Answers, but to the wrong question

The signs are that Lord MacLaurin's report on English cricket next week will have missed the point, argues Derek Pringle
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The Independent Online
Should early rumours surrounding Lord MacLaurin's plans for domestic cricket - thought to include three baseball style conferences - prove accurate, then the English cricket is not so much in for a vigorous shake- up as a mild stirring. With the finer details not being revealed until Tuesday, the bold implications of his slogan - "No change is not an option" - appear to have been diluted.

Worse still, given that the prime objective was to produce a better Test team, is that the goalposts appear to have been moved as well. Which means that any proposals with more than a hint of compromise to them will be seen as a deliberate ploy to gain acceptance from the county clubs, whose chairmen vote on them in September.

If there is an irony about tabling changes unlikely to upset the status quo, it is that they are unlikely to benefit the counties or their players much either. Which tends to suggest that perhaps the wrong lines of inquiry were being made by MacLaurin and his team, when they first began their proposed overhaul last February.

The question that should have been at the head of the list, is why, when we have the oldest professional circuit in the world, do our under-19s tend to compete more favourably against their international equivalents than our Test teams?

The answer, which lies within the county system, is not straightforward which is why perhaps the solution does not simply lie with playing less cricket. Although that would undoubtedly be a starting point, having refreshed players is not much good if they have not the mental edge to make it count in Test matches.

In 1977/78, your correspondent toured India with England Schools, a team comprised, given one or two other players who had left school earlier, of the best 17 to 19-year-old players in the country. We fared reasonably well, and when the "Test" pitches were not raging turners, as was the case in Calcutta, we beat our Indian opponents easily.

Of the 15 players who played on that tour, 11 joined county staffs of which two, Derbyshire's former captain Kim Barnett and Neil Taylor, now with Sussex, are still playing.

More to the point only three of us - Barnett (four caps), Paul Terry (two) and your correspondent (30) - went on to play Test cricket for England. Although that is a fair proportion, none of us became a Glenn McGrath or a Steve Waugh, two players whose consistency of performance, rather than their individual flair, is the quality most English players tend to lack.

The reasons for this are many, not least the punishing amount of largely unchallenging cricket our best players are expected to play.

Competitive instinct is a difficult habit to shake off. Even so, I bet there were more than a few sighs of relief from those Test players whose counties exited early from the NatWest Trophy. That is because time off, so crucial for practice in other countries, is a rare commodity in England.

For the last 30 years, first-class cricket in this country has been little more than a sausage factory but while lean young meat gets fed into the system, too many plain old bangers get produced. It is why overseas players who come here tend to dominate the averages, and why when pitted against legendary players such as Viv Richards or Malcolm Marshall, many county players would rather psyche themselves out of the confrontation than treat it is a challenge.

Until recently, youthful ambition was also a dirty concept in many county dressing-rooms. Even now, young players are expected to earn the respect of their senior players, as well their place in the side. Often the first is a prerequisite for the second, and it can still be a tortuous apprenticeship for those not willing to play ball.

Which is why players like Mark Ramprakash and Nasser Hussain, whose self- belief and aspirations were seen as anathema to the cosy lifestyle of the county circuit, so often found themselves in trouble with authority. Fortunately neither was discouraged, and both players now find themselves at the forefront of the season's batting lists.

However, not every talented player can be expected to burn quite as passionately, and ambition must have its financial incentives and rewards too, particularly if it is to include personal sacrifice over and above spending long periods away from home.

When I was having treatment on a sore hamstring, I was asked by the then chairman of Essex, Doug Insole, why I did not want to be as fit as a Premier League footballer. My reply, which did not go down all that well, was: "If you pay me like one, I'll be as fit as one".

It may have been glib, but until recently salaries for county cricketers were not far in excess of the Government's proposed minimum wage. My point was that having spent seven hours a day, six days a week, for anything up to 10 months of the year playing cricket, I was not about to sacrifice even more time to the game without the guarantee of substantial reward. As a Cantona-sized pay package was not forthcoming, I simply stayed as fit as I had to.

It is regarding the question of pay that cricket has consistently remained adrift of other professional sports, and although Test players now earn a decent wage, county incomes are still modest. It is also one of the reasons talented schoolboy cricketers often look elsewhere to make their living and why most cricketers who have made a career out of the game, tend to hang on past their sell-by date with the intention of playing long enough to have a benefit.

With pay so poor who can blame them and, although benefits can be a lucrative business, the journeymen who most deserve them rarely make a fraction of the amounts raised by higher profile players, such as Graham Gooch and Mike Gatting.

Having propagated the benefit system as a means of keeping wage bills down, most county clubs then feel obliged to keep players on until they have had one. Players seeking pay rises at Essex in the 1980s were repeatedly told when their demands were rejected that they could expect a good benefit. It is that delay which prevents the constant turnover of players necessary for the best youngsters to come through.

Lord MacLaurin is right to identify the need for a successful England team in order for cricket to flourish in what is now a competitive market place. What remains to be seen, however, is whether his solutions have addressed the right problems to make that happen. Next Tuesday will reveal all.