Next month's ICC Champions Trophy could be thrown into chaos because the players are refusing to sign a contract in a dispute over sponsorship.
England, South Africa, West Indies, India and Pakistan have all failed to sign the controversial International Cricket Council contract. But time is running out, with the tournament due to start in Sri Lanka on 12 September. The contract contains a clause preventing players from endorsing products other than those from official ICC sponsors.
England's position was clarified by the the Team England representative and managing director of the Professional Cricketers' Association, Richard Bevan, who described the situation as "serious", but one over which he remains optimistic because he believes "common sense will prevail". The England captain, Nasser Hussain, and his side were last night being kept up to date by Bevan over where they stand.
England's cricketers are not alone in refusing to sign contracts that threaten the world's second biggest one-day competition as players from South Africa, Australia, India, Pakistan and the West Indies are also yet to sign on the dotted line. The delay lies in the fact that signing these contracts that would force them to relinquish all intellectual property and personal commercial rights until 2007.
Bevan, in his capacity as the England players' advisor, will continue to encourage them not to sign but to sit tight and wait for news to come from discussions between Tim May, the joint chief executive of the Federation of International Cricketers Association, and Malcolm Speed, the chief executive of the ICC.
Reacting to the earlier stance by Speed that players would have to decide what is more important to them, playing for their country or earning money, May, who is also the chief executive of the Australian Cricketers' Association stated that the players would not accept the current ICC proposal and "there must be significant progress before the ACA recommends signing anything".
Everyone is watching India, whose players are at the centre of the storm. The likes of Sachin Tendulkar and Sourav Ganguly have the most to lose by signing these contracts because of the huge marketing agreements they have in India advertising companies such as Fiat and Samsung.
In a statement made by the Indian cricket team as they prepared for Thursday's third Test against England at Headingley they said: "We reiterate that we, the players, want to represent India in the ICC Champions Trophy and all other ICC tournaments. However the ICC will not allow us to participate without signing a contract we find unacceptable."
The ICC, in an attempt to keep their commercial sponsors like Hero Honda, LG Electronics and Pepsi happy, and to avoid the possible tactic of "ambush marketing" being used by rival companies, want the players to break pre-existing contracts they have for the period of the tournament and six months after.
Because of their players' understandable reluctance to do so, India's selectors may now have to consider sending the equivalent of a second XI to the tournament, something that would belittle its importance and also upset the ICC's sponsors.
Talking about the situation, Bevan said: "Discussions are going on at the moment and we hope by the weekend a compromise will be reached. If not the situation will get very serious indeed.
"In the end I expect there to be a sub-agreement in the contract that will allow those with pre-existing contracts to carry on as normal. We will then sit down and review the whole thing again in October. In the future though the ICC must communicate with the players to find out whether they have deals with conflicting interests before they go into agreements with their commercial sponsors."
Players hate disputes like this, because they end up being used as political tools, but one who will be hoping that he has to make a decision on whether to sign or not is Ronnie Irani. After a successful NatWest one-day series for England that gained him selection for September's tournament, the Essex all-rounder has picked up a knee injury which required surgery earlier this week.
It is expected that the operation will put Irani out of action for two or three weeks, depending on the surgeon's verdict, but it could have brought an early end to a season where he has averaged 60 with the bat and 21 with the ball in first-class cricket.
The timing of the operation was to allow him enough time to recover for the Champions Trophy, but another setback could put his winter plans in doubt.
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