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7 June, 2021 05:12:02 PM

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Mandatory release and Netherlands' missing middle-order

Cricbuzz, Bangalore
Mandatory release and Netherlands' missing middle-order
With several key players featuring for their counties, Netherlands captain Pieter Seelaar has been left with a severely understrength side. Image Credit: Getty

The ongoing series between the Netherlands and Ireland, the first the Dutch have played in the ICC Cricket World Cup Super League, have been a long time coming. The Netherlands' debut in the 13-team league, the first three of 24 ODIs against Full Member opposition as the sole Associate representative at the top level of ICC ODI competition, is the culmination of a three-year campaign that began at World Cricket League Division 2 in Namibia in early 2015 and ended at the ICC Academy Ground at Dubai in December of 2017, where the Dutch clinched the World Cricket League Championship and earned their place in the Super League.

Since then they have had three more years to prepare, one more than anticipated, for their entry into the competition against old rivals Ireland in one of the series they were targeting in their pursuit of the half dozen or more wins they'll likely need to avoid the risk of relegation.

Since December 2017 this series is what the Dutch have been building toward, yet when they took the field against the Irish at Utrecht on Wednesday for the first ODI, the team that donned the orange for the Netherlands was markedly understrength. Weaker, in fact, than the one they fielded for those final matches in the WCL Championship. When facing Namibia on that day in Dubai, Roelof van der Merwe took three top-order wickets in succession to break the momentum of the Namibia innings. Also in orange that day, for the first time since he made a century against Ireland in the Netherlands' last match at the 2011 World Cup, was the iconic all-rounder Ryan ten Doeschate.

Neither took the field against Ireland on Wednesday. Also absent from the Dutch middle-order was Colin Ackermann, as was Michael Rippon, the left-arm wrist spinner and middle-order bat who deserves as much credit as anyone for the Netherlands qualifying for the competition. The Netherlands' entire first-choice middle order is missing for their most important series in years, arguably in their history.

And they have been much missed.

Captain Pieter Seelaar, promoted up the order, has struggled in the number five position, whilst Bas de Leede and Saqib Zulfiqar, understudies to the absent middle order, showed admirable determination and resistance on a difficult pitch but never got on top of the Ireland bowling attack. Across the two matches thus far the Dutch middle-order has contributed barely a hundred runs between them at a strike rate under 50. On Wednesday a lower-order rally and an impressive effort with the ball saw the Dutch scrape a one-run last-ball victory. On Friday the makeshift middle-order again let the hosts down, and there would be no such recovery. Given the quality of the bowling display put on by Joshua little and Craig Young on Friday, it's entirely possible Ireland would have won regardless, but it seems certain that had the Netherlands had their best team on the field the second match might have been closer and the first likely less so.

The whereabouts of the missing middle-order is no great mystery, of course. While Rippon's absence essentially comes down to force of circumstance (a trip over for the series from New Zealand where he is now based would effectively leave him stranded, as Covid regulations would prevent him re-entering the country) the rest of the Dutch batting was across the North Sea turning out for their employers in the County Championship. Ten Doeschate was playing for Essex against Nottinghamshire alongside fellow Dutch international Shane Snater. Ackermann was captaining Leicestershire to a commanding win over Gloucestershire, while van der Merwe was back in the Somerset red-ball side leading the spin attack in the absence of Jack Leach, and hit a counter-attacking 88 in the first innings of the draw against Hampshire.

The Netherlands are not exactly happy with this situation. High-Performance manager Roland Lefebvre puts it with typical Dutch frankness; "It goes without saying that we are very disappointed not to have our best team on the park against Ireland." And in principle, the KNCB (Royal Dutch Cricket Board) would be within their rights to do more than express disappointment. The ongoing ODI series is part of ICC competition and against full member opposition, and as such the policy of "mandatory release" applies. In theory, while the series is ongoing, counties need the KNCB's permission to field their Dutch internationals. The language in the relevant regulations, reaffirmed by both the ICC and ECB in 2008, is uncompromising.

