Sunday 26 February 2012

County Cricket: Where Should Loyalties Lie?

With news reaching the cricketing world that batsman Alviro Petersen will be joining Essex as their overseas player for the first half of the 2012 County Championship season, it is the second such announcement of late that I must admit to finding slightly baffling. The other announcement, of course, was that all-rounder Vernon Philander would be linking up with Somerset for a similar time period.

The problem with this? Petersen and Philander are both South African, and which country is visiting England this summer in what should be a crucial top of the rankings clash? That’s right, South Africa.

Home advantage, something which has become exceedingly more pronounced during the last twelve months, is undoubtedly the trump card that many a host relies upon. It may only be a sphere of cork and leather, but the cricket ball is a rather elaborate character with a tendency to act and behave in a vastly different manner dependent upon the part of the globe it happens to be visiting. To the touring side, a series can be lost before the necessary adjustments to individual techniques can be applied. England’s horror tour to the UAE of late provides rather pertinent evidence of that.

Vernon Philander - Impressive.
Alviro Petersen is of course no stranger to English conditions, having completed a past spell at Glamorgan, so in all likelihood anything that he was to learn about English conditions will already be firmly embedded. Vernon Philander, on the other hand, has had a great deal less experience. A rather unsuccessful spell with Middlesex will be Philander's abiding memory of England, and one has to question whether he should be given an opportunity to erase that.

A rookie by international standards, Philander has made a mere four Test appearances; and what an entrance in to international cricket it has been. Notching up four 5 wicket hauls and one 10 wicket haul in eight bowling innings has seen Philander average just 13.23 with the ball, somehow outperforming his habitually peerless team-mate Dale Steyn in the process. One would expect Philander’s average with the ball to rise in time, but it has been a heck of a start.

Herein lies my grievance. Philander, it would seem, is going to prove an incredibly dangerous adversary for English batsmen this summer. Combining metronomic accuracy with prodigious lateral movement, the 26 year old possesses the ideal attributes required to wreak havoc in the swing friendly conditions of England.

The problem goes beyond that, though. It may well seem that Philander is going to turn up and be at his devastating best right from the first ball he bowls, and indeed he might well have done, but whilst England is notorious for its assistance of swing bowling, it can be equally difficult for a bowler to master and control that same prodigious movement. Given only a warm-up match or two prior to being plunged straight in to the Test series could have forced Philander to ‘learn on the job’, so to speak, whereas there is no doubt that half a season of playing in such conditions for Somerset beforehand should bring him up to speed nicely.

Somerset are well within their rights to sign an overseas cricketer that will be lining up against England later in the summer, of course. With financial gain in the English domestic game remaining somewhat thin on the ground it is difficult to begrudge a county placing internal interests atop their priority list.

We are often told, though, that county cricket exists almost as a breeding and training barracks to supply the front lines; in this case England. Many at the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) will tell you so, as will numerous journalists and supporters of the game alike.

Where then should loyalties lie? Should we expect counties to forego opportunities of financial growth purely to gratify England’s requirements? And, if that is indeed the expectation of counties, will the quality of player produced by those counties reduce in time through a lack of capital to invest in the nurturing of youngsters and facilities in which to do so?

Perhaps it is time for the ECB to make clear their stance with regard to the English domestic system, because there is no doubt that at present the signings of the Petersen’s and Philander’s of this world prior to a huge home series with their home nation is doing England few favours. English counties rely upon the ECB to maximise their money making opportunities through innovation and efficient scheduling, yet the current trend of keeping their friends close, but their enemies closer, bares a hint of biting the hand that feeds them.

Perhaps I am overplaying the significance of such developments, but I certainly wouldn’t argue if the ECB were to introduce a blanket ban upon English counties signing overseas players that were due to tour England that same year. From this author’s point of view, affording upcoming adversaries an opportunity to fully acclimatise just isn’t cricket.

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