The battle against 18 `wise' men

ENGLISH cricket's mission statement for the next four years, unveiled recently by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), adds a new dimension to the crucial issue of the balance between Lord's and the counties, which has dominated English cricket since 1997.

ENGLISH cricket's mission statement for the next four years, unveiled recently by the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB), adds a new dimension to the crucial issue of the balance between Lord's and the counties, which has dominated English cricket since 1997. The new blueprint titled `Building Partnerships: From Playground to Test Arena' is being strategically positioned by the ECB as a continuation to the National Strategy for Cricket, which preceded it, titled `A Cricketing Future for All'. However, `Building Partnerships' has proposed to tweak the system in a way that it would help the ECB to reclaim cricket in a substantial manner from the 18 first-class counties.

At a time when county audiences and memberships are dwindling, and when the counties depend on a generous hand-out from the ECB for their existence, the new mission statement has been the subject of much discussion because it proposes to scrap a flat payment to counties in favour of making 25 per cent of funding related to performance by 2009.

The dictum put forward by the then ECB chairman Ian McLaurin in his path-breaking 1997 Mission Statement titled `Raising the Standard' — which is famous for splitting the county championship to two divisions — that county competition would be viewed entirely as a means to producing the future England cricketer has been given an economic angle by his successor David Morgan. `Building Partnerships' proposes pay structures to the counties based on the number of cricketers each one gives to the now-expanded pool of 25 centrally contracted players to add to the performance based payment structure. The counties would also be given other incentives such as video and IT equipment to provide performance analysis of England qualified cricketers.

The measures are part of ECB's plans to thwart the counties signing Kolpak players and overseas players with European Union passports as `non-overseas' players, which, in turn, prevents young home-grown and England qualified players from representing their county elevens. The Kolpak ruling by the European Court of Justice last May is operational from this summer and will provide a legal loophole to exploit the age-old quotas system on foreign players operating in county cricket as well as Premier rugby. Maros Kolpak, a Slovakian handball player, took the German Handball Federation to court in 2003 against a `not-more-than-two-EU-nationals' quota and the ECJ ruled that the quota system should not apply to nationals of countries that have an association or cooperation agreement with EU States.

What this means is that mediocre South African players struggling to become a permanent member of their franchisee teams in domestic cricket can now join some pretty ordinary Australian domestic cricket second stringers (who take advantage of the patriality law and the dual citizenship provision which UK has with Australia) as `home' players in the county championship, whereas brilliant youngsters from the Sub-continent and the Caribbean, who have played international cricket, have to struggle for the two overseas players slot.

By linking payments to counties to performance and development of the English cricketer, the ECB has, to an extent, allayed fears that the counties would use the cash from the forthcoming television deal with British Sky Broadcasting satellite network without the social sensitivity of producing England-qualified players.

It must be recalled that the controversial TV deal of last year — which put all live cricket in England for four years from 2006 in the hands of satellite broadcaster BSkyB — is extensively attributed to the clout that the county chairmen hold in the First Class Forum, which runs the game in England. Giles Clarke, the Somerset chairman, led ECB's negotiating team and all the other chairmen backed him to the hilt. Not surprising, because each county wanted a bit more annually from the ECB than the 1.5 million pounds they are receiving now. The ECB's recent proposal to link payment with performance, both cricketing and marketing, has upset the county apple cart. `Building Partnerships' proposes to divert the excess in television revenue towards the England team and towards grassroots development (rather than to the counties) in an equal proportion.

The main plank of `Building Partnerships', however, is the proposal to reduce the membership of the ECB management board from 18 to 12, which means that the counties will have to yield power in a manner never seen before in English cricket. But, this proposal will be implemented only if the counties ratify it in the board's summer AGM. Which probably means that it will be scuttled by the 18 wise men just as they did last year to the progressive proposals suggested by the Cricket Reform Group, led by Mike Atherton and Bob Willis, to restructure the domestic cricket scene.