Transfers are in, but don't tell anyone

Gough, Crawley, Ormond... the desire to migrate is growing and, uncontrolled, it could threaten players and clubs
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The Independent Online

At first sight, they were merely two sad cases of Test stars falling out with their clubs and seeking fresh pastures. But the disaffection of Darren Gough with Yorkshire and John Crawley with Lancashire, which was so acrimoniously and publicly expressed last week, runs much deeper.

It points to faults in a system which could eventually have consequences not only for the movement of players between counties but for the very existence of some clubs. Gough and Crawley may well help to accelerate change. Not to mention the queue which is forming, headed by Jimmy Ormond, to get out of Leicestershire.

The complex rules governing the registration of players cover nearly 30 pages of the fascinating booklet entitled Regulations and Playing Conditions for First Class County Competitions and International Cricket. Events of last week involving the two England players have again induced the suspicion that they are not worth the paper they are written on. A transfer system is already effectively in place without any exchange of fees.

Gough is upset with Yorkshire, where he still has a year of his contract to run. Crawley's somewhat more rancorous feelings towards Lancashire indicate that he is determined to leave quickly, although he signed for an additional four years barely 12 months ago.

The relevant part of the England and Wales Cricket Board rules states that counties will not be able to sign players from other counties "if the ECB is satisfied that the cricketer has entered into a contract in writing to play for that other county for the whole or part of the next season". Nobody doubts that both Gough and Crawley will be allowed to leave if they continue to insist.

There is a further rule that counties are forbidden to approach contracted players from elsewhere. There was some delicate phrasing going on last week but, again, nobody doubts that both men have had informal discussions elsewhere.

The ECB and the Professional Cricketers' Association have plenty of common ground on the issue. One has a responsibility, however fanciful, to ensure the preservation of 18 first-class counties; the other has a duty towards the continuing employment of, presumably, as many members as possible.

"There has been an ongoing debate for the last 10 years about the validity of list one and list two and what that means to potential restraint of trade," said David Graveney, in his capacity as chief executive of the PCA, rather than chairman of England's selectors. "It could at some time be tested in court, like the Bosman ruling in football. But it has to be remembered as well that Bosman never played football again." Under present strictures each club has a certain number of list one and list two players. It is much more difficult for other clubs to sign list one (or superior) players, and the number that can be signed is purportedly limited to three in every five years.

The ECB declined to be drawn on the wider implications if the present system stayed in place. "It's not something we can comment on at the moment, though obviously we are aware that there is discussion on the issue," said a spokesman.

The worry is that, while overhaul is probably overdue, unfettered freedom of movement, would lead to all the best players being at a handful of counties. The consequences for the rest would be dire. But negotiations for change are in progress. Graveney has already held talks with several county chief executives.

"There are probably areas where we can go," he said. "The first is to retain the status quo. The second is to have no regulations whatever, which would mean that the existence of a number of clubs would be threatened. The third option is to have a total salary limit on what a county can pay to its contracted professionals. There would be no cap for individuals but the total would be restricted. That's an option I favour." The group are also examining the Australian structure of registration and reward. Graveney, who met his Australian counterpart, Tim May, in Hong Kong last week, thinks it may have a bearing on the future in England.

All of this will be too late to help Gough and Crawley resolve their differences with their counties. Gough may be persuaded to stay in Yorkshire for the remainder of what can surely be no more than another three years of his career. Ebullient and charismatic though he is (as well as persevering) there is no doubt that his worth on the playing side to any county when he is playing for England is decidedly limited. However, Essex and Northamptonshire are said to be interested in his services.

Crawley's may be a more unhappy case. Sacked from the captaincy, he felt undermined by the committee. Like Gough with Yorkshire, he has been with Lancashire since he was a boy. When he declared his intentions last week he was immediately connected with Hampshire. Neither party could admit to having had discussions and Tim Tremlett, the county's director of cricket, said: "We're monitoring the situation but we're trying to strengthen our squad and the middle-order batting is a priority." Read into that what you will.

Graveney had some empathetic words of solace for Crawley. Once, he was a county captain who was sacked by the club he had served throughout his career. In his case it was Gloucestershire, and the wounds have never fully healed.

"One decision you have to bear in mind is where you are going to live for the rest of your life, once you leave the county of your birth. Your relationships there will never be the same again." For cricketers of the future that will be a burgeoning consideration.