Contracts tarnish Gloucestershire's treble

Gloucestershire's celebrations at becoming the first county to complete a clean sweep of limited-overs silverware have been tempered by the revelation that they may actually lose money on their historic season - in part because of the introduction of central contracts to England players.

Gloucestershire's celebrations at becoming the first county to complete a clean sweep of limited-overs silverware have been tempered by the revelation that they may actually lose money on their historic season - in part because of the introduction of central contracts to England players.

Somerset's narrow defeat by Lancashire on Wednesday evening handed the West Country side the championship of the Norwich Union National League to go with their Benson and Hedges and NatWest silverware, completing an unprecedented treble, but their chief executive, Colin Sextone, says the county will "at best break even" this year after the England and Wales Cricket Board reduced domestic prize-money.

Gloucestershire believe they will lose between £5,000 and £10,000 on each Lord's final in order to honour player bonuses and Sextone has written to the ECB to express his concern.

The ECB has cut prize-money and only six per cent of gate receipts from the Lord's finals went to the teams. Gloucestershire's £105,000 prize money went direct to players.

Tim Lamb, the ECB chief executive, said that the introduction of central contracts, combined with increased payments to counties hosting Tests and a fall in television revenue had forced the ECB to undertake "stringent belt-tightening. We will look to see if we can improve the situation for next year but all areas of the game have had to take their share of the cuts," Lamb said.

Ironically, no Gloucestershire player has a central contract. Indeed, for a team of so few stars - the wicketkeeper Jack Russell apart, only Kim Barnett (four caps) and Mike Smith (one) has played Test cricket - their treble is a feat that takes some explaining.

To those of a superstitious nature, the influence of sport's most bizarre mascot, the frozen chicken that has been taken to each of Gloucestershire's four consecutive cup finals by a fan who mistook it for his lunch, is the sole answer necessary. Others may prefer a more rational hypothesis. Seek it from their coach, John Bracewell, however, and the explanation is only slightly less mysterious.

In Bracewell's view, Gloucestershire's success comes down to two things - ownership and an environment for learning, terms which make him sound more like an idealistic left-wing politician than a coach and which are certainly not described in any manual.

The 42-year-old former New Zealand off-spinner borrows the concept of ownership from baseball, while his environment for learning is one in which all players are asked to add their observations to a pool of shared knowledge.

"When we are in the field, we say that each player is the owner of his position," Bracewell says. "It is his responsibility to look after that part of the field and see that the opposition batsmen do not take control of it from him. It is his duty not only to work on his own fielding skills but to study how each of our bowlers works, to know what kind of delivery is coming and what sort of shot is likely to result."

Thus, he says, Gloucestershire have become "an offensive fielding side rather than a defensive one" which has in turn enabled Ian Harvey, Mike Smith, Mark Alleyne and co to become the best defensive bowling unit in the country.

The Australian all-rounder Harvey is both Gloucestershire's leading run-scorer (357 at an average of 29.75) and wicket-taker (29 at 12.17) in the National League while his range of slower balls have helped make him the most effective "death" bowler in one-day cricket.

Meanwhile, within Bracewell's learning environment, previously unsung players have flourished. Tim Hancock has become an accomplished opening batsman, while James Averis, previously a seam bowler with an uncertain future, has taken huge strides.

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