By Derek Pringle
Professional cricketers have long taken advantage of the counties they play for. From England fast bowlers bunking off games to save themselves for Test matches to the latest duo of Alex Hales and Adil Rashid, who have recently spurned red-ball cricket in favour of white, county largesse has always assumed to be part of the deal. And it is wrong.
Hales and Rashid have both decided that their future energies are best directed towards white-ball cricket and, in particular, the T20 Leagues that have spawned like pond life around the globe. Instead of being tethered to county and country for most of the year, it is the wandering life for them: a Bangladesh Premier League here, a Big Bash there with a few others like the Pakistan Super League (but presumably not the Caribbean Premier League as it clashes with county white-ball cricket) in between.
Both are talented cricketers who have played Test cricket. Yet, by the high standards of technique and discipline that particular format demands, both have been found wanting. As a result, the pair have been dropped and overlooked ever since, though the England Test team is not a closed shop, especially after such a comprehensive defeat in the Ashes.
Hales (29) and Rashid (30 earlier this month) could, with hard work and application, improve their game and get picked for Test matches once more. Yet neither seems to want to embrace that particular challenge, opting instead for the easy money and easy cricket of white-ball slug-outs.
Many will say they cannot be blamed for what looks to be a rational decision based on effort and economics. When Dale Steyn said the Indian Premier League was the easiest money he’d ever earned on a cricket field, he did not intend it as a slight, more a marvelling at the lack of sweat, skill and stamina required to do the job.
If Hales and Rashid severed all links with their counties and then agreed to be rehired by them on a match-by-match basis, I would be less critical, but only a bit. Their decision to ‘Redxit,’ especially if many others decide to follow suit, threatens to dilute the talent pool for red-ball cricket in this country. Like the EU with Brexit, counties should fear its success for the reaction it will stir in others.
First, though, there are some practical decisions to consider, such as what are Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire to do with the pair now that the start of the new season is a month away and it is red-ball cricket until June? After all, neither player has a gig in the Indian Premier League this year. They could take a break, but if they wanted to train and practise early season with their counties it is a brazen-faced cheek to expect teammates and coaches, focussing on red-ball cricket, to also pander to their needs.
You can just see what aggravation might be caused if teammates and coaches, having prepared everyone else in the squad for the relevant matches ahead, are then expected to stick around to service them, knowing they will not be playing. Likewise, for any strength and conditioning classes or physiotherapy they might require – services they would previously have been granted when a fully signed up member of the squad.
Counties have invested much time and resources on these players and it shouldn’t be a one-way street. If I ran the counties involved, Hales and Rashid would have to hire and pay for their own coaching and physio at least until white-ball cricket began. That would be the price of the No Objection Certificate they still require from their counties or the ECB to play the life of the wandering minstrel. Sports teams are finely balanced eco-systems and people doing only half the yards but expecting the full benefits will upset them in a flash.
One county administrator I talked to reckons there is a danger of counties getting used by cricketers like Hales and Rashid. The players put themselves into the IPL auction at a high base price thinking that if they get picked up by a franchise so be it, they are in the money. But if they don’t they are not that bothered as they still have their county contract to fall back on – a contract that is often worth more than the fees they might otherwise earn when several of the non-IPL T20 leagues – assuming they get selected for them – are pooled together.
It is time for counties to play hard ball and cancel those contracts and re-negotiate them on a game-by-game basis, though they will need to act together or those playing the system will just gravitate to the clubs that don’t take a tough stance. Without the safety net of a county, the life of a T20 albatross suddenly looks a lot more precarious, as Tymal Mills, worth £1.4 million one minute in the IPL and not very much the next, will testify. Not that I expect he is unduly fussed, at least for the moment.
If sympathy is in short supply from my generation of players for Hales and Rashid, there should be a smidgen of understanding for Trevor Bayliss, England’s coach, and his suggestion that the coaching role should be split between red and white-ball responsibilities. Bayliss is clearly knackered. If Ben Stokes had not been barred from playing Ashes Tests this winter, as well as the one-dayers and T20s that followed in Australia, he would have been about the only player to have sampled Bayliss’s work load these past 12 months. As it is, none of the others have put in as many miles.
Splitting the role is not new and Andy Flower (red ball) shared it with Ashley Giles (white ball) for a year or two earlier this decade. Their biggest stumbling block came over which coach should have priority of those players good enough to play all three formats, especially when rest was demanded. In the end it was Giles’ gripe that he was being judged on the results of a team rarely at full strength.
Anyway, back to Hales and Rashid. The pair probably feel that England’s selectors have let them down previously by picking then dropping them from Tests, seemingly without reason. In that regard they echo those England players who opted to join the Rebel tours to South Africa, especially the second wave in 1989. They too were disaffected with the Test selectors and hungered for the easy money on offer elsewhere.
Yet, maybe we need to give James Whitaker and his selection panel some rare credit for perhaps spotting the character flaws Hales and Rashid appear to have and disregarding them from Test selection as a result.
After all, the pair’s recent decision to opt for cricket’s gravy train rather than its hard yards is not one players possessing the desire and drive to improve their game would ever take.