Where revenues from international representative matches provide the preponderant income source for a sport (as is the case in cricket), the use of such revenues for the employment of non-England qualified players will always cause much spluttering in the committee rooms (and dressing rooms as well).
The centralised contracting by the ECB of an elite group of players (who will seldom, if ever, experience the delights of playing at Chesterfield on a wet Wednesday), and the introduction of promotion and relegation, have forced the counties to scour the world for talent. The European Court’s Kolpak case (which allows nationals of many major cricketing nations to be classed as EU citizens) enabled the counties to recruit more than thirty players last year who are not England qualified but (crucially) who did not take up one of the two overseas player slots.
Clearly something had to be done. The question was what was legally possible? The answer revealed by the ECB’s response to the problem announced yesterday, is not a great deal.
A glance at the details (which have been carefully crafted to comply with EU law and therefore not significantly discourage the recruitment of EU citizens) will swiftly show why this is so. The annual subsidy for the counties is being cut by only £50,000 from £1.3million to £1,250,000. The net saving is then to be used to reward counties who employ players who go on to play for England at a number of levels and (rather dangerous this) who maximise the number of England qualified players used in major competitions.
The first thing to note is that the amount of available incentives is pitifully small. A county may well be happy to kiss goodbye to the prospect of £50,000 and bring in loads of Kolpak players. Moves to reward counties on the basis of performance in competitions will of course only encourage counties to do this.
Another factor to bear in mind is that there is no necessary link between the number of England qualified players you employ and the number who obtain representative honours. A county might simply be lucky and employ only two or three and get the incentive payments.
Fundamentally, however, what possible incentive can there be to produce England players if they become so good that you have to lose them if and when they are contracted centrally? The availability of England players is a key commercial benefit for counties who (but for central contracting) could use them to generate sponsorship and participate in community schemes.
In these circumstances, it is doubtful in the extreme that the ECB package will have the slightest impact.
What could work? Apart from the ECB contracting all first class players and leasing them out to the counties (which has serious practical difficulties) an alternative package would be to eliminate central contracting, abandon promotion and relegation, reduce the number of international matches and radically cut the number of counties. The rarity value of international support would be increased, player burn out alleviated, the counties’ commercial potential restored and playing standards raised. This will not happen in the short term of course but in the long term – short of withdrawal from the EU – it may prove to be the only solution.