Overseas Players In County Cricket - Then & Now

Kumar Sangakkara
Kumar Sangakkara will be with Surrey all season - but this is an exception in modern cricket
©REUTERS / Action Images
Brendon McCullum
Brendon McCullum will grace the T20 Blast for Birmingham Bears, one of a number of marquee signings
©REUTERS / Action Images

It is mid-May, 1981, and Australia are shortly to arrive for the Ashes. While England and Australia will contest a riveting series, the best team in the world are Clive Lloyd’s West Indies, who have just beaten an England side captained by Ian Botham in the Caribbean.

Botham is playing a three-day match for his county, Somerset, at Old Trafford, against Lancashire. Playing for Somerset are Viv Richards, the best batsman in the West Indies team, and Joel Garner, one of their battery of fast bowlers. For Lancashire, Lloyd is in their middle order, and Michael Holding, perhaps the best and fastest bowler they possess, is opening the bowling.
It is a fantastic game of cricket, which sees Somerset win by 33 runs. In the first innings, Richards makes 82 against Holding and co. and when Lancashire reply, Garner takes five wickets, including that of Lloyd.

After only taking one wicket in the first innings, Holding steams in to take five second time around, including Richards and Botham leaving Lancashire with 154 to win. They are rolled out for 121, with Garner taking his second five-for of the match.
1981 was an excellent year for overseas players in county cricket. As well as the West Indians, there were Javed Miandad and Imran Khan from Pakistan, Richard Hadlee from New Zealand and Clive Rice from South Africa. All were high class operators at the peak of their powers.

Move forward to more recent times, and the number of the best international players playing in county cricket has dwindled. There are still a lot of imports plying their trade, often under Kolpak contracts, but the majority are solid pros, towards the end of their careers and not playing regular international cricket.

This has led to a strong debate about the purpose and usefulness of the overseas player in our domestic game. Some say they take up places that young English players would otherwise be having. The counties would argue that with promotion and relegation, they need proven players who will ultimately get them in to Division One, and then at the very least keep them there.

What is not in doubt is that the days of the top class international player playing a whole season for a county has now gone.

With more international cricket than ever - witness England’s 17 Test matches in 2015/16 – plus the IPL and various other T20 tournaments around the globe, the very best players do not have the time, nor their national boards the inclination, to allow them to play a full season of county cricket.
But 2015 is shaping up to be different. County cricket will once again see some of the best players in the world plying their trade. Most of them will be here for short stints, although Kumar Sangakkara, the number one ranked batsman in Test cricket, will be playing the whole season for Surrey.

The majority arrive at some point during the T20 Blast competition and the list of players is mouthwatering: Brendon McCullum, James Faulkner, Chris Gayle, Aaron Finch, Glenn Maxwell, Mahela Jayawardene, Sangakkara and Saeed Ajmal are just some of an excellent cast.

The IPL apart, this is the best selection of overseas players seen in domestic T20 cricket.

Yet the arguments still persist. Most of these players may be here for a few games only - Wahab Riaz, the Pakistan left-arm quick, turned up last week, played two T20 games for Surrey in 24 hours and then was off. Do short stints allow counties to get the maximum from these players?

Part of the purpose of an overseas player is surely to impart knowledge to their team-mates, help young English players develop; can they do this when they are here for so short a time?

Not all overseas players on show are of the very highest class. For every Glen Maxwell or Brendon McCullum, there is a Jacques Rudolph or a Joe Burns. These are undoubtedly good players, but should Rudolph or Burns, or Peter Handscomb or Fidel Edwards, really be chosen by counties above promising home grown players?

From the perspective of the counties, these players are reliable and, in their opinion, give them the best chance of progressing in the tournament. That means more games, more exposure and bigger crowds. I can’t help but think, however, that young English players should be exposed to the pressure and intensity of the cricket.
No doubt the T20 competition is a big money spinner and by playing Gayle et al, the counties will be guaranteed big crowds who want to see some of the best players in the world. There is also no doubt that having the very best players, even for a short while, will raise the standards of the competitions.

Just imagine what knowledge a Brendon McCullum could impart to a Chris Woakes at Warwickshire or an Aaron Finch to a Jonny Bairstow at Yorkshire. With England’s one-day cricket in such a shambolic state, playing a totally different game to the best in the world, this knowledge can only be of help.
And these players do attract people to games. Last season, I went to a Championship game between Essex and Surrey at Chelmsford. I am an Essex supporter, but there was nothing much on the game, and the weather was iffy.

I went because it was a chance to see Hashim Amla bat for Surrey and you don’t often get to see his class. (As it was, he was out cheaply.) This is an example of what the very best overseas players can do for the game; they attract people to games which they might not ordinarily go to and that is sure to be the case this season.

The real shame is that there are not more high class overseas players operating in county cricket all season, and especially in the County Championship.

Sangakkara at Surrey is the exception to the rule, and for England hopefuls Jason Roy and Zafar Ansari to be able to work with a great of the game at close quarters will be invaluable.

However, the players who are available to play all season tend not to be in the prime of their careers or of the highest calibre. Does their presence improve the standard of cricket or should these spots be filled by emerging English players?

Ashwell Prince, Robin Peterson (both of Lancashire), Rudolph, Edwards; these players are all playing the whole season for their respective counties. This may be unfair, but could you imagine an Australian state team picking these types of players above a young, local prospect?

Again, with the spectre of promotion and relegation dominating, the issue for the counties is that they need proven performers. These players all have vast experience and the counties would argue they offer just as much in terms of improving the standard of the competitions and imparting knowledge to fellow players as the bigger names. The fact they are around for the whole season could make this even more valuable. It is a persuasive argument.

This is certainly a better group of overseas players than we have seen on these shores for some time, although it is interesting to note that there are hardly any top class fast bowlers making an appearance.

The schedule is too packed, and demands on fast bowlers too tough, for a stint in county cricket to be allowed by the national boards. Regardless, it should be an interesting and exhilarating few months.

Whether this is the start of a growing trend for more of the world's best to take part in the domestic season is difficult to say. The packed calendars will not change and national coaches will be even keener to protect their best assets.

The presence of these players has added a level of excitement to this county season and that can only be a good thing. It should also raise the standard and intensity of the competition.

They're not here for a long time; but they're here for a good time.

© Cricket World 2015