Friday 14 October 2011

Central Contracts - Time For A Review?

The inception of the central contract system in 2000, brought in to lighten the workload of key England players and therefore reduce the chance of injuries, has coincided with a significant upturn in the fortunes of the English national side. Testament to that is their current occupation of the world number one Test rankings.

Whilst the national side has reaped the benefits afforded by central contracts, it could be argued that they have been to the detriment of the English county game. Indeed such is the rigidity of the central contract system now that a county which is home to an England regular can be considered lucky to see their charge make just a handful of appearances throughout the course of a season.

English county cricket is a tough game for the money men, with the financial structure of many counties flimsy at best. Poor attendances are just one problem to contend with, and it serves to raise the question as to whether these would be significantly improved were the star players of the counties, namely the England regulars, to turn out more often. The central contract system was introduced for this very purpose, to reduce the workload of the England stars, and for that reason there is unlikely to be a change any time soon.

Frank Keating, a sports writer at The Guardian, summed up the current situation when saying "it is now a pointless exercise, unwatched, unwanted, serviced by mostly blinkered, greedy chairman-bullied committees and played by mostly unknown foreign and second-rate mercenaries". Whilst this may be a little harsh, as anyone that watches the County Championship will know it still contains a great deal of very promising young English prospects, it does highlight the perceived fall in overall quality that will inevitably come as a result of removing the countries top players from the scene.

"For the county game it has taken a lot away in terms of the bowling quality. Years ago you had two overseas professionals, plus the England bowlers but now that has been removed by central contracts as you rarely see the England bowlers playing county cricket, which has diminished the quality somewhat," says recently retired ex-England and Leicestershire wicket-keeper Paul Nixon during a recent discussion.

Former England fast bowler Angus Fraser reinforces those sentiments. "Before, there was a different mentality: I was a Middlesex player who was released to play for England and when my Middlesex duties finished, I was straight back to Middlesex." Issues of bowlers not getting sufficient 'game time' have surfaced and as one reporter put it, "central contracts have helped most of England's cricketers, but not young bowlers who need to develop strategies from playing in matches, not in the nets."

Undeniably, the opportunity for the aforementioned prospects of the English game to regularly face Test match quality bowling from the likes of James Anderson, Stuart Broad and Graeme Swann would be a valuable learning curve and assist in their readiness to make the step up to Test level. As it stands, the first time young batsmen face such a quality of bowling is often upon their International debut.

Central contracts, it must be remembered, can also have a negative effect upon those batsmen that are bound to them and are intended to benefit from them, with Alastair Cook being a prime example. In the 2010 home Test series against Pakistan Cook's technique was exposed time and again by the prodigious swing of Mohammad Amir and Mohammad Asif. Had Cook spent time in the middle for his county side Essex in the swinging conditions of an early English summer, he may well have had chance to iron out such flaws.

It is argued in some quarters that the point of the English County Championship competition as a whole is to provide and nurture players for the national side, and this is a concept that has certainly become more prominent in recent years. This, however, is a view that I entirely disagree with. Surely we should have a national team forged upon the high quality, competitive cricket of our domestic competition, as opposed to using it as a training ground for the next generation of hopefuls? The cricket they play should be tough, uncompromising and mentally challenging in equal measures to ensure that once they do get that international call-up, they are ready.

There can be no doubting that in the decade since their introduction, central contracts have played a huge hand in providing a fit, fresh and successful England team. What we have seen, however, is a dwindling interest and reduction in quality of the domestic game as a direct consequence of that success. At present there is no cause for concern, but a question that must be asked is that in a further ten years from now, will this lower standard in the domestic game begin impacting upon the quality of player that is produced as a by-product?

The answer to such a question only time can tell, however it may be prudent of the ECB to try and strike a balance between the two going forward. An ideal scenario would be one in which centrally contracted players still give something back to the county game, increasing the quality and popularity simultaneously, whilst priming their own technique against a swinging ball.

In their infancy central contracts were the proverbial sat-nav, setting England well on course for becoming the number one side in the world. Now that they have reached their destination, it may just be time to relax the grip on some of those that hold them, for the good of the English county game and the potential harm it may be doing in the long run.

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