The end of an era in England's club cricket
Mike Newcombe, 22 December 2017 11:53
The end of an era in England's club cricket
For decades, amateur cricket in England has enjoyed a regular influx of young foreign players © Getty
While England ponder the challenges of touring Australia, back home there is head-scratching of a different sort. Shortening days and inescapable Christmas music might suggest that the next outbreak of club cricket is an eternity away, but a reality is sinking in: the English club game is losing some of its essence.
For decades, amateur cricket in England has enjoyed a regular influx of young foreign players - usually Australians, South Africans, New Zealanders, Indians or Pakistanis. The arrangement has been that the clubs pay for their airfares, provide a place to live and give them enough money to get by during their time in England. In return, the players help to coach the youth squads, add a bit of quality to the first team and generally expand the cultural awareness of the club's members in the bar afterwards.
Now it appears that those days are over. Ahead of the 2017 season, the regulations around which players qualify as amateurs were tightened. Under the new definition, even players who "intend" to derive a living from the game - "even if it is not their sole income" - are seen as being on a "pathway" and are classified as professional. It is rarely said where this "pathway" is going, but the inference is that these players are heading for first-class cricket and, by extension, professional contracts. Because intention is a difficult thing to prove, the Home Office added a particularly restrictive qualifier: any player who has been selected for a representative team above Under-17 level in their home country is on a pathway.
Clubs wanting to import them then need to attain a Tier 5 visa, a process that will cost them around 500 GBP. While there are wealthier, stronger clubs that are in the habit of bringing in professional first-class cricketers, the vast majority don't have the money to cover the extra expense and are more suitable for amateur players.
While the new regulations have been in place for a year, many clubs are only coming to terms with them now as they shop for an overseas player for next summer. Last season the rules were not universally followed or enforced. Because the responsibility for checking that players had attained the correct visas falls onto the clubs and, to an extent, their leagues, some leagues took a more active role in policing the issue than others.
"We made it very clear to clubs that, legally, the onus is on them," Andrew Kennedy, the chairman of the Essex league, which is one of the ECB's Premier Leagues, told Cricbuzz. "I think there were a few fines this year - not in our region. We did no checking at all. We just asked the clubs to fill in what visa their overseas player was on and then sent all the information to the ECB. They did some spot checks and followed up on ones they thought might be on the wrong visa. We are not qualified to understand what the right visa is for someone. We had one minor issue that caused one player not to play for a few weeks but that got resolved and he was fine."
In the course of its research, Cricbuzz spoke to officials who admitted to running "crash test dummies" through the system in 2017 to see just how stringently the rules would be applied. But next season things are expected to change. During the course of the 2017 summer, the Home Office and the ECB vetted around 700 overseas players, of which more than 50 were found to be on the wrong side of the regulations. Some players were banned, but in most cases the clubs were advised to do things by the book in 2018.
"From what I hear, the regulations are going to be imposed a lot harder by the ECB and the Home Office next year," said Steven Hirst, the managing director of CricX, an agency that places overseas players in English clubs. "There's more a sense of frustration than anything else. The amount of clubs approaching us about certain players we list on the website that we just can't help. We can't place these guys that would fall foul of visa regulations."
At the heart of that frustration lies a certain bewilderment.
'A player may be considered to be on a "pathway" and therefore classified as a "professional sportsperson", if that person has played cricket above U17 at state/province/territory level (paid or unpaid) in any country,' the relevant regulation reads.
Yet many clubs and agents feel this does not add up.
"If you look at the numbers, of the guys that play state or provincial Under-19 cricket, about four per cent of them go on to play first-class cricket. It's not a real good pathway, is it?" said Rob Humphries, the founder of agency World Sports Xchange. "I understand that if you played South Africa Under-19 or represented your country at an age-group level, that's a big difference. It means you're the cream of the crop."
While Hirst believes the figure is slightly higher than four per cent, the point stands. The regulation would appear to discriminate against a huge number of players who are genuinely amateur, and who have only a small chance of becoming truly professional one day. The reasoning behind the regulations is that by employing overseas players, English cricketers are missing out on opportunities.
"Amateur cricketers have been coming over to the UK for 40 years. I don't know an Englishman who missed out on a gig at a cricket club because of an overseas player," said Humphries, who is Australian but has been involved in English club cricket for more than a decade. "They're not taking jobs away from local people; they just aren't."
Faf du Plessis made his push to big league from the Ramsbottom Cricket Club in Lancashire © Getty
There is another point worth making. Over the past 15 years, much has been made of the number of foreign-born players that turn out for England, particularly in the countries where those players come from. But little credit has been given to the role the English system has played in developing cricketers around the world.
Between them, CricX and World Sports Xchange placed close to 500 players in England this year. Many of the cricketers they have placed in years gone by - either as amateurs or professionals - have used the opportunity to develop their careers. Sometimes the gigs in England have come when opportunities back home were scarce. That is particularly the case in South Africa, where an overload of white talent often feels under-appreciated in a system that is trying to reverse the wrongs of the past.
