ECB wary of expensive gamble on Vaughan

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The Independent Online

Last week it was the players who anxiously waited for the phone call that confirmed their participation in this winter's Ashes series. Today it is the bean counters at counties who are sweating a little as they nervously wait to hear which members of their playing staff have been awarded central contracts.

The contracts have played a major role in the progress made by the England side since the turn of the century. They have allowed Duncan Fletcher, the England coach, to manage the players and control the amount they play, and up to 15 of these lucrative deals will be handed out today.

The contracts, which are worth as much as £400,000 to a top cricketer who plays a full season of Test and one-day cricket for England, are not only rewarding for individuals, but are set to become profitable for counties too. Counties currently receive a reward on every occasion one of their players represents England.

This year counties have received approximately £2,000 per Test match and £1,000 for each one-day international, figures that could add up to a bonus of £50,000 per player. But these figures are set to rise in 2007 as the England and Wales Cricket Board performance-related fee payment budget rises from its 2006 level of £2.1m to £6.4m.

This improvement will mean that counties can now expect to receive over £100,000 for each player who is picked regularly for England. Most counties are perfectly happy with the set-up because it rewards teams that produce England players, an issue that should be a prerequisite.

But, and there is always a but, there is a downside to the current structure, and it is yet to be addressed by the ECB. A central contract is worth over £250,000 to a squad player - an individual who makes each touring squad but fails to gain selection in every match - and in 2007 it will be worth around £200,000 per player to a county - £110,000 in bonuses and £80,000 in a contract they no longer have to pay.

This is a huge sum of money to a county, but it can disappear as quickly as it arrives, making it difficult for clubs to plan their budgets. The figures become even more alarming if we look at the predicament Durham find themselves in.

Durham have every right to feel proud of their achievements. Stephen Harmison, Paul Collingwood and Liam Plunkett were all selected on England's winter tour of Australia and each could receive a central contract today. If they do, it would save the club over £200,000. Durham could also expect to receive in the region of £300,000 in bonuses as a reward for providing England with three players.

Yet this credit could disappear in 12 months' time, if each were to drift out of the England set-up. As of yet there are no parachute payments in place, an oversight that could result in counties not wanting to employ an expensive former England player after his international career.

It is to be assumed that most of the big names, including Ashley Giles, who has not played in a competitive match for almost a year, will be awarded central contracts, but most interest will surround Michael Vaughan and Simon Jones, two injured Ashes winners whose careers are in the balance.

Vaughan is still the official England captain and it is hard to believe the selectors will drop him, despite the financial implications. Jones injured himself playing for England and the ECB will probably show loyalty there too. The contracts will have fitness clauses, but if neither were to play again it could cost the game over £300,000.

Pay rise: ECB's figures for 2007

Potential increase in maximum payments to players' counties from the ECB:

13 Tests at £2,000 each: £26,000

24 one-dayers at £1,000 each: £24,000

2005-06 total: £50,000

12 Tests at £3,333 each: £40,000

42 one-dayers at £1,666 each:£70,000

2006-07 total: £110,000