There is concern that the rises may go beyond what the game can afford and the current cases of three leading players with high profiles threaten seriously to aggravate the dilemma. Last week it emerged that Chris Lewis of Surrey and Devon Malcolm of Derbyshire are both considering offers to join new counties. On Tuesday, Chris Adams, who is anxious to leave Derbyshire, will apply to the England and Wales Cricket Board to have himself declared a list two player, rather than list one, which would permit many more counties to tender for his services.
In every instance nobody doubts that there will be a bidding war. If the highest offer will not necessarily win it will come pretty close and certainly lift the amount involved in alternative overtures. Tim Lamb, the ECB's chief executive, warned 10 days ago about the perils of spiralling wages and he may, or may not, have spoken in the nick of time.
The counties seem to be aware that enough is enough but are equally worried about losing out if key players come on to the market. Looming over all is the persistent, if hitherto undeclared threat, that somebody may contest the list system which may lead to free-for-all transfers.
"We have to guard against what has happened in rugby union," said Mike Fatkin, chief executive of the county champions, Glamorgan. "The sort of vast players' salaries paid out there which have left the game in a mess should be a lesson for us. Wages have gone up though from a low starting base but there is a limit. We're lucky here, most of out players are Welsh and have a great sense of loyalty."
But if Fatkin's sentiments from the top of the table echoed those of Lamb, the need to buy success at the bottom was equally apparent. Tony Pigott, the chief executive of the 18th-placed county, Sussex, was in no doubt about his stance. He has already had exploratory talks with the exciting Adams.
"Counties have got to run as businesses. They've got to afford the wages if they want to compete," he said. "We're building a business here and while cricket will be at the core it will embrace other things. Yes, we've got our own good young players but we'll be in the market for good ones from elsewhere."
Surrey's chief executive, Paul Sheldon, said that if the 50 per cent rises since 1994 were matched by another 50 per cent to the Millennium cricket would be in trouble. But Lancashire have entered new territory by signing their players on 12-month contracts. It has meant a further 20 per cent hike in salaries.
Some clubs may suggest a salary cap and most seem anxious to retain the present player categories. They see two lists doing what two divisions would not - prevent the bigger clubs getting all the top players. The Adams case may not terminate the system but the board may find itself in a quandary were he to lose and pursue his case.
Under existing regulations players who are are under contract for the following season or who have been offered a contract by their present county are put on list one. Out-of-contract players are considered list two. No county may sign more than two list one players in a five year period. If restrictions were lifted many more cricketers would surely move, almost inevitably to the bigger, richer clubs.
Adams has a year of his Derbyshire contact left which, technically, makes him list one. Derbyshire, however, have agreed to let him go but because of his status the number of counties who can sign him are limited by previous registrations. Several counties would be out of the running. Adams no doubt wishes to increase his options and also realises his value may be enhanced. A possible six- figure salary has been openly bandied about (though denied).
"It's essential to keep the two lists," said Peter Edwards, of Essex, where the wages structure is rigidly structured. "It's all that keeps things on an even keel." The Adams case may unsteady the vessel a little more.Reuse content