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Tuesday, 29 February, 2000, 22:37 GMT
England's way forward
With the adoption of central contracts for top players, England at last falls into line with leading Test sides Australia and South Africa.
The Aussies have long based the national side around a centrally-contracted squad of 25 while the South Africans select an elite 18.
The change is unlikely to return England to the top of the Test playing league table on its own.
But is does signify a major shift of power away from the 18 English counties who have been accused of strangling the national game in their own interests.
Centralised control over the leading Test and one-day players to stop them playing too much domestic cricket, has long been regarded as essential in this age of the non-stop international game.
Cricketers of old could serve two masters, county and country, as they toured one winter in three or four.
But as international demands grow - this summer England play seven Tests and 10 one-day internationals - domestic duties have interfered with top players' performances.
But from now on, England coach Duncan Fletcher will have first call on the services of his elite 16-man squad for the duration of their six-month contracts.
The individuals will still be employed by the counties but their first-class contracts will fall 'dormant' until such time as they are released by England.
The players will only be available to their counties for NatWest Trophy and Benson and Hedges Cup matches without seeking the approval of Fletcher, but even then the counties may be forced to bow out.
The county chairmen acknowledge that the central contract list is likely to change the domestic landscape to an unprecedented degree.
Current Test players, especially bowlers, are unlikely to be seen often in county games.
County members and followers will now have to regard the absence of their star attractions as a fact of life, in particular the bowlers.
Somerset's Andy Caddick has been the workhorse of county cricket in the last four seasons, taking over 350 wickets.
But, as England's main strike bowler, the 31-year-old is unlikely to appear in more than few early championship matches, and then only by way of a warm up for international appearances.
Gone will are the days when players could come into a Test having bowled 60 overs at the weekend and then leave at the end of five days to drive back to his country for a one-day game.
Jokes were cracked following England's early exit from the World Cup that at least the county committees would be happy at the availability of their players.
But it is a fact that following England's match will India every player with the exception of Alan Mullally was back in action.
The change has not been achieved without a protracted power struggle between the ECB and the 18 counties.
The turning point came at the end of last year when the First Class Forum, which represents the counties in the ECB, voted to cede all power to the central management board.
The conflict between the FCF and national interests had been illustrated in glaring clarity the previous year when the ECB voted to abandon the Benson and Hedges Cup - only for the FCF to overrule the decision.
Now all decisions are taken by the ECB management board - which has only four county representatives on its 15-man committee - with one exception.
The FCF retains the right to decide the number of clubs to be relegated in the new two-division county championship, which comes into effect this summer.
The new-style competition - designed to improve competitiveness, the undertaking to raise the standard of county wickets closer to Test level and the planned establishment of a new national youth academy, are all further positive steps in the right direction.
While the counties have finally bitten the bullet, there have been rumbles of dissatisfaction among the players.
The build up to last year's World Cup was marred by a messy dispute between the ECB and the players, unhappy that they were to receive just £8,000 for appearing in five qualifying games (rising to £30,000 for winning the trophy).
Their dissatisfaction was compounded by the fact that the counties received around £37,000 compensation for their absence.
The new system will mean a significant increase in financial rewards for the counties but not necessarily the players.
The counties had originally wanted around £200,000 compensation per player (compared to the £20,000 per summer they receive at the moment) but instead will receive around £50,000.
Players could receive up to £70,000 but their fees will depend on a banding to be based on appearances.
Contracts will be graded A, B and C, based on the number of Tests or one-day internationals played.
Some players may decide they can earn more by bowling their county to a title or two and picking up England match fees in the old way.
But then maybe players who would settle for such comfortable mediocrity are the ones England need to weed out.
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Links to other Cricket stories are at the foot of the page.
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