Paying club cricketers: Blurring the lines between amateur and professional

checking cricket teams

Paying cricketers has to be the single most contentious issue in club cricket and is well overdue to be tackled here on Cricket Yorkshire.

This isn’t a short read…but then it isn’t a cut-and-dried conversation.

When I moved to Yorkshire, I was astonished at the rumoured sums being offered to hundreds of cricketers from £10 a game to thousands for a season. As you can imagine, separating fact from fiction is notoriously difficult as sums become inflated through Chinese whispers.  

I noted with bemusement that there was a storm (in a teacup) when I published the ECB Premier League transfer moves earlier in the season – why are you promoting disloyalty? was the cry from certain quarters.

It illustrated the fact that paying cricketers in a predominantly amateur game really wound people up – and who can blame them?

A common complaint is that a club’s success is defined by the size of their wallet and poaching of players is rife. It blurs the lines between a club’s and league’s amateur or semi-professional status, creating a class system that causes resentment.

If a club takes a stance of not paying their squad then they leave themselves open to losing their best talent to other clubs; players they have invested time, money and coaching in supporting through the ranks.

I’ve taken time to talk to many players, officials, clubs and leagues about this all summer before tapping away on the keyboard. There are no clubs named and shamed or trade secrets revealed – but with any luck, much of what stirs passions on this subject get an airing.

cricketer fields by the fence at church fenton cricket club

That player isn’t good enough to be paid

Heard that ALOT this year from many quarters. I’ve actually changed tack on this from when I began Cricket Yorkshire and was very critical without really analysing the issue from all sides.

After all, I’ve never been remotely good enough to be paid to play.

If, and you’ll need to imagine the mother of all ifs here, I was of a standard befitting renumeration then would my attitude change? Not entirely…though it is wrong to demonise all those who are paid to play if the money is there.

Of course, the payment of club cricketers in Yorkshire is not remotely restricted to the four ECB Premier Leagues and it can filter down numerous Divisions. Why is this an issue?

Just for starters, it can create massive inequalities.

If a club dips into their pockets and attracts players who are being paid but are too good for the Division then that can artificially inflate performances and league standings, suppressing the progress of others for good measure.

cricket ball

What happens when the money runs out?

Do the players desert the club and to what extent is that the cold reality of market forces? Is it the players’ fault for wanting to earn? Are rich benefactors harming the game they are meant to be supporting?

Forgive all the open-ended questions but you’ll all have your view. There will be those out there who jump ship for an extra £10 a game and bounce from club to club. Unpalatable that might be but they’re entitled to and circumstances might even mean that cricket has become an important second earner.

A player moves clubs for any number of reasons with the most common being a change of location because of a job or a house move but swapping clubs to play alongside mates would be high up the board too.

A chance to play at a prestigious club has its attractions or alongside notable players and maybe a club has signed a star overseas for 2018 and that has boosted recruitment.

There will always be those who show no loyalty to a club but suspend judgement, if you can, unless you happen to know personal circumstances. Clubs naturally find this infuriating but if money isn’t paid to begin with, that leverage disappears.

Do clubs invest in their squads at the detriment of coaches, junior development and facilities?

It would be fair to say that this is probably the biggest bugbear, if you did a snap poll across the country.

Those that prefer short-term gain over longer-term investment in bricks, mortar and the future of tomorrow are gambling but for what?

I’d maybe understand if there were massive cash prizes for winning local league titles.

We all know cricket clubs, in Yorkshire and further afield, who have splashed the cash and gone into decline when the tap runs dry.

a batsman on his knees after a runout

Inter-squad angst

It causes resentment if some players are being paid and other not in the same squad.

Unless the mate sitting next to you is Alastair Cook, newly retired from England and looking to hold up an end in third-team cricket on a Saturday, then you’re entitled to feel aggrieved.

