Time for a new approach to the eligibility question?
The World Twenty20 qualifier which took place in the UAE earlier this month has brought into sharper focus the continuing debate about the role of foreign-produced players in international cricket, and especially in the Associate and Affiliate nations.
It is, of course, not a problem entirely confined to those countries, as critics of the England selectors’ predilection for players from South Africa are always quick to point out, but it has a special significance for those developing nations, and at its most extreme it sometimes threatens to call into question the effectiveness of the ICC’s Global Development and High Performance programmes.
In advance of this tournament, attention centred on the drafting of Geraint Jones, Michael di Venuto and Gareth Berg into the Papua New Guinea and Italian squads respectively, the former on the basis of birth and the latter pair by virtue of Italian passports, while there has been a good deal of criticism in the Netherlands of the selectors’ inclusion of several players with Dutch ancestry, such as Michael Swart and Timm van der Gugten.
It is a genuine dilemma for cricket’s emerging nations: raising the sport’s profile domestically and the flow of ICC funding are heavily dependent on international success, yet development programmes mean little if that international success can only be secured by importing overseas-based players, sometimes with little personal association with the country they represent.
All the selections for the UAE tournament, it should be stressed, were entirely within the ICC’s eligibility regulations, which recognise birth and nationality (the latter based on each country’s own laws) as legitimate criteria for selection. The additional ‘development criteria’ which are intended to ensure that representatives of Associate and Affiliate countries have a cricketing connection with that country do not apply to qualifying tournaments for major global events.
In one respect, indeed, the ICC has recently encouraged the top Associates’ dependence on foreign-produced players, by ceasing to apply the development criteria to the four-day Intercontinental Cup. Intended to remove the expensive anomaly that players who did not meet these criteria were eligible to play in the ODIs which are linked to the Cup but not the Cup itself, and in that respect an entirely sensible move, it has nevertheless had the side-effect of expanding the role of the overseas players.
The practice is a cause for concern both because it potentially undermines the countries’ development programmes and because it benefits some countries more than others: in particular, those Associates with a large diaspora, such as the Netherlands, Italy and Greece are able to draw on players from Australia, South Africa and New Zealand whose parents or grandparents emigrated there, while many others cannot. Scotland, a potential beneficiary, suffers because, unlike Ireland, it does not issue its own passports.
It is easier to criticise the existing practices than it is to come up with a fair and reliable regulation to prevent abuse of the system. The circumstances of, say, Canada and the United States, who rely heavily on players who learned their cricket, and often have first-class experience in, the Subcontinent or the Caribbean, is very different from those of the Netherlands or Croatia.
The ‘born in country’ criterion, moreover, is a blunt instrument, since modern patterns of migration mean that locally-produced players may well have been born somewhere else – the Netherlands’ Mudassar Bukhari is a good example – while conversely, Canada’s long-serving John Davison was born in Canada but grew up and learned his cricket in Australia.
A core objective of the ICC’s development strategy should be to encourage and support the youth programmes of its Associate and Affiliate members, and the eligibility rules should ideally reflect this.
One option might be for the ICC to consider requiring that, in addition to the existing regulations, a minimum number of players in any team – say seven or eight – should have played domestic youth cricket in the country they represent.
This would still permit players like Geraint Jones, Michael di Venuto or Michael Swart to be selected on the basis of birth or nationality, but it would set a limit to countries’ dependence on such foreign-produced talents.
It would mean that the Netherlands could field three, or four, of Peter Borren, Stephan Myburgh, Swart, Wesley Barresi, and Timm van der Gugten, but never, as they did throughout the Twenty20 qualifier, all five. And it would have even more radical implications for Canada and the USA.
A simpler measure would be for the requirement to be that a player should have represented his country at under-19 level or below; but there would then be a risk that the search for talented passport holders (or potential passport holders) would be displaced into the youth cricket of the Full members, rather than forcing the most ambitious Associates and Affiliates to create really effective youth development programmes.
There would, it is true, be more difficulty in establishing that a given player had indeed participated in youth cricket in the country proposing to select him, but it would be entirely reasonable to putthe onus on that country to do so, and this would have the collateral advantage in many cases of improving the administration of the junior game.
Everyone concerned with the ICC’s development programmes – the ICC staff themselves, both central and regional, national governing bodies, selectors and coaches – faces a dilemma: they need the leading Associates and Affiliates to be as competitive as possible, but they also need to ensure that their successes are founded on real progress at grassroots level.
Parachuting in ready-developed players may buy short-term success, but it does not change the face of international cricket in the way that it needs to be changed, and it can be a distraction from the decisions that need to be taken. It is time for something to be done.