MacLaurin on collision course with counties over £2m contract plan

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The Independent Online

England intend to have 20 players on annual central contracts from September. In addition, the selectors want five emerging cricketers on summer contracts next season.

The proposals will be formally submitted tomorrow when the England and Wales Cricket Board announce a loss of several hundred thousand pounds on last year, when the Australians were touring. If they are successfully adopted they are are likely to cost the ECB well over £2 million.

Lord MacLaurin, the ECB chairman, is bound to champion the new structure. It may be one of his last acts in office. He is expected to declare whether he will seek a third two-year term in office from this autumn.

The suggested measure is the most positive so far in the determination to make England a more competitive side both in Test and one-day matches. While it is not as extensive as in Australia and South Africa, where 25 senior players are centrally contracted, nor is it certain to be approved.

The International Team Management Group (ITMG) will submit their plans to the meeting of the First Class Forum (FCF), which represents the interests of all 18 first-class counties, if not invariably those of the game as a whole. The FCF may balk at having so many players made unavailable to them.

In the three seasons that the system has been operating in this country, a maximum of 12 players have been awarded central contracts for the summer, with the winter touring party rewarded pretty much as before. Players have effectively received two wages: their international payment from the England and Wales Cricket Board and their club salary, for which the counties have been reimbursed.

Under the new scheme that will change, with centrally contracted players becoming ECB employees. The devil, if not in the FCF, may be in the detail. When a player's England days are done it is naturally mooted that he return to his county. But what if the county no longer want him?

The selectors wanted 15 or 16 players under contract this summer but were told the money was not available. The ground rules have now changed because increased television payments, negotiated last year, will be made this autumn. In future the top players will simply move from their clubs to the ECB. It will give counties no rights over their use whatever.

If they have no realistic option but to see the sense of this, they may take more persuading to concede control of emerging players. The selectors have hatched this device particularly to protect young fast bowlers from overwork.

The decisions will be taken on a busy administrative day at Trent Bridge. Not only are the FCF gathering but the ECB are holding their annual meeting. The rocky financial state should concentrate a few minds. The professional game has few reserves and while television still buys rights for a relative song it could not be clearer that the game needs what it can get.

A loss is not a complete disaster, but coming in the year of a tour by Australia, the most successful side in history, it demonstrates that despite its status as the national summer game, cricket is relatively poor. Those who suggest trimming down the ECB need to enter the 21st century.

Lord MacLaurin has been an active and outspoken chairman who has occasionally put his foot in it but has had the clarity of vision to understand that a triumphant England is the basis for the whole future of the game and has never been afraid to say it. He has usually insisted that he would not stand if challenged for the post, and his hand has now been forced.

Last month, Mike Soper, the Surrey chairman, declared his intention not only to stand but to make the game as a big as football. Admirable though that aim might be it could take some little time, since the sport's entire turnover (not to mention profit) is less than that of Manchester United alone.

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