"The ICC and its Members recognise the overriding importance of international cricket as the lifeblood of the sport around the world ... Accordingly, it must be a condition of participation in a domestic match/event that all participating players from overseas hold valid No-Objection Certificates for the match or event as issued by their respective Members. A Member's right to object to the participation of its players in such an event extends beyond merely ensuring availability for International Matches to encompass issues relating to the player's form, fitness and upcoming international commitments (as well as other contractual obligations). It also extends to players who have recently retired from International Cricket, e.g. in the previous two years (in order to prevent players retiring from International Cricket simply in order to participate in a Domestic Cricket Event)."

Yet while the rules are clear and accompanied by high-minded sentiments, the fact is that in practice mandatory release is a paper tiger. Lefebvre generously describes its usefulness as "questionable," explaining "we can invoke the mandatory release clause and not sign the NOC but don't want to use that tool as we don't want to create tension between player and county. For us, our relationship with the player and county is the most important thing. This can be seen as a triangular relationship; player-KNCB, player-county, KNCB-county. We always talk to county players first before discussing a possible release with the county."

And indeed spokesman for Leicestershire confirmed "we have good working relationships with international governing bodies and will always consider requests regarding our players representing their countries." But clarified that "the club has had no approach from Cricket Netherlands to release Colin for the forthcoming series with Ireland." Thus it seems Leicestershire were not formally approached by the KNCB regarding Ackermann's release, while Essex did not say as much, ten Doeschate's fierce loyalty to his County is well known. Somerset did not respond to requests for comment, but the sentiment or calculation for players and counties is likely broadly similar. The counties provide the players with a livelihood, and they play with their county teammates week in, week out.

While it is true that the Netherlands players are all able to play as locals in the County Championship by virtue of their Dutch nationality, none of those in question are the product of the Dutch development system. Not that the connections to the Netherlands are as trivial as ancestry and a passport, indeed played in the Dutch competition before moving across to England. Van der Merwe moved to the Netherlands to play for Amsterdamsche Cricket Club before winning a contract with Somerset, Ackermann won the Dutch Topklasse with Dosti Amsterdam before being snapped up by Leicestershire, ten Doeschate likewise spent some time with Bloemendaal CC in the Dutch second division before moving to Essex, while his team-mate Shane Snater initially turned heads at Essex playing against them in a tour match for Netherlands A. Yet while the KNCB has a claim to the players according to regulations, it is difficult to argue a moral claim to precedence in the case of players that the Dutch did not produce and cannot provide a stable salary.

While on paper the rules governing clashes between domestic cricket and internationals are clear, in practice three-way negotiations between the Associate boards, the Full Member domestic teams and players, even conducted in good faith, will only ever lead to one result. It's not a good look for the Super League as a whole for a team to perforce be picking an understrength side, but given commercial and competitive realities, if the ICC wishes to defend the integrity of their competitions it cannot leave it to Associate boards to do all the talking. Back in 2008 the ICC and ECB promised that "we will continue to proactively remind counties of their mandatory obligations in this regard," yet neither have taken any action to remedy the current situation. "The ECB and ICC don't want to get involved in this" Lefebvre says plainly, and indeed an enquiry to the ICC was answered simply with a link to the relevant regulations.

Nor are the Netherlands' availability problems limited to players contracted to English domestic sides. South Australia were famously reluctant to allow Tom Cooper to skip matches, even during the World T20. And the three county players are not the only notable omissions from the Dutch middle order this week. Another Dutch South-African dual national, Eastern Province's Tristan Stubbs, was also in line for a call-up ahead of the series. Currently averaging 212 in the Netherlands Topklasse for title-holders Excelsior'20, Stubbs looked an obvious answer to the Dutch middle-order woes. Yet rather than joining the national team in their bio-bubble for the series, Saturday saw Stubbs back in action for his club down in Schiedam. While Stubbs himself sensibly declined to comment, the word around the ground was that the Dutch camp had indeed tried to persuade him to play but that it's been made clear that doing so would jeopardise his career in South Africa, with Cricket South Africa understandably concerned that they may lose another talented young player.

