New rush for county cricket

ALL of a sudden, county cricket is back in fashion and players from various countries are busy negotiating deals. This rush stems from a decision that allows two overseas pros in a team, and permitting short-term replacements when these players are called away for national duty.

This means anyone free for a few weeks during summer could suddenly pack his bags to play in England. The pro would get some cricket, some money and a bit of a holiday with his family.

Indian players are actively looking at offers because, if you play the full season, England translates into much money and much experience. Harbhajan has already signed with Lancashire, Sehwag is weighing several options and Dravid could return to Kent where he is immensely popular, or Scotland as some reports suggest, or anywhere else. Sachin is being chased by half a dozen counties, they all understand his presence can radically transform the balance sheet of a cricket club.

None may succeed, however, in getting Sachin to sign. Apparently, Sachin is unimpressed by money, nor does he, at this stage, need experience of English conditions because education is for a student not a professor. Like an experienced and enormously successful cricket tourist he has quite literally seen it, done it all and county cricket has little on offer to excite him. Moreover, considering the busy schedule ahead, he is better off at home, resting and keeping focussed on the urgent task of surpassing all batting records.

Others too will take a similar practical view of county cricket, and look hard at the money put on the table. A top pro, the very best in the business, stands to make close to (pre-tax) 100,000 pounds which is serious money, certainly sufficient compensation for fatigue, aching bones and flagging spirit. Which, in a way, is perfectly understandable considering there is an expiry date attached to players and the shelf life is shrinking alarmingly. Nowadays, stars carry a label indicating best use by tomorrow - the day after can be a bit too late.

This is one reason Srinath has signed though only for a few weeks with Leicester. Having retired from Tests he wanted, (rightly) one last go at the World Cup but the selectors thought otherwise and opted for a fresh pair of legs and an uninjured shoulder. Which leaves a psychologically-wounded Srinath with a point to prove; a month in England will tell him whether his abilities have diminished or disappeared, whether he has lost it or the selectors screwed up.

The question of playing county cricket throws up some interesting points from the Indian perspective. At one level, as in cases like Srinath, it is a terrific system which encourages retired players to hang on and make a decent living. The money is handy and a player, even if he is not going to make the Indian team, is happy being on the circuit. Contrast this with India where current internationals earn zero from Ranji or Duleep and once the chance of representing India is extinguished, all motivation to remain in the game also disappears.

What this means, therefore, is our structure is a useful ladder for players trying to make it - but once this happens quality players have no use for domestic cricket, the ladder is useless because it can't take you any further. Ranji offers no cash and beyond a point it does not enhance ability as the quality of competition is pathetically low. Moreover, as domestic performances are not taken too seriously there is very little to play for. We have the odd Robin Singh soldiering on, Kanwaljit Singh and Utpal Chatterjee come back each year with renewed vigour but these durable, untiring stalwarts are exceptions not the rule. The harsh reality is Ranji makes no sense for someone like Sourav or Sachin - it is a waste of time and energy.

In county cricket, money is a magnet which attracts talent and ensures it stays in the system. Because of this, Srinath will take a second and a third look before putting away his spikes. And for the same reason DeFreitas, Malcolm, Chris Lewis and many others will continue to run in and bowl at their best.

But all aging pros, at some stage, are confronted by the dilemma about deciding when to quit. Timing in any sport is of prime importance but this one is not easy, it is tricky for small and big players alike. Generally one notices trouble when enthusiasm wanes and training becomes a burden and form declines. For a batsman the red light is on when the feet stop moving and intended cover drives become streaky fours to third man or end up as edges to slip. During this delicate phase, all of a sudden, luck seems to run out, good starts don't get converted into big scores, concentration lapses become more frequent. And the greatest cause for worry is a player, from within, knows what is wrong but can do little to correct things. Which only shows that, end of the day, one can't battle nature, when skills fade one has to just read the writing on the wall and leave.

For bowlers it is time to go when the ball dies after landing, the keeper collects close to his shoelaces or induced edges don't carry to close-in fielders. A spinner may fool the batsman in flight but, when the ball loses nip, there is enough time to go back, take a second look and adjust the shot.

Batsmen can battle age temporarily with experience and acquired wisdom , they can carry on a little longer on Indian wickets which deaden bowlers . But bowlers have it really tough, contemporary cricket is exceedingly cruel and it makes no concessions, no deals for cricket's senior citizens. In an era where perfectly good balls get tonked over cover or sliced deliberately through point for six there is just no margin for error. If the ball, for example, lands off-middle it is fine, but if it drifts close to the pads then it is murder, all the fielder can do is fetch it from the fence.

When these errors happen regularly one needs to sit down and think carefully about the future. But such is reality that despite these alarm signals the final decision is made only after consulting the physio and the chartered accountant. Ultimately, the matter lies in the hands of the doctor or the finance expert!