Friday, 20 November 2009

OPENING UP (...A CAN OF WORMS?)


Grubby brown envelopes exchanged on murky car parks; sweaty boots stuffed with even sweatier banknotes; bungs and backhanders in cash or perks – the length and breadth of the land, and as far back as the Victorians, allegations of illegal payments pervade recreational sport, with the local cricket scene rumoured to be a hotbed of such ‘shamateurism’. On November 19, at the AGM of the North Staffs and South Cheshire League, this thorniest and most emotive of issues – whether or not the League should lift all restrictions regarding player payment – is once again subject to a vote of its member clubs. The many custodians of the local game find themselves on a threshold, with passionate arguments on both sides of the divide.

The main aspects of the debate, and a taste of the prevailing mood, were captured by a recent poster on a local cricket web forum: “Common sense says that 60-70 per cent of the clubs in the Premier Division were paying bungs last year and surely everyone in [local] cricket knows, and…so does the League Committee, but they cannot do anything about it. Because of this, and to stop the bickering and accusations, just let the League go open at the AGM”.

Now, although there is some truth in this diagnosis – widespread rule-breaking, the atmosphere of recrimination – there is also more than a little speciousness with its conclusion: because it cannot be effectively policed, goes the argument, it should therefore just be ratified. To stop cheating by making cheating legal and therefore no longer cheating seems a perverse solution, to put it mildly. Imagine a nation ravaged by long and bloody civil war (in post-colonial Africa, for instance), where the State passes laws that cannot be implemented and the murder rate has soared by, say, “60-70 per cent”. Would the government of such a country, however impotent, be justified in thinking “OK, murder cannot be policed, so let’s make it legal”? (The analogy isn’t exact, for the hypothetical African nation would in all likelihood be dissuaded from taking this extreme step by international sanctions, such as trade embargos, whereas the NSSCL’s decision is free of external checks.)

Anyway, while it is undeniably difficult to police – this despite using the ‘on the balance of probabilities’ criterion of civil law (colloquially known as “the 51% rule”) rather than the ‘beyond all reasonable doubt’ of criminal cases – the fact of the matter is that it is not impossible. Checkley were found guilty of illegally paying Justin Grainger in 2008, incurring a 70-point penalty that turned likely promotion to the Premier Division into relegation to Division 2. This at the very least signals a deterrent.

Of course it places a burden on the League’s administrators, yet their fatigue, while worthy of sympathy, is not in itself a good enough reason to overturn the existing rules. Since the players suspected of being paid (allegedly, etc) are, logically, among the most talented in the area and therefore likely to play for the League’s Representative XI or the County, perhaps it is too delicate or difficult for adminstrators, on an unconscious level, to pursue investigations. Maybe. This is not to insinuate any corruption, cover-up, or lack of will on their part; merely, that it might be better for all concerned to establish an independent, totally external body (a reciprocal relationship with another local sports administration) to which cases might be referred. In other words, the reform might need to be with the institution rather than the regulations.

Another flimsy argument (though obviously worthy sentiment) for the rule change is that everyone is tired of the constant bickering, which 'going open' would end. Would it really? Let's reframe the question: are people’s resentments caused by illegal payments, or just payments per se, inasmuch as these distort the ‘evenness’ of the competition? Of course, there is no absolute evenness, either in nature or in society; certain clubs have ‘natural’ advantages – large population bases, hefty bar takings, space to expand – that the regulations neither can nor should seek to even out, advantages that people of the cricket community accept and get on with their lot. But the truism that everyone is equal before the law has never meant the law creates a ‘level playing field’. Rather, the law – coupled with the political process – is, and always has been, an instrument through which powerful groups seek to consolidate their natural (and historical) advantages into permanent domination, and dominated sectors seek to stop just that from happening. This is the crux of the issue with this rule change: effectively ratifying the domination of an elite by allowing their advantages to be more and more decisive.

If the league were to go open, it seems inevitable that those clubs with the deepest coffers – through whatever stroke of good fortune – will attract the majority of the better players, moths to the highest bid, and soon come to monopolize trophies. A quick glance at recent developments in football and a basic understanding of history should tell us very clearly that competition will not be widened by tethering on-field success ever more tightly to off-field resources, perhaps in the process subjecting clubs to the whim of a fly-by-night ‘Sugar Daddy’ who, for whatever reason, might suddenly decide to withdraw his funding (in much the same way as entire nations are now subject to the whim of multinationals who can suddenly decide to take their operations elsewhere, leaving a familiar trail of devastation in their wake). On the contrary, genuine competition will wither drastically, perhaps even to Rangers-or-Celtic proportions. Resentments flourish whenever and wherever destiny is determined by financial muscle and it is plain na├»ve to think that “bickering” would just evaporate with the ‘legalization’ of these currently prohibited payments. If anything, it will intensify, whether payments are transparent or not.

