Relaxation of the overseas rule likely to stunt development of talented young Englishmen

One of the main objectives of Lord MacLaurin in his years as chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board was to streamline and transform the County Championship so that it would become a more efficient and swifter production line for future Test cricketers. In spite of the sometimes unexpected opposition he encountered, he made a good start.

Splitting the 18 counties into two divisions began the process of trying to concentrate excellence in the top division. Then, the best players would be constantly pitted against each other producing higher levels of competition so that the eventual step up to Test cricket would not be so huge.

The counties, in general, have been more than a little squeamish about this. Some feared that the lower division was likely to become their permanent home, which would obviously not help their income-producing potential and might lead to their extinction. This is the third season with two divisions, but still much remains to be done.

To make sure that there is the best possible concentration of excellence in the top flight, it would be necessary to make it easy for the most promising young players to change counties and effectively leapfrog into the top division. Then, to allow human nature to play its part, it would make sense to ensure that the players in the top division are paid more than those in the second.

These are issues that Lord MacLaurin's successor, whether he is Michael Soper, of Surrey, or David Morgan, of Glamorgan, will have to consider. But, before that is done, the new incumbent will have to see how the present system copes with the changes that have recently been forced upon the County Championship.

Two years ago central contracts were introduced to give the England coach more control over his main players. While the principle of central contracts must be a good one, there have been some unfortunate side-effects, one of which is that regular England players will take part in fewer and fewer county matches.

The international fixture list during the English summer has been expanded so that now there are seven Test matches and a triangular competition of 10 one-day matches. Next year there will be 13 one-day games for Pakistan, who are on standby in case Zimbabwe are forced to pull out of the tour, will play three against England in a separate mini-competition. Then there will be the periods when Duncan Fletcher decides that certain members of his squad should rest rather than turn out for their counties.

Yorkshire, last year's champions, who are at the moment close to bankruptcy which is in itself unthinkable, and Surrey, the favourites to take the title this year, are the teams likely to be most severely affected with each having three centrally-contracted players.

It has been decided that one way round this dilemma is to relax the rule which at present allows counties to play only one overseas player so that from next year they will be able to play two. This will help the counties make up for the loss of their England players although the danger is that the overseas players will be given the responsibilities which should really go to young Englishmen.

The counties will obviously want to employ the best available overseas players and to get value for their money they are likely to open the bowling or to bat at No 3, which will restrict the opportunities for young Englishmen. The ever-expanding one-day programme round the world will mean that counties will not be able to acquire the services of the best overseas players when they are needed by their own countries.

This will force them to look at the next in line and so county cricket will again become a finishing school for young overseas players. This will become a rod for England's back for, as they develop and reach their own Test sides, they will return to make England's batsmen and bowlers suffer in the future.

We will also see each year the unseemly scramble for overseas players which has been going on recently as the English season enters its last month. Many of the counties overseas signings are now returning to play for their countries in the various one-day competitions which are endlessly springing up to bolster the profits of television companies.

Even Steve and Mark Waugh have swallowed their pride and agreed to make a fast buck or two by joining Kent and Essex for their last few matches as these two counties and others go headlong for silverware or promotion. It is good to see that competition is vibrant, although it is sad that the chance is not being taken to bring on the best talent from the county second XIs.

But cups and/or promotion are a better way of immediately improving bank balances than nurturing untested talent. It is an eternal dichotomy highlighted all too clearly by Yorkshire's present plight.

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