Again there are rules in place to prevent precisely such a situation. The ICC reversed their 2017 decision to amend the eligibility rules, backtracking on the introduction of a waiting period of three years for players switching from an Associate to a Full Member, after in became clear that several Associates, most notably Scotland, would likely face a string of international retirements. As it stands there is no such waiting period. Stubbs could play for the Netherlands in this series and for South Africa the following week, much as Rippon appearing for the Dutch would not compromise his ambitions to represent his adopted home of New Zealand. Indeed CSA would do better to worry about the youngster pursuing a county career, where ECB incentives that reward counties fielding young England-eligible players could lead to pressure on Stubbs to pursue naturalisation, as another young Dutch batsman, Alexei Kervezee, chose to do some years ago. Yet neither Stubbs nor the KNCB is in a position to make this case publicly or effectively.

With a career as a cricketer for the Netherlands (or indeed many other associates) still a financially questionable prospect, players cannot afford to ignore such considerations. Likewise compensating counties or other domestic sides when players are called up is not something the KNCB is prepared to budget for. As Lefebvre points out, "Comparing the ECB and the KNCB is like comparing apples and pears. We are not in a position to compensate if players are called up. If the ECB plays a Super League series at home they will get all their county players released. The ECB gives substantial financial support to all counties which puts this in a different perspective. Counties are not in a position to say no to the ECB but they can do so to the KNCB."

Yet it's not clear that the ICC could or should intervene financially in such situations either. While the Netherlands do enjoy increased funding compared to other Associates as a result of their participation in the league, it's questionable whether already limited ICC associates funding should be going toward securing the services of professional cricketers who are based overseas and did not learn their cricket in the Netherlands, especially when the majority of the Netherlands-based squad are still eking out a living on part-time contracts. One can make a case that the root of the Netherlands' problems lies in part in the failures of their own development system resulting in a reliance on batsmen sourced from the Dutch diaspora, and in part in the game's long-standing lack of financial self-sufficiency in the country. While this series marked a significant step in that direction as the first to be broadcast on domestic television in the country, it was notable that the Netherlands new shirts, whilst boasting a proud Dutch Lion emblazoned on the side, conspicuously lack any sponsor. Given the demands of development programs and administration costs on the budget, the KNCB is a long way from being able to maintain a full squad on professional salaries.

In the end there is a limit to what can be done given these financial realities, at least in the particular case of the Netherlands. Yet the Dutch are not the only country facing such issues, and it's equally clear that the ICC is not pushing up against that limit as things stand. It is in the interests of the ICC itself, not just those of its smaller members, to safeguard the integrity and primacy of the international game. The rules as they stand reflect that reality, but the ICC seemingly makes no effort to enforce them, or even to particularly encourage their observation. Where rules are so routinely flouted their credibility is undermined, as is that of those making or endorsing them.

Twelve years ago, the most recent time the ICC made a statement on the subject, there was some recognition of the policy's failure. "The ICC and its Members have been disappointed and concerned that the Player Release Policy has thus far not always been able to achieve its express aim of ensuring that Associates are at full strength for vital international matches. This has been unfortunate. The idea that an Associate Member is not at full strength when playing an ODI against a Full Member that is at full strength does not match the ICC's development objectives and is obviously not good for the development of the game."

The problem has not gone away, though it seems as though the will to address it has evaporated in the intervening decade. In fact, what has become clear is that the ICC's stated policy seeks to turn an aspiration into a mandate in an area where the ICC has little real power. Yet for as long as full members continue to reap the financial rewards of ICC events at the global level, the game's nominal governing body is not entirely without influence. It's unlikely that any new regulation or reaffirmation would fully solve the issue in the long term, but some more proactive engagement might yet go far.

 

SI

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Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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