The next round of central contracts is to be shortly announced and will run from November 1st. Securing one of these contracts is primarily about recognition, but it would be naïve to ignore the associated financial rewards.
The current batch of 17 central contracts was awarded following what the ECB described as “a comprehensive and objective process” which saw all the existing contracts renewed (except Kirstie Gordon, replaced by Sophia Dunkley).
A positive spin on this would be that this demonstrated that, upon fair review, the existing squad members were adjudged to still be the best players in the country. A negative spin would be that, despite all the money and resource invested in the regional academies and the KSL, the system had produced only one cricketer capable of displacing any of the incumbents.
Less easy to justify was the usually-long duration of these contracts – 18 months; timed “to align with the professional contracts at the eight regional teams”. The first (obvious) observation is that 6-month contracts could also have achieved the same alignment. More crucially, by awarding 18-month contracts the ECB was perpetuating the ‘closed shop’ for two more seasons; committing to the same group of players regardless of their individual form or evolving team strategies whilst also ruling out the ability to award a central contract to anyone else for this entire period. Effectively nothing anyone did during 2021 (including the first season of The Hundred) could secure them a central contract whilst, conversely, holders of a central contract were guaranteed their status (and pay) regardless of performances or their level of involvement in England matches.
So, what happened?
Games During Contract Period
Obviously no one would expect teams to be chosen solely from the centrally-contracted cohort – but the right squad of 17 should contribute the vast majority of any team.
In fact, 9 players without central contracts were called up to the various teams; winning 93 caps (just under 20%).
Games During Contract Period
In addition, Emily Arlott would have made her Test debut if she hadn’t caught Covid and it’s reasonable to surmise that Tash Farrant would also have played if she hadn’t been injured.
Could anyone have predicted in May 2021 which of these 9 (or 11) would have played for England in the next 18 months? Perhaps Emma Lamb? But six months later, by October 2021, Dean had already played 5 ODIs and Bouchier 2 T20s and most observers could have confidently predicted the names of several other players who’d win their England caps in the next 12 months.
So, with the next round of central contracts due to be announced imminently, what could be done differently this time?
England’s selection process is unquestionably far more sophisticated than the days of Kirstie Gordon and Linsey Smith’s short careers (or Bryony Smith and Alice Davidson-Richard’s first incarnations), in which case all 11 of these players must be assumed to be genuine contenders for a central contract.
Yet, the only certainty is that there are 2 contracts available following the retirements of Anya Shrubsole and Fran Wilson. And 11 doesn’t go into 2!
Some of the associated conversations will therefore be difficult with significant consequences for those affected (whether positively or adversely), yet surely there is an argument that, however fair and objective the selection process, the current structure is unnecessarily binary, restrictive and incapable of accommodating the very different teams which England might want to field for e.g., the world cup compared to the Ashes.
One easy improvement would be to have 2 types of central contracts. Instead of funding 17 full contracts (i) with the risk that some players don’t / rarely play) and (ii) having no ability to accommodate emerging talent, why not fund e.g., 12 full contracts for those players envisaged to form the core of any team across the formats and 10 incremental contracts for fringe players / emerging players / restricted format players (reserving 1 or 2 of these to be awarded based on performances after the World Cup or even the County Championship or Charlotte Edwards Cup).
This would give greater financial security to more players, increase the talent pool of centrally-contracted players, facilitate improved format-specific squad selection and provide the flexibility to recognise players who press their case for selection mid-term.
I agree, the current setup of Central Contracts is clearly not fit for purpose. It is too rigid and long-term, and needs some serious re-work to be more flexible, accommodating a sub-set of “challengers” who can come in in certain formats when needed, on the basis of form and performance at domestic level. You have the basis of a good idea that could achieve this.
Also, looking at the list of centrally contracted players, there are potentially another 4 who could lose their contract giving 6 available slots
They could release all central England contracts, add a couple of higher-tiered contracts at each region for those likely to play for England in the coming year. Give any player selected for a particular series/game an extra short-term “bonus contract”/purse.
Any remaining funding could be used for improving the levels of coaching/backroom staff, etc at regional level, which would then allow more fluidity of players when in form.