During 2007, the issue of associate players not being released by their counties for international duty has become much more of an issue. Associate countries are time and time again being unable to select their best players.
The ICC did introduce a mandatory release policy in 2006, for certain events listed below:
Whilst there were thankfully no player release issues for the World Cup, and events 2-4 didn't take place in 2007, the matches under 5 and 6 did see issues, as follows:
There are also matches for which release is "encouraged" such as the Intercontinental Cup, but problems arise there even more. Recently it was revealed that Durham may prefer to use Kyle Coetzer for a warm-up tour instead of allowing him to play for Scotland in their Intercontinental Cup match against Namibia in April.
We'll only be looking at the mandatory release problems in this article.
What do the countries think of the issue? Roddy Smith of Cricket Scotland says, "I think the situation at present is OK. In the past few years we have had players at Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Durham and have good relationships with all of them. The situation is not an easy one for the counties, the countries and most of all for the players themselves."
"We cannot expect to get contracted players outwith the stipulations set down by the ICC for their release. The players are county cricketers first and country cricketers second."
Smith's attitude is a little disappointing. Firstly, Scotland clearly don't get contracted players even with the stipulations set down by the ICC. I don't think we can say that Scotland have good relationships with Durham, considering their constant refusal to release Kyle Coetzer all year, including on occasions when Durham didn't have a match to play.
Warren Deutrom from the ICU is a little more candid, saying with regards to matches against full members, "If we're not competing with our best players, then we're giving ourselves even less of a chance to play against teams which are notionally better prepared, more professional and better equipped to win than we are."
James Fitzgerald of the ICC indicates what the main problem is with the mandatory release rules as they stand at the moment, saying "The current policy does not take out the element of player choice so it is fair to say that countries do not always get all their first-choice players out on the field." The problem of player choice is also indicated by Warren Deutrom: "You can have all the rules in the world, but if the player himself is under some form of moral pressure from his county not to give up his place, it's very tough for him."
This gets to the main issue here; player choice. The rules are only mandatory for the counties, not the players. They can make themselves unavailable. One would certainly hope that Eoin Morgan doesn't really consider a Twenty20 Cup match more important than ODIs against India and South Africa, so one can only assume that he is being put under some pressure from Middlesex, and that the same applies to Kyle Coetzer. The threat of losing ones income is something that has to be taken seriously.
So is the answer to adopt the rules of soccer and require that players either play for their country or don't play for their club? Deutrom points out the problems with that saying, "If [a player] gives up his place in a County squad to play in a 'mandatory release' match and his replacement plays well, thereby displacing him in the side, he may wish to reconsider giving up his place in the first instance."
Though if the player is not allowed to play for a county if he refuses to play in a mandatory release match, that problem is negated, but the separate problem arises of a player actually retiring from international duty for the associate nation in question to enable him to play for his county all the time. This is especially pressing for players who have indicated their desire to qualify for England, such as Eoin Morgan.
James Fitzgerald has indicated that the issue is up for discussion at the next meeting of the ICC's Chief Executives' Committee in February, and Warren Deutrom has said that the ICC are looking to "tighten up the regulations". This has to be done very carefully so that a good balance between associates being able to select their best teams, and their top players being able to further their professional careers.
Playing domestic cricket in a Test playing nation can certainly help a player from an associate nation. But there is a point at which it could become detrimental to the associate nation in question. They may have put in a lot of time, effort and money into developing a player, only to find that all that work was essentially worthless as the player is unavailable for the national side. The ICC need to step in and tighten the regulations before a culture develops amongst the counties that the mandatory release rules are toothless.
Durham CCC and Middlesex CCC, as the main "culprits" in this issue, were invited to comment for this article, as were the ECB. None of them chose to respond.