Opinion: Where have all the county foreigners gone?

Blog Opinion

In county cricket there are fewer international players than ever before. While there was a time where every county had a Test superstar those days are but a distant memory.

While politicians of almost every persuasion discuss the horrors of immigration and the harm it does to our country there is one profession where the influx of foreigners has declined.

In county cricket there are fewer international players than ever before. While there was a time where every county had a Test superstar those days are but a distant memory. West Indian fast bowlers, gritty Australian batsmen and wily spinners from the sub-continent were two a penny.

While there are quite a few players who weren't born in this country plying their trade in the UK, this is reducing. With the ECB offering bonus payments to sides that pick youngsters and penalties for picking 'Kolpak' players from South Africa and the West Indies the numbers have dropped dramatically. Some counties don't have a traditional overseas player at all. Lancashire and Essex are without an international player at all this year. Sussex and Gloucestershire have one, but neither Steve Magoffin or Michael Klinger have ever played for their country.

All counties are allowed to add an overseas player for the Twenty20s. So far less than a third of teams have done so. There are one or two players of some note that have signed a T20 contract, but there is not the star quality that the IPL millions brings. Colin Munro and Glenn Maxwell are as exciting as it gets.

It is more usual to see an overseas star that is either a young guy starting his career or a player that is on his way out, or in some cases retired. Examples from this year would be Hampshire's Kyle Abbott and Surrey's Graeme Smith. Both South African, but Abbott is an international novice with six appearances across all formats to his name, while Smith has just called time on his career with the national team.

Abbott and Smith bring something to county cricket, but if you look back to the 80s and 90sm where Brian Lara, Curtly Ambrose, Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis, Steve Waugh, Viv Richards, Allan Donald and Anil Kumble were county regulars it is clear to see that things have changed.

When a current world-class cricketer does put in an appearance for a county side it is often a fleeting one. Last season Surrey signed Hashim Amla as a replacement for the injured Smith. He played six games in a month in a bid to rescue Surrey from demotion. Despite scoring 545 runs in 10 innings it wasn't enough to save Surrey, but he tried his best.

In 2014 of the players that will be appearing there are only five names that could be considered automatic selections for their country's Test side, and even then they are up for debate. Shivnarine Chanderpaul of Durham, Chris Rogers of Middlesex, Peter Siddle of Nottinghamshire, Saeed Ajmal of Worcestershire and Kane Williamson of Yorkshire are in the mix for Test spots. All the other players are steady professionals who will do a job, but they will not get the young fans gasping with excitement.

The reason for this shift is ultimately money, although there are some other factors. In years gone by a gig playing the Birmingham or Lancashire leagues paid enough to tempt a renowned Test player to come to England for the summer. Now with cash-rich T20 leagues and well-paying central contracts the allure of cricket in England is greatly reduce.

Most counties can no longer afford the wages that a current international would demand, and the very few that could have got so close to the salary cap that the ECB has imposed that they cannot sign anyone even if they wished. The county salary cap is around £1.8million. This is to pay for all playing and coaching staff across a season lasting almost six months. If you compare this with the IPL, where the salary cap is around £9million for just six weeks, it is easy to see where a player would rather be.

The other major factor is that where once the English season was sacrosanct, now it is encroached on at both ends and in the middle. Once the only time that a player would be unavailable for an English summer would be if his team were touring for Tests. Now international cricket is regularly played elsewhere during the English season and there are T20 leagues that compete as well. That is not to say that this is a bad thing.

English cricket had a monopoly over six months of the year for over 100 years. With the expansion of the sport it was inevitable that would no longer be the case. So the question is whether this shift in overseas professionals is bad for the English game. There is one big advantage to reducing the numbers of Kolpak and overseas players. There is more opportunity for young talent to be given a go.

It is now common to see teenagers making county debuts. Just in this past week Surrey picked two 18-year-olds who are yet to take their A-Levels. While this is good developmentally, not have wizened old pros around to guide these kids will have an impact. Also, a reduction in the number of experienced players reduces the standard of the competition. The kids may be playing, but the cricket is not as testing.

Perhaps the other area of worry with county cricket having less massive names is that it will not inspire kids as it once did. Will not being able to see the greatest in the world on your doorstep mean less youngsters fall in love with the sport? While it is easier than ever to see cricket beamed from all over the world on your television set there is nothing quite like seeing your heroes in the flesh. Perhaps this just means county players become the heroes, but I am not sure I would feel the same as I did at the age of 10 if I hadn't got to see the best in the world in front of my eyes.

With the worthy experiment with T20 cricket taking place across the whole summer on Friday nights the chances of the big names signing on for T20 is reduced. The amount of time that they need to be around just makes in unfeasible for them to commit. County cricket will have to make its own heroes. We will see if it manages it.

<b>Peter Miller</b>