By paying players, to my mind, that marks them as professional. They might not be pros in the conventional sense as a county cricketer with a contract but, as Richmondshire’s Gary Pratt said to me earlier this year, once you take that money, it’s a completely different kettle of fish.

He’s been churning out the runs and leading Richmondshire with distinction for years but he told me of a team-mate who came to him for advice about whether to move clubs as they were offering money.

Somewhat hypocritically you might think, Pratt advised against it.

He put it better than I could, from a player’s perspective, that once you take the money, you’ve crossed a line and expectations in behaviour, contributions on and off the field skyrocket and not all are ready for that.

From a cricket club’s selection point of view, paying a player inherently encourages them to pick him or her which, in turn, blocks the path to first-team cricket of junior players.

Every club will have its own scenarios obviously but sure as dollars to donuts, money makes things much more complicated.

IPL - Indian Premier League

Why do clubs pay?

That depends on the standard we’re talking about. In the Bradford League, being paid to play is part and parcel of life and has been for donkey’s years.

In fact, it dates back centuries across Yorkshire. Author and historian Jeremy Lonsdale reckoned paying players started on a small scale in the 18th Century; often to be coaches to the wealthy:

“By the 1860s and 1870s few self-respecting clubs in Yorkshire did without a professional player of some kind – usually a bowler. He might also be the groundsman and would be available at the weekend and evenings to bowl at club members.”

In some respects, things haven’t changed all that much, as Jeremy observed: “There was quite a lot of opposition to professionals in club cricket and in the early 20th century in Yorkshire some clubs were considered to pay too many people. Attempts were made to limit the number of professionals playing for any given club in certain leagues and also to control eligibility and registration so that clubs were not packing their sides with outsiders.”

He adds: “There was also the ongoing complaints about ‘shamateurism’ – amateurs playing for money on the quiet, and payments being made to individuals to get round league rules. It was a big issue in the 1920s.”

Gary Fellows

Today, specific sums apart, it’s not spoken about with any attached shame or particular reticence because earning brass for a shift in whites at a weekend is as Yorkshire as you can get.

For many who debate this, there is a world apart between a Gary Fellows or Jack Leaning and a second-teamer far lower down the rungs.

Naturally, players talk and thus what club cricketers in Yorkshire earn floats into the ether and beyond.

I’ve heard £10,000 a season bandied about and a few clubs believed to have wage bills of £75,000-£90,000.

Without digging into accounts, it’s hard to substantiate but then the sums don’t actually matter.

It won’t change, however galling for the thousands of club volunteers who donate so many hours for free.

queensbury cricket club

Above board and on the books?

A cricket club should show its wages for players as a legitimate expense.

Yet, it’s impossible for leagues to police the shadier side of dealings where the proverbial paper bags of cash (I have heard that one a few times) are passed over.

If a club wants to mask that it is paying for the services of a cricketer then it can be routed through a benefactor, squirrelled away in company accounts or just paid as cash in hand. It’s often to keep it out of the eyeline of volunteers on the committee who would fall off their chairs at the eye-watering sums given.

Aire Wharfe Cricket League

Leagues have differing rules on allowing paid players or not….

It ought to be noted that it is not against the rules in any of Yorkshire’s Premier Leagues.

Chris West, the North Yorkshire & South Durham Premier Cricket League’s President, explained how his league is broadly amateur.

NYSD Premier Division clubs can register two professionals, one of which can be an overseas cricketer. All players across the other Divisions have to be amateur.

A second pro was introduced to the Premier Division a decade back in an effort to keep the best home grown players in the league – that has had the desired effect.

They are also fairly relaxed about players being allowed to coach as a direct employee of a club as the NYSD see that as a proper use of a club’s money.

There are also NYSD County Contracted rules whereby county players can play for their home club when not playing for their counties.

You also see that elsewhere like the Yorkshire Premier League North as Yorkshire’s Jack Leaning and Jonny Tattersall play for York whenever they can.

