With an increasing number of players switching clubs, even in mid-season, John Stern says some elements of football’s transfer system could help clear up a murky world.
May 1962, when Tom Graveney finally made his County Championship debut for Worcestershire at Hove, 20 months had elapsed since his last Championship appearance for his first county, Gloucestershire. In August 2017, Dominic Sibley made his debut for Warwickshire two days after leaving Surrey.
Generations apart, worlds apart. Well, yes and no. Graveney was stripped of the Gloucestershire captaincy in acrimonious circumstances in1960 and wanted to move clubs. To do so, he had to serve a year’s residential qualification. The Epsom-born Sibley declined a three-year contract offer from Surrey to move to Warwickshire. Initially he was to move at the end of this season but in fact the transfer happened immediately, with Rikki Clarke’s return to The Oval from Edgbaston also swiftly expedited.
Surrey were livid about the loss of a 21-year- old homegrown player and issued a public statement unusual in its tone of bitterness and barely concealed anger. Elsewhere this summer players have moved counties amid varying degrees of resentment.
When Tom Kohler-Cadmore told Worcestershire of his intention to leave the club who had nurtured him for his native county of Yorkshire at the end of the season, they decided to drop him. And then, like a painful marriage break-up, it was decided that it was in everyone’s best interests if he joined Yorkshire sooner rather than later.
Players moving counties is nothing new but this trend – and it surely is a trend – of mid-season moves has been uncommon. So what are we to make of all this fire and fury in the shires? County cricket generally fuels less tribal passions than football, though even that comment will probably raise many hackles. Plenty would say that a bit of ‘transfer talk’, however sour tasting, is all good for the narrative of a county game that is like a school play compared to football’s relentless soap opera of the absurd.
“There’s still a lot of emotion and I hope over time that emotion can be taken out of it [player movement],” says Jason Ratcliffe, the former Surrey and Warwickshire batsman who spent 14 years at the Professional Cricketers’ Association and is now an agent for 13 players, including Sibley. “But it’s good for the game – it adds interest.” Football supporters, at least at the top level of the game, have long since reconciled themselves to the lack of homegrown talent in their teams and indeed embraced the level and range of skills of players from all over the world.
Cricket is a different beast and every county aspires to develop their own talent. “There is something marketable about homegrown talent,” says Jamie Clifford, Kent’s chief executive. “That should not be underestimated and we’re very proud of producing our own players. There is also a participation element to it. For example, Sam Northeast’s club is Sandwich Town and he has a profile at that club and in the town, which can inspire kids to play.”
Clifford, like his peers at the non-Test match grounds, are in a constant battle to keep hold of their locally grown produce. And while it is tempting to think that the traffic is only going one way, Clifford wonders if the new T20 competition may change the landscape in unexpected ways.
Each county will receive at least £1.3m from the new city-based T20 competition which begins in 2020. For a county like Kent, that makes a huge difference and may allow them to hold on to players who might otherwise have left. Players can be employed simultaneously by a county and one of the new T20 teams. However, if each T20 side is required to have, say, six ‘local’ players (i.e. a Nottingham team needing to have six Notts players), then there will still be a mad scramble by the major venues to sign talent from elsewhere.
There is a salary cap in county cricket, yet for many counties that ceiling of £2.4m is way out their reach anyway. It is estimated that there is around £14m of unused player salaries, simply because the game cannot afford it. That will surely change once the new T20 money comes in.
What the game still does not have is an official football-style transfer system where a monetary value is attached to a player. Counties are permitted to approach a player in the final year of his contract, while occasionally clubs will buy out a player’s contract, as Yorkshire did with David Willey at Northamptonshire.
But clubs who produce talent receive no financial return if that player leaves. They get money from the ECB if that player goes on to play for England but the incentive to produce players is limited to professional pride, a desire to please members and supporters and an altruistic desire to help build the national team.
It will be a brave county who attempts to build into a player’s contract a compensatory value, in effect a golden handcuff, and there’d have to be plenty in it for the player. But that time surely can’t be far off. And if it helps to formalise a system that still seems to the outsider to be mired in red tape and regulation, then so much the better.