June 2009
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RMJ: No place for ageism in county cricket

June 16th, 2009 by Robin Martin-Jenkins in County cricket


The ECB is constantly tinkering with county cricket, seemingly coming up with new directives every month. Most county players believe the domestic system has evolved into a smooth working machine over the past ten years and yet, like a bored car mechanic that changes the cam belt before it has worn out, the ECB is getting the spanners out and is about to impose a new directive: age-related incentive payments to counties.

From 2010 counties will be paid money for playing cricketers under a certain age. The actual amounts of money are still being thrashed out but it is likely that counties who play two players under 22 and three more under 26 will be in line for about £80,000, a figure which might rise to £200,000 by 2013. With most counties struggling to stay in the black from year to year these will be attractive incentives but they may do more damage than good to the English game in the long run. For starters the richer clubs may be able to ignore the inducements leading to a further divide between a club such as Surrey, which has the funds to offer extremely competitive wages to almost any player it wants, and Leicestershire, who needs all the financial help it can get.

The ECB’s plan to get more young players into county teams is understandable and in many ways commendable but it stems from a flawed premise that the younger the average age of county teams, the better the England team will be. Apparently research has been done that suggests that the earlier a player has exposure to county cricket, the better his chances will be of succeeding at international level.

But there is also overwhelming evidence to suggest that players reach their peak as cricketers in their late twenties and early thirties and so to invent a ruling that may encourage counties to exclude these players would seem naive to me. Several England players, including the current Test captain, have been picked at a relatively late stage in their cricketing lives, both for their counties and their countries, and have performed instantly well at international level, quite probably because of a solid grounding in the county game. But had these financial incentives been in place a few years ago and Middlesex and Northamptonshire decided to help balance their books by making sure they fulfilled their quota of younger players, perhaps Andrew Strauss and Graeme Swann, to name but two, would have been lost to the England set-up. Batsmen, it would seem ripen later than fast bowlers, who tend to drop in pace and energy if not accuracy and cunning when they reach thirty, and the maturing of spin bowlers is perhaps even more gradual a process. The new system will also deter young players from going to university, so scared will they be that they will be on the scrapheap by the time they graduate and Strauss is one of many cricketers to have benefitted immensely from a university education.

Many think that county teams should always be picked on merit. The PCA (the players voice in the game) has found that 96% of players wanted to play in a meritocracy. Presumably the other 4% were players below the age of 22 who were some way off playing for their first teams. One only need look to South Africa to see the pitfalls of a quota system. But while the complicated politics of that country in some ways justifies the structure of their cricket, there is no need for meddling from the ECB. Worry about Kolpaks and other players ineligible to play for England, by all means, but ageism has no place in cricket.

Robin Martin-Jenkins is an allrounder with Sussex

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