Three-tier plan for England contracts

Board reveals outline but little definition of new system that will govern future of Test players and their counties from this summer
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A glimpse of English cricket's future was tantalisingly revealed yesterday. The manner of it could hardly have been more bashful if it had been a débutante flashing an ankle. More will be divulged next week, probably all the way up to the knee. That is when we shall see the future and by the end of this summer we shall have a fair idea if it works.

A glimpse of English cricket's future was tantalisingly revealed yesterday. The manner of it could hardly have been more bashful if it had been a débutante flashing an ankle. More will be divulged next week, probably all the way up to the knee. That is when we shall see the future and by the end of this summer we shall have a fair idea if it works.

The whole ethos of the game could be changed eventually, though that, because it is English cricket, will take longer than a summer. Once, little boys gathered to play and announced their heart's desire: "I want to walk through the Long Room at Lord's on the first morning of a Test match, open the batting for England against Australia, and by tea walk back with a hundred". In future, if all goes well and little boys continue to gather to play, it will be the rather more prosaic: "I wanna central contract".

That, anyway, seems to have been at the heart of the prolonged discussions over this delicate issue. It is two years and seems like a lifetime since the notion was first raised. Naturally, a working party was set up and the wonder is that it did not join the rest of the Lord's working parties over the years in working and then quite as quickly becoming redundant along with any plans, schemes or projects that had been considered.

From this summer, a pool of players will be directly employed by the England and Wales Cricket Board rather than the counties whom they represent. This is a procedure which has been followed for years in other Test-playing countries and since England have kept losing, the counties, who wield most of the power at the ECB and are dependent on England for most of their revenue, have agreed that it might have some merit.

Players, especially but not exclusively bowlers who can be injured simply going through the motions for their counties, as the great speed merchants John Snow and Bob Willis used to do, will be told when and if they can play. Arguments will not be brooked. If Andrew Caddick, a banker for a contract, needs a rest Somerset must not pick him. Caddick, however, likes to bowl. It is what he does. The conversations should be stimulating.

The new system also means players will draw two wages, one from their counties, the other from England. If England win, the players will receive bonuses.

There will be many players who will sleep less easily in the next week before they are told who has been awarded such a contract for the summer's Test matches. Presumably Nasser Hussain, Mike Atherton, Alec Stewart, Darren Gough and Caddick can nod off any time they like.

"We want it to be an aspiration for all players," said Tim Lamb, the chief executive of the ECB, here yesterday while steadfastly refusing to name likely recipients or their wages. "It's something that is to be acquired, an achievement," said David Graveney, the chairman of selectors sitting alongside, equally resolute. "We want people to play for their counties and playing to get their contracts."

Lamb and Graveney said that England would have a three-tier system of contracts. This is likely to include the experienced and the high-achievers in category A and thus is likely not to be full to overflowing. Category B will probably include players who have already played and are on the way to becoming established. Category C is for the others, possibly players who have not yet played for England but who are decreed by selectors (which is what selectors are for) to have potential. Compensation of up to £50,000 a player will be paid to counties. In addition, the contracted players will be paid depending on which category they are in. The Board has budgeted an extra £750,000 to pay for it, so nobody is going to get filthy rich. Permission has been given to hand out up to 16 contracts. This will probably not happen but Graveney made clear he wanted a squad, not a core. So it will be fewer than 16, more than eight, say 12.

Neither man would give a hint about who is likely to be named at Lord's on 1 March, which is essentially what we want to know, but it is the tradition to second guess the selectors so here goes. On the grounds that they are the best players in the country and are still in the team, Hussain, Atherton, Stewart, Caddick and Gough should form Category A.

On the grounds that Hussain said only the other day that he would like one or two senior players eased back, Category B could see space created for Graham Thorpe, Mark Ramprakash, Dean Headley and, whisper this, because he has already had eight Test recalls, Graeme Hick.

There is also the prospect of the selectors giving a surprise nod to Nick Knight. Although the initial list is to cover Test players only and the dashing Knight has come to be regarded as as specialist one-day opener, there is a glaring hole in England's middle order, particularly at No 6. Knight made his only Test 100 there. He could fill it. They may be joined by the likes of Andrew Flintoff, Michael Vaughan, Chris Silverwood and Alan Mullally.

Category C could embrace players whom England want to protect and develop themselves away from the daily grind of county cricket. Bowlers such as Alex Tudor (if England are to glean any return on the investment they have already put into him), Steve Harmison of Durham, Paul Hutchison of Yorkshire and more fancifully the Lancashire leg-spinner Chris Schofield have been mentioned. Batsmen such as Vikram Solanki and Michael Gough could also come into the reckoning, as could the young wicketkeeper Chris Read.

Take away Mullally, Schofield, Hutchison, Michael Gough and possibly, though unfortunately, Knight and you have 16. Weaning it down to a dozen will be the point at which the selectors, Duncan Fletcher, Hussain and Graveney, earn their corn.

Graveney denied that it would be divisive, preferring to view it as a spur. Maybe, maybe not, but there are potential drawbacks which even he hinted at. One concerns the number of players that England choose. In 1989, for instance, which was admittedly a grim year, England used 29 players in the six matches against Australia. Even last year in an era of perceived continuity they picked 18 in four matches against New Zealand. Another conundrum is what happens to the contracted players that England do not want. What if they go back to their clubs and are pitched into the second team? For starters, it would say little for selectorial judgement.

"It's a little bit of a learning curve and we may have to change as we go on," said Lamb. "Communication between the board, players, selectors and the counties is the key." He added later: "It's not much different from what we do in the winter at the moment."

But it is different because in the summer the counties are involved. They may be as good as gold. They had better be if they want to avoid the whole business turning to dust.