only been won by two other Australians, Tom Moody in 1990 and Darren Lehmann in 2000.

Martyn was the third overseas player employed by Yorkshire during the summer, Stephen Fleming also had to return to New Zealand to prepare for the trip to India. Martyn will be back in 2004 which is promising news for Yorkshire but not such hot news for the young batsmen in a county that until 13 years ago never went outside its own borders to recruit.

The presentation will again be made at a dinner at Lord's by last year's winner Matthew Fleming, now retired, and once again Martyn will be concentrating so intently on the Australian summer ahead that he will be unable to attend.

A man with a long experience of county administration tells me that he reckons it fair to estimate the cost to each county for a full season from an overseas player comes to around 100,000 pounds.

That includes wages, say 70,000 pounds a season, airplane tickets, a car and accommodation. Employing an English youngster instead of one overseas player would probably cost less than 40,000 pounds and his training, coaching, development and general upbringing would go to improve the lot of the England Test side.

On the other hand overseas players are supposed to bring in the crowds. Well, let me tell you there is not much evidence of a rise in spectator numbers in proportion to the money spent.

When Muttiah Muralitharan arrived at Canterbury half way through the season he was the 50th pro to fly into England to earn a fair wage for his duties. He also ended up with an award for best bowler; and 33 wickets at 13.54 runs each seems to reflect value for money to the county although Kent won none of the trophies open to them.

Murali was the top bowler and Stuart Law, from Queensland, Essex and now Lancashire, was the top batsman. I have always made him the basis of my team for Fantasy Cricket competitions; you now see why. To complicate matters still further, Law is applying for a British passport so that if the rule reverts to one professional a county in 2005 he will be able to continue with Lancashire, a home he clearly finds much more congenial than Essex where he left under a cloud. This summer he averaged 91 from 1820 runs, with seven hundreds and six other fifties ahead of Michael Hussey from Northants via Australia, and Graeme Smith, the South African captain.

Mark Ramprakash and Andrew Flintoff come next but only Mark Butcher who is ninth stands out among four other overseas players in the top ten. Between 11th place and 20th there are just four England-qualified batsmen. In other words 13 of the top 20 batsmen in England last summer were either touring batsmen or overseas professionals.

Is it any wonder that not only are England failing to live up to the highest expectations, like winning back the Ashes, but that apart from the lads chosen for the Academy there is a lower standard than at any time in the memory of those who have been around since the Second World War.

None of this is new. Professionals from around the world, employed to boost the chances of the team and draw the crowds, have often dominated our averages.

Clive Lloyd, Farookh Engineer, Zaheer Abbas; Bishen Bedi, Mike Procter, Wayne Daniels; Ted McDonald, Bruce Dooland, George Tribe, Lance Gibbs, Bert Sutcliffe from an era now largely forgotten.

They have all topped the averages and added spice, adventure and quality to the English county scene.

But part of their attraction was in their rarity value. In a simpler time, when there was no daily television exhibition of the arrival of a man from a far country was an event. Now it is just confirmation that a figure seen a thousand times on a TV screen really exists. This summer a total of 55 overseas pros made their way to England to play county cricket. Frankly it is too many.

In short, a feast of good cricket has turned into a feeding frenzy ever since, at the prompting of the counties, the England and Wales Cricket Board sanctioned two overseas professionals in any team; and four on the books at any given time.

Fifty five overseas professionals have played English county cricket this summer out of a total of 379 registered players. That does not even taken into account those in the half way house; those who hold Irish passports, those born abroad of English parents, those with an Irish grandmother or who hold some other qualification which entitles them to a place in the England team if ever selection gets any more difficult. There were 29 of these players so that 29 per cent of all those in county games in 2003 were not available to the England selectors.

It is too much and in the long run, indeed in the short term too, it will damage the English game more than any other factor.

Lest I be misunderstood, let me be clear that all these men from beyond our shores are fine players. That is what the professionals said when they voted Mushtaq their player of the year. All, with a few notable exceptions, have put in, tried their hardest, helped youngsters with words of advice and captains with words of encouragement.

No one can question the qualifications of a Damien Martyn, who hits a century quicker than the average county player takes to reach 25 and or Muttiah Muralitharan who spins out men cheaper and quicker than every man jack of the England fast bowling squad.

These players from Shoaib Akhtar to Chris Cairns by way of Stuart McGill and Ian Harvey are the elite and I expect that they are worth every penny of their high wages. Nothing to compare with the pay packets of the footballers of course. David Beckham earns 100,000 pounds a week with Real Madrid, and last season 328 footballers appeared in the Premiership who were not qualified to play for the national side. As for Chelsea, it is as well their money is electronically transferred to their bank for they would never be able to carry all that money home in their pockets. It certainly puts into perspective the 70,000 pounds a summer which goes to these itinerant cricketers.

Football came to realise its problems a long time ago but, cynically some would say, has chosen to ignore the needs of their international side and continued to recruit with growing enthusiasm from abroad.

But at least they have been told and forcefully. Back in 1930 Charlie Sutcliffe of Burnley Football Club put it this way: "A foreigner in our football is repulsive to us, offensive to our players and a terrible confession of weakness in the management of a club."

Seventy-three years on cricket may have to learn all those lessons although the general revulsion at the effects of the two professionals rule is so great that I am sure it will be revoked in time for 2005.