Another long innings opens

Simon O'Hagan talks pay and play with Kent's cricketers as they gear up again
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MATTHEW FLEMING keeps his first contract from Kent County Cricket Club framed on his lavatory wall. The year was 1989, and for his six months' employment Fleming was paid £3,500. That may seem like little enough even for then, but some of the most junior of the 400-odd professional cricketers just beginning the 1995 season are still not receiving much more.

Fleming, it should be pointed out, is not a very typical cricketer. Ex- Eton and ex-Army, he is not, by his own admission, dependent for survival on his Kent pay, which has of course gone up considerably in the seven seasons since he started out at the age of 25. But as the vice-chairman of the Cricketers' Association, the players' union, Fleming is closely involved in its attempt to secure for its members a substantial increase in the minimum wage.

Last month David Graveney, the association's new general secretary, sent a 1,000-word statement to the 18 county chairmen who sit on the committee of the Test and County Cricket Board. Like a ball that rears off a length, it had its recipients jumping about a bit as they read of the players' "extreme disappointment" that the minimum wage for a capped player - £14,500 - was not going up this year, and of the implied threat of industrial action if the TCCB did not do something about it in 1996. Graveney proposed a new minimum wage of £20,000, and, according to Fleming, negotiations will start soon.

What has focused players' attention on wages is the £60m television deal that the TCCB struck last year. Just as John Major once spoke of wealth "cascading down through the generations", so the players hoped that some of this money would if not cascade then at least trickle through to the performers themselves. But it did not, and the TCCB's claim that the budgets were in place before the TV deal was agreed is viewed by most players with scepticism at the very least. Even Stuart Anderson, the Kent secretary, conceded that the sequence of events was "unfortunate".

So what is the lot of the county cricketer? And is there a new mood of militancy abroad? Kent seemed as good a county as any to try to find out - neither the richest nor poorest, neither the biggest payers nor the stingiest, and in recent years neither awash with success nor burdened with failure.

Certainly the St Lawrence ground in Canterbury on a beautiful spring morning last week was not the sort of setting one has in mind when one thinks of scenes of workers' unrest. Indeed, one's first reaction was that anybody whose job involves doing something they love in an environment as nice as this is very lucky indeed.

During the lunch break in a practice match the players had organised between themselves, Fleming made this point himself almost before he had made any others. "It's a wonderful way to earn a living." But as Fleming also said, it is the very desire to make it, particularly among the younger ones, that leads to a situation the counties can exploit.

"We had a case at a county that will be nameless where a youngster had completed a one-year contract and was waiting to see if he would be offered one for a second year," Fleming said. "Finally the county offered him a contract worth £2,000. And he was so desperate to play he accepted it. The county can't lose. If he trains on then fine, and if he doesn't they haven't lost much either." Another Kent player described some of the basic salaries for young players - not referring to any county in particular - as "a joke".

At Kent, Anderson says, pay ranges from "below £10,000" for those on a first-year contract to the mid-20s for the most senior professionals. Andersonstressed that Kent's rates for this year anticipated the TV deal money, even though their share has not yet reached the county, and went up accordingly.

For the higher earners it doesn't sound too bad. After all, there are bonus schemes - worth up to £5,000 per person at Kent - as well of course as the possibility of winning some prize money in one of the competitions. And you are only working for six months. Ah, said Fleming, but that was the very point. "It is impossible to earn anything like that much for the other six months of the year," he said, and the problem of a cricketer's winter is only partly offset by the increasing number of opportunities to coach, at home indoors or abroad in the sunshine.

It is capped players - established well beyond the point of self-sacrifice at which 18-year-olds are sometimes obliged to enter the game - whose cause the Cricketers' Association is mainly addressing. Of these, 69 per cent are already paid £20,000 or more, but that still leaves a large number - solid county pros, not Test players but arguably the backbone of English cricket - who Fleming says he feels very strongly have been neglected over the years.

"The Cricketers' Association has been a relatively quiet organisation up to now," Fleming said. "But everything came together this winter what with the TV deal and the criticism of the England team in Australia. It hasn't been much fun to be a cricketer lately, and we thought it was about time we stood up for ourselves a little bit."

Big pay increases would inevitably have other consequences. "If players squeeze too hard, and I'm sure they won't," Anderson said, "then counties may have to look at reducing the number of players they have on their books." But plenty of players are reconciled to that.

Among them is Neil Taylor, the Kent batsman, and a solid county pro if ever there was one - 35 years old and embarking on his 18th season in the first-class game. "We're not greedy," he said, sitting by the boundary as practice came to an end, "and we don't expect to be affluent in this game. But I'd hope we'd be reasonably better off in time."

Taylor, echoing a view expressed in the new Wisden, is critical of what he calls the "archaic" benefit system. "If we paid people properly in the first place they wouldn't ever have to worry about whether they were going to get a benefit or how much the taxman would take."

Sitting waiting to go out to bat towards the end of the day's play was one of Kent's newest recruits - 20-year-old Ben Phillips, a strapping all-rounder who had been offered his first contract only the day before. He was thrilled to bits. "It's what I've always wanted to do if I could," he said. "No, the money's not great . . ." and the only cloud of the day passed across the young man's face. Good luck, Ben.