Furthermore, it is plausible that resentments will not only persist between clubs, but also develop within teams. Unpaid loyal servant X, hitherto an opening batsman, wins three games on the bounce from his new position at number 6, while the best part of £750, say, has gone into the pockets of a newly acquired opener who has failed to reach double figures in these games. Does the captain drop the paid newcomer down the order, or even, heaven forbid, from the team altogether? Is it in the player’s contract that he must play First XI? If, in an attempt to pre-empt and ward off disharmony, all eleven are paid, would that mean no-one (for contractual or return-on-investment reasons) can break into the side from the Second XI (a closed shop)? And if players were paid pro rata by their club, would they pass up the appearance fee for a Talbot or Staffordshire Cup game in order to represent the County or League XI (for whom, at present, they play for free)?

Then there’s the risk of the disenchantment and demoralization of the many hard-working volunteers that form the bedrock of the area's clubs. Would they still be willing to donate their labour on the off-chance of some dimly reflected glory, a plastic trophy, and perhaps a livelier atmosphere at the end-of-season do, with the full knowledge that their input was effectively channelled straight into the pockets of a ‘mercenary’? (Would they petition to go on the payroll, too? If it's good for the players, why not for the groundsmen, the bar staff, the tea ladies...?) And if all this labour were withdrawn, would the paid players be at the ground rolling the pitch at 10am on a Saturday morning? Doubtful. Anyway, whatever happens with the vote, these will remain internal club affairs.

Aside from the Impossible-To-Police and End-To-The-Bickering arguments, the apologists of going open usually claim, as an article of faith, that it will “raise the standard”, a standard that many believe has diminished in recent years (wasn’t it ever thus? With each new generation “not as good as in my day”, they must all have been SF Barneses back in the nineteenth century!!). It is undeniable that a number of cricketers of Premier League ability are playing in the lower divisions, either through loyalty or for money, legitimate or otherwise. Indeed, last season both senior NSSCL knockouts were won by Division 2 sides. And much as you cannot blame the administrators for failing to catch all the ‘baddies’ out there, so you cannot really blame players for seeking payment, even if that means dropping beneath a level befitting of their ability: economic necessity and/or advancement is a powerful force, even when it involves the sidestepping of regulations (as demonstrated by the recent MP’s expenses scandal). Nevertheless, it is ironic that the Raising-the-Standard argument for going open is being mooted at the exact same time when many clubs are lobbying for some sort of restriction (perhaps to only the Premier League) on the employment of overseas professionals. This is partly on the basis of cost, partly a reaction to stringent new UK Border Authority regulations and the arduous process of applying for visas, which led to the late arrival of many hired guns and the expensive headache of trying to find deputies on a weekly basis.

Combining these two arguments, it seems entirely paradoxical to want both to get rid of overseas pro’s because it is money going out of the system, yet at the same time to raise the standard by spending this same money on manifestly inferior talents who in all probability would play in the area anyway. And would this money really be staying in the game or instead going on lash-ups in Hanley and Halkidiki? Either way, the mere fact of paying players is a very weak understanding of what ‘professionalism’ entails…

Going open will present all clubs with the dilemma (one that already exists, with different parameters) of how to spend their resources: invest in infrastructure (facilities, equipment, coaching) or player salaries? Short- or long-term? In the absence of a sudden windfall (a Saudi sheikh turning up as benefactor, a member’s lottery numbers coming up), cash-strapped clubs will either have to accept the ‘glass ceiling’ placed over them, or else flirt with bankruptcy in order to remain competitive. There is a third option, of course: develop youth…until such time, that is, as they become good enough to pick up money playing at one of the affluent clubs (would the have-nots look to tie their young talent to loyalty agreements, requiring their departure to be accompanied by a transfer fee?).

Setting aside the contractual and fiscal ramifications (who pays NI contributions? What is breach of contract?), the red tape of this superficial professionalization, the debate surely boils down to fostering the overall health of the local game. Rendering it impossible, to all intents and purposes, for two-thirds or more of clubs in the area to actually rise to the top of the pyramid (the ostensible purpose of merging the old North Staffs and District League with the NSSCL) is short-sighted and self-defeating, even for the immediate beneficiaries, and might quickly lead to a breakaway competition. 


At any rate, as the League stands on the cusp of a momentous decision, perhaps this is not an issue that should be decided by members’ votes but instead left to an Executive who, as elected officials, will stand and fall by the nature of their governance. After all, if backhanders are as rife as rumour suggests, then asking the clubs’ delegates to vote on going open – even though the benefactors often pay players (allegedly, etc) without any knowledge of the club’s committee (allegedly, etc) – seems akin to asking a Sicilian Council recently infiltrated by Mafiosi to vote on laws covering extortion and racketeering.

In the present fog of uncertainty, whichever way the vote goes we will undoubtedly have taken a great leap forward. Are we sure, though, that we’re not stood on the edge of a cliff?