Club cricket lifer Scott Oliver on one of the burning topics of any amateur club: to pay, or not to pay?
My Facebook feed recently threw up a piece in The Bolton News entitled, fairly self-explanatorily, ‘Are too many local cricketers now getting paid?’
“Clubs in the county have spent next season’s budget and are already eating into 2017’s budget to pay for players for this coming season,” it reported, somewhat alarmingly, before the telling, takeaway line: “[It] is a self-defeating act, in that paying players is designed to strengthen a team but in the long term it only weakens a club.”
It’s a question never too far from discussions about the state of local cricket (the Facebook thread unspooled the usual laments) and one I was keen to put to the panel, to see whether they agreed with the ailing patient’s diagnosis, and whether they had a cure.
My own league, North Staffs and South Cheshire, had gone from one pro per team to ‘open payments’ in 2010. The executive no longer felt able to police it – many felt they were unwilling – and so the boot money came out of the closet, so to speak. The ‘shamateur’ went kosher. Those in favour of the move argued that, well, ‘it has always gone on’, and being out in the open would stop the resentment between clubs. (In actual fact, you could argue that resentment has increased, not only between clubs – are people’s resentments caused by illegal payments, or just payments per se, inasmuch as these distort the ‘evenness’ of competition? – but also within dressing rooms, that flimsy camaraderie of the Haves and Have-nots.)
Going open – stopping cheating by making cheating legal and therefore no longer cheating – is slowly transforming grassroots cricket, subtly tweaking the mindset of many amateur players from ‘What can I do for the club?’ to ‘What can the club do for me?’
Cricketers – particularly young ones – besieged each winter by the hard sell from desperate captains effectively turn themselves into commodities, asking: How much am I worth? Often it’s not really how much, but the simple fact of being paid that matters – the status and ego-trip of membership of the ‘elite’ class.
Former Shropshire skipper Ed Foster led Shrewsbury to National Knockout glory in 2011 with a team of 11 unpaid locals, including current Worcestershire staffers Joe Leach and Ed Barnard. “We’ve been quite fortunate in having a good core of local players,” he says. “We’ve never really had the need to bring in someone to bolster our ranks. We’ve always thought that artificially inflating our position with the use of an overseas player isn’t really great for the club in the long run. It can give you a false position.”
While Foster acknowledges the favourable circumstances that have allowed Shrewsbury to win three Birmingham League titles in six seasons, the club is pragmatically rather than ‘ideologically’ beholden to the no-payment policy. As with Yorkshire opening up in the 1980s, he doesn’t rule out a re-think: “We’ve been through a bit of a purple patch, if I’m honest. But if we thought we needed someone to fight to keep us in the league, then we’d consider it.”
It is not only being strong in the here-and-now that’s important, he adds, but being perceived to be strong. “The threat of ‘extinction’ forces people down routes of, ‘Let’s pay a few players and make sure we stay in this league. If the first team is perceived to be doing well, then that will knock on through the rest of the club’.”
The danger, of course, is that this opens the floodgates, as panicked clubs start spending to keep up with the Joneses. Not spending means the risk of being seen as unambitious, unaspirational, which in turn means you won’t attract the most ambitious kids. Meanwhile, clubs that do develop a nucleus of talented youngsters are prone to having them cherry-picked by wealthier rivals using money as a short-cut – recreational cricket’s own unsustainable version of ‘financial doping’ – rendering them little more than feeder clubs looking up through a glass ceiling.
Adrian Butters, chairman of NSSCL Premier League champions Stone, a former pro himself who’s still occasionally playing, occasionally umpiring, and was once Staffordshire treasurer, believes the solution is clear: “For me it’s about your players building an affinity with the club and becoming mates as well as teammates, and allowing the juniors to see a pathway to the first team and that you’re not going to import over their heads. The players actively promoted and canvassed the appointment from within of Coxon [a local lad] as professional over and above another overseas. One of our players comes 30 miles and said, ‘I travel to play for Stone because they don’t take the piss and pay people who are no better than me’.”
The nucleus of Foster’s successful Shrewsbury team has not been impervious to the winds of change, losing Shropshire skipper Steven Leach to a Division Two side: “We made the decision [not to pay] this winter with Steve. I’m sure if we’d have offered him some money, he’d have stayed. But that would have been a conscious shift in attitudes at the club, a precedent. There might be other players who’d be more or equally as deserving. And then what do you do? It really does open a can of worms and we decided as a club that that’s not something we’d look to entertain.”
The churn of players hopping around for cash inevitably erodes clubs’ identities, not only weakening bonds within dressing rooms – trying to instil genuine esprit de corps amidst declarations of commitment from players who move clubs every season – but also those between that rotating cast of paid players and stalwart club members. Many volunteers are growing increasingly sick of seeing the monies their labour generates going into the pockets of fly-by-night players rather than back into the club’s infrastructure. This is the real ticking time-bomb for club cricket.
Of course, you cannot turn back the clocks to some purely recreational idyll. Semi-professionalisation shifts the goalposts. The Premier Leagues are here, which raises the stakes if not always the standards. (It could be argued that pyramid structures have unwittingly caused the volatility in club cricket, with promotion and relegation creating the anxiety that leads clubs to overspend, the splashed cash less about wanting to be the best, than not wanting to be left behind. Furthermore, open leagues don’t necessarily concentrate talent at the top, ready to help players up the food chain. Sugar daddies can come from anywhere and pump money in to pet projects at any level.)
In the meantime, is it somehow possible to curb, or at least regulate, these payments? You cannot always blame the individual players – in times of austerity, these are often not insignificant amounts of money – yet the overall effect is corrosive. Soon every Tom, Dick or Harry with a Premier League 40-odd will think they deserve remuneration.
How about removing the incentives, for players and/or clubs? Should administrators be interventionist or laissez-faire? Is it time for the ECB to reward clubs that produce and pick their own players? Should there be transfer fees, or a maximum number of moves in a given period or across successive seasons? Is this ‘restraint of trade’? And can cricket afford to be an unregulated free market, regardless of the devastation this reeks on the ecosystem – the clubs – that supports it all? For one thing is certain: no volunteer labour means no clubs, and no clubs means no earning opportunities for Tom, Dick, or Harry.