ICC Player Eligibility Changes Pose Silent Threat

DUBAI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - JANUARY 29: Alan Isaac (L), President of the ICC and David Richardson (R), Chief Executive of the ICC speaks to the media after the ICC press conference held at the ICC Headquarters in Dubai Sports City on January 29, 2014 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Francois Nel/Getty Images)

Changes to the ICC’s international player eligibility regulations have gone largely unnoticed, but their impact could be significant

Headbutts make headlines in the same way that un-sexy regulations don’t.

ICC Player Eligibility Changes Pose Silent Threat

More hoo-ha than usual surrounded the start of the 2017/18 Ashes series. Glenn McGrath didn’t even need to make his customary, only-semi-joking whitewash prediction. Ben Stokes threw his winter away, David Warner revealed his self-motivation tips, and we later found out that Jonny Bairstow and Cameron Bancroft had enjoyed a minor tete-a-tete.

These pre-series shenanigans may have set the tone for the Ashes, but it is another development, which flew largely under the radar, which could have a lasting impact on cricket.
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On October 13th last year, the ICC announced the new nine-team Test and 13-team ODI leagues designed to reinvigorate bilateral cricket. But amongst the ‘in other news’ round up at the foot of the press release, a throwaway line was buried: “the Board approved a revised draft of Player Eligibility Regulations which will come into effect in due course.”

The new regulations emerged on October 25th. Residency qualifications guidelines had been tightened, but it was clauses which no longer appeared in the new version that may have significant repercussions.

There was no longer any trace of clause 3B: Additional Development Criteria for male teams representing Associate or Affiliate Members. Male players who wanted to represent an Associate or Affiliate member no longer had to have played in a minimum of 50% of the domestic league matches in 3 of the preceding 5 seasons, or to have spent at least 100 working days in the country in the last 5 years.

In other words, it is now possible for a cricketer to represent an Associate or Affiliate member without ever actually having set foot in that nation.

Unexpected origins

The seeds of change were originally sown by a surprising farmer. Even in the context of a growing cricketing footprint, the Philippines is one of the more remote outposts. The national team currently sits at 59th in unofficial rankings, sandwiched between Sierra Leone and Bhutan. There is one cricket pitch, at a college campus 40km outside Manila, a drive that can take 3 hours on a bad day. Having been the subject of bitter legal disputes in a country not known for the above-board nature of its business dealings, the famous Nomad Sports Club, founded in 1914, and home to Manila CC amongst a host of other sporting clubs, suffered enforced closure in 2016.

Despite this, there is a thriving cricket scene in the country. Thanks to extensive English, Australian, Indian and Pakistani ex-pat communities, 20 teams play in a local T20 league and contest a 50 over cup, there is a well-structured outreach programme in schools, and the Philippine Cricket Association is growing year by year.

“I won’t deny it’s a struggle” says Andrew Perrin, the affable Australian captain of Manila CC. “We have the same problems as any other cricket club in the world: facilities, volunteer time, youth pipeline. Plus we are in a country that is off the beaten cricketing path.”

That Filipino cricket finds itself in its current rude state of health is down in no small part to Perrin and his friends at the Philippines Cricket Association, Chairman Iain Sinclair and Development Officer Faisal Khan. Indeed it was Sinclair’s obstinacy in the first place that forced the ICC to amend the eligibility rules.
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The PCA had become embroiled in a dispute with the ICC over the eligibility of Filipino nationals Daniel Smith, formerly of Kent 2nd XI and now playing grade cricket in Australia, and Henry Tyler. The ICC ruled them out of the 2017 ICC World Cricket League Qualifier (East Asia-Pacific), held in Bendigo, Australia, saying they did not fulfil the additional development criteria.

“Iain hadn’t come this far just to let it lie with the ICC” Perrin explains, “he kicked up a fuss and took it all the way to the top”. The case was put to the ICC Dispute Resolution Committee and, to general surprise, the Hon Michael Beloff QC, ruled in favour of the PCA. The pair played, helped the Philippines to a 4th placed finish in the six-team tournament, and the dispute was quickly forgotten.

Assessing the fallout

But not wholly forgotten. Now that Beloff’s surprising decision has forced the ICC to revise the regulations quietly, Associate and Affiliate nations are now trying to work out what the consequences might be.

Netherlands head coach Ryan Campbell is uncertain on how the situation will develop. “The rules seem to be going to affect all Associate teams but we are still not 100% sure. It looks like it may help the big countries whilst smaller teams like us won’t be able to compete cash-wise to keep our players.”

Campbell raises an important issue. It seems as though the effects of the new regulations may be asymmetric in terms of how they affect players of different standards. In the past, players have been able to turn out for Associate nations and then play for a top 12 nation without a wait period. This still holds as the ICC has determined that this will not apply to male players seeking to make the step up from Associate Member to Full Member “until further notice”. However, it could change back at any moment.

If this does happen, Campbell foresees a potential talent drain from Associate nations; “Associate players will look to what’s best for their career, for example playing Sheffield Shield, county cricket or provincial cricket in NZ, like [Michael] Rippon and [Logan] van Beek.”

At the same time however, the path from Affiliate to Associate had also been eased. What is to prevent an ambitious cricketing nation seeking a quick fix from handing out passports to willing players in the same way that Qatar has done with Ethiopian athletes?

Campbell agrees; “of course that can happen, and I think we have already seen it in some countries.”

In a chicken-and-egg scenario, smaller nations need to attract talent to encourage younger players to take up the game, but the talent is more likely to come if infrastructure and funds are already in place.

Vanuatu won the 2017 tournament that set the PCA and the ICC on collision course. Head coach Shane Deitz sees this problem first-hand.

“It is an issue with cricket and what is the best for the development of the game. The funny thing is that I am now qualified to play for Vanuatu, but I think long term it isn’t good for the game.”

An uncertain future

What happens next is unclear and it is as hard as ever to imagine what thought process is going on inside cricketing brains in Sports City Dubai.

Campbell astutely points out that the new qualification rules fall in line with those for the Olympics. In the long term, these rules may make the landscape more difficult for members of cricket’s lower tiers if larger better-funded nations such as China catch the cricket bug via the IOC.

Campbell isn’t optimistic on the short-term outlook; “I guess there’s no perfect answer but at moment it appears it won’t help Associates.”

Bosman and Kolpak changed sport forever. Only time will tell whether the PCA will be mentioned in the same breath. Whatever the future holds, the final paragraph of Beloff’s ruling is telling.

“I would only add by way of postscript… that [these players’] case is far removed from that of those sporting mercenaries, found in many sports in the globalized world, who trade nationality for cash in order to represent countries with which they have only had previously the most exiguous and formal, if any, connection.”

We have already seen the authorities redistribute the wealth around the cricketing world. This may be the start of the redistribution of the world’s cricketing talent.

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