Interesting suggestions are flying here and there as the discussion about the future shape of the County Championship proceeds. One of the most surprising – apparently supported by more than one county – is the suggestion that the Championship should be restricted to players qualified for England.
This would be quite a throwback, all the more remarkable because centrally-contracted England players are rarely made available for their county. Yorkshire members may be rightly proud of Joe Root and Jonny Bairstow, but they don’t often see them bat for the county. For a long time, it’s been obvious that to win the championship you need one or two overseas stars. Would Essex have won titles without their South African off-spinner Simon Harmer?
There were always a few overseas players in the county game, but till the late 1960s, they had to qualify by residency. So in the 1920s the great Australian fast-bowler Ted MacDonald played for Lancashire, but only after a couple of seasons in the Lancashire League. And, in the 1960s, Australian wrist-spinners Bruce Dooland and George Tribe, seeing no Test future back home, took hundreds of wickets every summer for Notts and Northants, respectively.
Lord’s and the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) being what they were then, amateurs were not required to qualify by residence, never indeed had been. So, for example, a succession of Indian Princes —Ranji and his nephew Duleep, then the Nawab of Pataudi, father and then son, shone for Sussex. The county was also captained for a couple of years before the Second World War by Alan Melville, a South African who would return to England as his country’s captain in 1947.
Restrictions were lifted in the late Sixties, 1968, I think. Most counties welcomed the change, except Yorkshire who insisted for another 20 years that to play for the White Rose you must have been born in the county. But other counties realised that importing ready-made Test stars strengthened the team and made the game more attractive for members and the paying public.
Overseas players were delighted; England was the only country with a fully professional game and the only place where they could earn what they merited. Straightaway came the great West Indians: Gary Sobers to Notts; Rohan Kanhai and Lance Gibbs to Warwickshire; Gordon Greenidge to Hampshire.
The other immediate beneficiaries of the relaxation were South Africans, deprived of Test cricket as opposition to Apartheid condemned the Republic to sporting isolation. Barry Richards joined Greenidge at Hampshire: has any county ever boasted a finer opening pair? Perhaps not even Surrey in the days of Hobbs and Sandham, or Yorkshire with Sutcliffe and Holmes. Mike Procter, fast-bowling, hard-hitting, all-rounder, whose Test career was confined to a single series against Australia, did such splendid work for Gloucestershire that the county became known as Proctershire. Clive Rice, another South African deprived of Test cricket, captained Nottinghamshire with great success in harness with the outstanding New Zealand fast-medium bowler Richard Hadlee. All the great West Indian fast bowlers played full seasons of County cricket: Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Joel Garner, Malcolm Marshall, Curtley Ambrose, Courtenay Walsh, as did others Wayne Daniel and the terrifying Sylvester Clarke, who for one reason or another played little Test cricket. Then came the Pakistanis; Wasim Akram, Waqar Younis and Shoaib Aktar. Any opening batsman had to be brave, skilful and lucky to make runs in county cricket in the last three decades of the last century.
Then, as more international cricket, and especially more white-ball cricket, came to be played, the season-long commitment of overseas players became rare. There were exceptions, of course. Shane Warne captained Hampshire for a couple of seasons at the end of his career, and the South African Kyle Abbott, finding himself unwanted at home, has played full seasons successfully for the same county. But it has become more common for overseas players to be signed on very short contracts, with them available for only a handful of games before they are off to play in some tournament somewhere. These brief mercenary hirings are unsatisfactory, even when both county and player may benefit. One example of this is the South African-turned-Australian Marnus Labuschagne, with his couple of short spells with Glamorgan.
I doubt if the proposal to restrict the Championship to England-qualified players will be carried, though it does suggest a deal of dissatisfaction with things as they are now. It would be a pity to exclude overseas players. Young English ones surely learn from playing alongside or against imported stars, even if there is the danger that a club may come to rely too much on them. At the same time, this drop-in-for-a-couple-of-matches practice, which has become very common, seems unsatisfactory. I doubt if it’s good for county club finances too.
Perhaps any overseas player should be on a minimum three-month contract to be eligible to play in the County Championship. That would seem fair and reasonable.