Barely a decade ago, spectators at county cricket matches could still feel familiar with their side's overseas pro. One of the early attractions of the game to me was how, at the first games I went to see, players as garlanded as Mark Waugh (Essex), Carl Hooper (Kent and Lancashire) and Aravinda de Silva (Kent) would talk on intimate terms with their loyal fans. They were overseas professionals in the truest sense: top-scorers and wicket-takers who stayed a full season, became institutions within their clubs, nurtured young stars and came back year after year, so attached were they to those they played alongside.
Those days are gone. In an excellent post for espncricinfo.com, the writer Kenny Shovel recently highlighted why, with reference to the case of Chris Gayle and Somerset. The brilliant left-hander said earlier this month that he would not honour a contract he had with Somerset, so as to make himself available for the West Indies side, despite his ongoing dispute with West Indies Cricket Board. The whole negotiation was about what Somerset could do for Chris Gayle, not what Chris Gayle could do for Somerset.
Then his replacement, the suitably named Faf du Plessis, was selected for a South Africa A tour that just happens to fall in the middle of the county season. Time was when counties could plan around having a pro throughout the season. Poor Somerset, who boast such an exciting squad this year, have had their first and second choice ripped away from them.
Now more than ever, county cricket is a prisoner of the international game. The relentless march of international fixtures and the Indian Premier League has left every domestic competition – and particularly ours here – unable to compete with more lucrative attractions elsewhere. This makes pre-season planning close to impossible for coaching staff, and robs fans of one of the great traditional pleasures of supporting a county side, which is familiarity with an international star.
As Shovel notes, coaches are "left with the choice of either creating a patchwork quilt out of current Test players, plumping for an up-and- coming talent who could become a surprise tour selection should he show enough form playing for you, or, increasingly, go for a proven cricketer who has given up on, or has no chance of, an international career".
Yesterday I spoke to a former professional who agreed with this analysis. "In the 80s and 90s, Wasim [Akram] kept coming to Lancashire and [Malcolm] Marshall kept going to Hampshire. Everyone though Clive Lloyd was a Lancastrian. But one of the realities fans have to face is more international cricket means they're going to see fewer big guns." Then he made a particularly salient point: "It's not just overseas players – Kevin Pietersen has hardly played over the past two seasons."
It's been very widely noted, not least in the most recent Wisden, that a kind of voiding of domestic cricket in England and Wales has taken place, where the highest quality players are no longer on offer to fans. This has its advantages, including more room in first XIs for local talent. But the protracted death of the true county overseas pro is one of the great tragedies of the modern game, for English fans if not Indian.
Years ago, rather than chasing after a recalcitrant Gayle, Somerset could call, season after season, on the glorious power of Sir Vivian Richards. He did a huge amount to raise the standard of the game, to bring in money through better attendance, and to generate buzz and star quality that was talked about from Taunton to the Tyne. Somerset's journey in a single generation from Sir Viv to a Proteas A-sider called Faf says everything about the priorities of the game's overlords today.