As Chris says, there is no appetite to allow unlimited paid players:

“It is, of course, impossible to police an amateur league of our standard these days, however the last time a proposition went to clubs at the AGM for the league to become ‘open’ the motion was defeated by 28 votes to 1.”

Good luck getting league secretaries to track and adjudicate on nefarious club behaviour on paying players. After all, club and league administrators are already swamped with what they have to do.

Among many jobs, committees currently have to be immigration experts with the visa requirements affecting overseas players.

Talking of visas, Steven Hirst is Managing Director of CricX, a cricket agency, and he reckons the tightening of rules has had a knock-on effect on paying home-grown talent:

“If I’m honest, the visa regulations seem to have inflated local player’s demands. Now average locals are getting paid to play, which isn’t helping the standard of club cricket. Given the lack of quality amateurs available, clubs seem to be either going down the Tier 5 pro route, or paying locals a few quid to jump ship… all very frustrating!”

On a separate point, I was interested to note that the Lancashire League had to investigate 2017 champions Clitheroe in a prolonged investigation after they were reported for alleged paying players.

They were ultimately cleared but it took nearly six months and did little to enhance the club’s reputation.

As a broader point about club cricket, I find it interesting that there is a line in the sand between paying for an overseas but not the same stigma if it’s someone from Dewsbury, Durham or Dundee.

st chads broomfield cricket club

Paul Berry is Chairman of St Chads Broomfield Cricket Club who were in the Wetherby Cricket League who don’t permit paid players and their firsts now compete in Division 3 of the Aire-Wharfe League (who allow payments):

“We are self-financing (no bar) and none of our volunteers are paid for the many hours they give us, so why would we use our members’ money to start paying players who would not play for the club without a financial incentive? If you play for Chads, you pay Chads, not the other way round!”

In the past, St Chads first-teamers have been approached and offered money to play elsewhere.

Paul wouldn’t name them; that’s a hornet’s nest he wasn’t prepared to kick – but was proud at how few left to seek riches elsewhere:

“The players who join our club are those who want to play for us, without financial incentive, and we very rarely lose players to other clubs, unless they move out of the area.

I can only think of three occurrences over the past 10 years where this has happened.”

St Chads Broomfield are a very successful club with 15 senior and junior teams. They are bucking the trend of clubs losing teams or going under entirely but they are some way off the top of the leagues where player moves for hard cash are common.

Would that policy of paying players change, if they found themselves up a few Divisions?

Paul is unmoved: “If we did rocket to the top of the AWSCL, there would be no change in our policy. The teams at our club will always play at a level that reflects the standard of our players, not the size of our, or a beneficiary’s, bank account! If that means we are not league champions, then so be it.”

So, there you go. There will always be those across leagues that opt not to pay, even if they could, because it’s the thin-end of a wedge. Literally, in this case.

Those clubs can feel aggrieved that there’s not always the reward for their prudence that there should be but nor does it de-stabilise a club or threaten the finances.

Some clubs will continue to pay players and for Premier League sides, I see no issue…the right players enable them to compete, attract more membership and it can be win-win.

I continue to be flabbergasted at the level of player who is still being paid further down the food chain.

I still don’t see why some wealthy individuals hand out considerable amounts of money that go in wages rather than transforming a ground into a place that a county would bite your hand off to visit.

What counts as prestige can’t half be parochial at times. 

A few thoughts to wrap this up before you all hopefully share this article all over the world (I’d appreciate it) and get on Cricket Yorkshire’s social media channels to air your views.

I don’t understand why ECB Premier Leagues aren’t standardised when it comes to paying either all or some home-grown and overseas players.

It also nags away that clubs are paying players hundreds or thousands and umpires, scorers, those who do the teas or tend to the ground are paid nothing or very little.

They are the ones who deserve recompense whether they seek it or not.

Right…over to you…what do you think? What does your league do? Are you paid to play?

If you were in charge, what changes would you make to club cricket to address this? Does it even need addressing?

GIVE YOUR VIEWS!

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