Proteas captain Faf du Plessis could barely get a game in South Africa's provincial system when Hirst placed him at Ramsbottom Cricket Club in Lancashire. Du Plessis swiftly climbed the ladder in England and was soon playing for Lancashire, an experience that played a key role in his development. He would not have been affected by the new regulations - he was already semi-professional at the time - but his former South Africa teammate Kyle Abbott would have been when he landed in England for the first time in 2006.
Young players from elsewhere will be similarly affected. Former Essex bowler Andrew McGarry has been running coaching camps in India and arranging for young Indian players to gain experience in English club cricket for the past six years. But this year things changed.
"I lined up several Indian guys to come over but none of them could because they have played state youth cricket. It's a particular problem for Indians because the vast majority of good players in India have played some form of state cricket at youth level because there are 30 first-class teams," he said.
"I've had one or two very good young players - 17 or 18 years old - who want to continue their cricketing education in the UK. They are contracted to IPL franchises but haven't yet played any first-class cricket and are still very raw. They couldn't come."
The two captains in the Ashes provide an example of the valuable give and take between England and the rest of the cricket world. Australia captain Steven Smith took advantage of his UK passport to spend a season in Kent in 2007, where he turned out for Sevenoaks Vine Cricket Club. England captain Joe Root played for Prospect Cricket Club in Adelaide. The concern is that England's decision to give less could lead others to follow suit.
"If the Australian government decided they were going to impose reciprocal arrangements, it's going to stop English players having the ability to go over and experience a different environment and culture. It's a bit of a life lesson, not just a cricket experience. I hope it doesn't go that way, but it may well do," said Hirst.
"The Home Office clearly haven't taken advice from people in cricket. They are taking it from an employer's perspective of recruiting English players to take roles that foreign players are taking. As we know, actually you can have both. You can get your English-qualified players and pay them if that's what a club wants to do, but the benefit of an overseas player is more than what you get on the field."
Now, overseas players who have not played representative cricket back home will be classed as professional unless they pay their own way © Cricbuzz
For all of the disappointment among clubs, an about-turn is looking increasingly unlikely. While the ECB have taken their case to the Home Office, asking if regulations could be relaxed for young players who are clearly not professional despite their representative experience, those pleas have fallen on deaf ears.
On November 30, the ECB issued a release to clubs in which it confirmed that the regulations would remain the same for 2018, and included a critical note from the Home Office:
'By way of additional clarification, the Home Office have also confirmed that a) the payment of a player's airfare or accommodation and/or b) the use of an agent to promote the availability of players, is likely to increase the prospect of the Home Office considering the player to be a "professional" and, as a consequence, the risk of that player being deemed ineligible to participate in accredited ECB Leagues.'
In effect, the clarification means that even those overseas players who have not played representative cricket back home will be classed as professional unless they pay their own way. The same release said that the ECB continues to work with the Home Office regarding possible amendments to the rules for the 2019 season. But a source suggested that, if anything, the regulations could be made even tougher in future by including under-17 representation in the 'pathway'.
So what effect will this new reality have?
For starters, good-quality foreign players with any sort of European ancestry have become even hotter property, since they can skip the visa process entirely. "You're getting people who have either got some connection with the EU or a British passport," said Kennedy. "You're still getting the odd pro coming over on a professional visa but the landscape has changed."
Some clubs that Hirst deals with have decided to go the Tier 5 route and enlist professional players, but the majority can not afford it. And with the latest clarification, even what Hirst calls "bog-standard club players without any representative experience" are no longer a possibility. In truth, most clubs felt they would not have been worth the expense anyway.
And yet there is still work to be done. "We run six sides on a Saturday, which is a struggle at times so an overseas player is another regular player which we need," said Chris Bunce, the chairman of Old Southendian & Southchurch CC who play in the Essex League. Their situation is fairly typical of English clubs.
Bunce is yet to make a call on how to cover this shortfall, but others believe the regulations could lead to an increase in the number of English players being paid illegally. In most cases, players receiving payment should be treated as employees which then obliges the club to pay relevant tax, pension and insurance contributions to HMRC, the UK's tax authority. But this doesn't always happen. There have been plenty of cases brought by HMRC against clubs which have failed to declare these player payments or marked them as undefined 'expenses' in their accounts in order to avoid paying HMRC their dues. Some clubs have been forced to pay back sums in the tens of thousands of pounds.
"If there are less overseas players, you may see a sort of black market develop where local players are paid to play for clubs," said one official. "There will be some extra cash about so clubs will spend it. It happens enough in club cricket here anyway. Teams paying five or six English players, buying success, there are a few notable clubs doing it. It's harder for the league to keep tabs on what is going on. At least overseas players are registered."
In the meantime, the agency websites remain chock-full of overseas talent looking for places to improve their game and broaden their life experience during the winter. While Ireland and Holland are potential destinations because of less rigid immigration rules, the club systems there are much smaller than England and so the number of opportunities is limited.
A handful of English players and coaches are likely to gain bigger roles, and possible some income, as a result of the regulations. But on the whole it looks like a lose-lose situation for English club cricket and the overseas players with whom they have enjoyed a healthy reciprocal relationship.