Internet potential holds up England contracts

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The Independent Online

Cricket may at last have joined the 21st century though it has taken a row over contracts to prove the point. Four weeks after the England and Wales Cricket Board named the 12 players to be given central contracts, nothing has been signed, though this time the impasse has more to do with dot.com than dot balls.

England's players, not unreasonably in light of the e-revolution, wanted the right to be able to set up their own websites. Initially this was agreed by the ECB's negotiators, Simon Pack and Terry Blake, who then promptly did a U-turn when they realised the potential such websites might offer.

As a result of this, contracts had to go back to the drawing board and have only been on the table less than a week. Unsurprisingly, the players are keen to see that what are termed as "image and commercial rights" have been fine-tuned to suit both parties. These should be finalised over the next few days and according to the captain, Nasser Hussain, at least 99 per cent of players will have signed by the time the party meet up for a three-day training camp at Old Trafford this Sunday.

While it is laudable that England are preparing for their summer so early, the last thing Hussain wants as captain is to have players being distracted by things not taking place on the field. Unlike his predecessor, Alec Stewart, England's captain does not want to be shop steward as well, which is why Dean Headley, a fleeting fixture on England's recent tour of South Africa, was appointed as the players' representative.

The main sticking point for Headley and his team-mates, is that while the ECB want the players to sign over all their commercial rights in the media to them, they want to be paid for the use of those rights. Clearly, there is the need for some kind of compromise, though why it cannot be done quickly is one of those mysteries only cricket can conjure up. After all, contracts are only for six months, so any howlers should be easily rectifiable in time for the winter tours.

In addition, the players want to have a voice around the negotiating table when the ECB sign up new sponsors, so that demands upon the players' time are fair. This too has been misconstrued by the ECB, who thought the players wanted a percentage of deals, rather than an influence over the terms of their participation in them.

If it all sounds rather dull and reasonable, the fiasco over the World Cup contracts last April, which was purely about money, has caused lessons to be learnt. Since then, the players, heeding the advice of Lord MacLaurin, the chairman of the ECB, have instructed a firm of lawyers to cut through the legalese. They have also have a company called Zone, which does their bidding for them, so if the ECB are finding the negotiations tough, they have only their chairman to blame.

It would be unnatural for professional sportsmen were money not involved and stories that the players were still holding out for the county bonuses - amounts vary between £500 to £5,000 - do have some truth in them. However, according to Andrew Walpole, the ECB's media liaison officer: "Money was not a sticking block," and most players realise it would be unreasonable to expect full bonuses from their clubs.

In truth, it should end amicably by the 1 April deadline and further talks between players' representatives and the Board were concluded yesterday. According to an ECB spokesperson: "The latest discussions have brought the parties closer together and we remain optimistic that the matter will be resolved shortly." If they aren't, April Fool's Day will have its first casualty.

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