26 May 2018


‘The county game is dominated by foreign imports.’ ‘Young people just don’t want to be professional cricketers any more.’ ‘It’s all right being in London where there are loads of young players, but it’s grim up north.’ If you haven’t said one (or more) of these, you’ve damn well heard ‘em. Some seasoned cricket pundits – including some professional ones – seem to speak of little else. But what are the numbers? Has anyone actually gone through all the lists of county players, working out where they were all born, or where they were all coached as juniors? No. Until now, that is, because I’ve just done it.

So, the next time you trot out (or hear) one of those hackneyed phrases, you’d do well to have some of the hard facts at your disposal. I present those facts here. Dispose of them as you wish. I haven’t included contracted, official ‘overseas’ status cricketers in the analysis that follows – just the county playing staff on permanent contracts.

There are 392 professional cricketers in the county ‘system’ and the average county squad size is 22 players. The 392 professional cricketers break down as follows:

  • 164 who play for the county they were born in (or an adjacent non first class county), having gone to school in the county or played through the county’s junior age group teams.
  • 69 who were born in other counties, but moved to their current county before they started secondary school (36 players), or in time to join the county’s junior age group teams (18 players), or in order to join the county’s academy or 2nd XI without a professional contract (14 players). These players are described throughout this article as ‘home grown’ and their number includes eight men – Roy, Dernbach, Meaker, Rafiq, Compton, Singh, Ballance and Qadri – who were born overseas but who progressed through the county ranks as a child.
  • 72 who have switched counties. These players are described throughout this article as ‘transfers’ and their number includes six men – Higgins, Steel, Horton, Howell, Rayner and Adam Rouse – who were born overseas but who progressed through the county ranks as a child.
  • 87 who were not born in England or Wales, and who joined their county as an adult and a professional (in other words, excepting the 14 listed above). 61 of these players had already played for another first class team in another country; for 26 of them their first class debut was in the county system.
These categories are, by necessity, generalisations and I have had to put in place some delineations to enable informed conclusions to be drawn. You could, if you really wanted to, go through the playing staff of your favourite county, seeking to argue that this or that player is in the wrong category. I made the slight mistake of sharing this article with one very well-known cricket broadcaster and Surrey fan, who became quite peevish that I hadn’t categorised Tom Curran (who played for Kwa-Zulu Natal up to U19 level and who was 17 when he came to the UK) as ‘home grown by Surrey’. I ought to point out now that this article is not intended as an indictment of any county’s policy.

We could imagine that a ‘typical’ county squad is comprised of 22 players. Of these, nine were born in the county or a neighbouring non first class county. These nine progressed through the junior age group teams along with a further four boys who were born elsewhere in England and Wales, but whose families moved to the local area. These 13 young men, on being awarded full professional contracts with the county, were joined in the county squad with four players signed from other first class counties, plus five ‘non-ECB area’ players (of whom two are South African, one Australian and one from elsewhere). 

The use of the expression ‘non-ECB area’ is deliberate. The word ‘Kolpak’ is not only emotive but also a very specific legal term, and it excludes players we want to include in this category, such as the dozen Irish and Scottish players in county cricket. Nevertheless, the great majority of our ‘non-ECB area’ players are Kolpaks, and very nearly half of them are South Africans.

This article has no business proffering an opinion regarding the value of such players; it merely seeks to provide information – evidently not previously researched – to inform the opinions of others. 11 per cent of all non-overseas players in the county game are South African imports: there are those who would regard this as a shining example of cricket’s diaspora without boundaries, others who would consider it the natural result of market forces, others still who would lament the ‘inability’ (as they would see it) of counties to grow their own talent.

The research undeniably provides some diverting trivia. We can see that, unsurprisingly given their large catchment areas, Lancashire and Yorkshire’s squads have the highest number of local-born players. And there’s Worcestershire, right up there. Did anyone expect that? And with the best part of six million people to choose from in south London, Surrey and Berkshire, the Oval has only five local players in a staff of 22. Northamptonshire is the first county squad in history to contain not a single player who was born in the county – its three ‘births’ being from neighbouring counties in its catchment area (in case you’re wondering, Keogh from Bedfordshire, Zaib and White from Buckinghamshire).

Where a player is born is, of course, neither here nor there. Families move. That’s why we consider Roy to be a local boy (and Renshaw a foreign one). Rather more telling is the role that counties’ junior age group teams play. Worcestershire, for example, derives 87 per cent of its players from its junior teams; at the other end of the scale, just 32 per cent of Northamptonshire’s current squad played for the county’s youth teams.

Of course, simply looking at the total number of players ‘coming through’ doesn’t necessarily tell us all that much: Worcestershire’s investment in their own young players won them the division two title last year; the same policy has seen them rooted to the bottom of division one this year.

Rather more revealing is to look at the total number of today’s 392 county professionals who are the product of junior county teams: that number is 293. Lancashire’s junior teams have created 29 of them (the most by any county) but 11 of them have since moved to other counties. Hampshire – the county which signs the most players from overseas, as we shall see later – has the lowest rate of retention. There are 16 county cricketers from the Hampshire youth set-up, but only half of them have stayed at Hampshire.

The majority of county-to-county transfers are downwards. 72 of the current county players have switched teams, but only 19 of them have gone ‘up a division’. A clear pattern has been established whereby second division teams sign up the players who were not quite good enough to hold down a place in the higher league. The top five transfer-signing teams are all in division two. Somerset (Davies and Groenewald) and Essex (Coles) have, on their cricket staffs, only three players acquired by transfer out of a combined total of 46 players.

The ECB area is England and Wales, and yet the sole Welsh county – Glamorgan – brings in 45 per cent of its players from outside the ECB catchment area. That reflects the parlous state of Welsh cricket. Glamorgan is officially a county team, but it’s arguably the de facto national team of Wales – the team plays ‘home’ matches at Colwyn Bay, 185 miles from Cardiff, further from home than all the other counties except Yorkshire and Durham. There are ten Welsh cricketers in the Glamorgan squad, and only one more (Harris) anywhere else in the county game.

It is easy to understand why Durham brings in a third of its players from outside the ECB area: it needs to plug the gaps created by the steady and significant exodus of home-grown talent. There’s a ‘chicken and egg’ question at Hampshire. The southern county has the highest loss rate of junior county players – half stay and half leave – and it brings in more Kolpak players than any other English county. It could be the case that such imports are necessary to fill the vacancies left by unavoidably departing youngsters. It could equally be true that the youngsters leave because their playing opportunities are limited by the imports. Either way, Hampshire’s situation is probably not an enviable one.

The final table offers an overview of the status quo. Make of it what you will. Worcestershire won division two last year and has a youth system that rivals that of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Leicestershire and Northamptonshire, two cash-strapped and low-status counties, substantially rely on hand-me-downs from the high-flying teams. Next time you engage yourself in that weighty – and sometimes impassioned – argument about ‘imports’ and ‘home grown players’ in the county game, you now have the facts at your fingertips. 

1 comment:

  1. "And with the best part of six million people to choose from in south London, Surrey and Berkshire, the Oval has only five local players in a staff of 22."
    So why didn't you include Surrey players who were born in London? Atkinson and Pope were born in Chelsea (London Borough of Kensington and Chelsea), Virdi in Chiswick (London Borough of Hounslow) and van den Bergh in Bickley (London Borough of Bromley).