Never a better time to be a professional cricketer, but rookies learn perils are huge too

Cricket has come a long way since Paul Farbrace, looking to make his way in the game, took a job picking celery as a way to make ends meet.

Farbrace was obliged to work as a postman, customs officer and teacher, too. When he signed for Kent in 1986, he was paid £2,300 a season – contracts only lasted for six months in those days – and, 10 years later, at Middlesex, was earning £11,000. If you’re thinking that might have been a decent amount at the time think again: inflation calculators suggest the Kent wage was worth, in today’s terms, just under £6,000. The Middlesex wage was worth around £18,000.

Coincidentally, £18,000 is the amount guaranteed to young players on the new ‘rookie contract’ deal. After a significant amount of lobbying by the Professional Cricketers’ Association (PCA), the players’ union, the figure was written into the new County Partnership Agreement (CPA) between the first-class counties and the ECB. It means no full-time professional aged over 21 can be paid less than £27,500 while those aged between 18-21 will be paid a minimum of £18,000. They will automatically move to the higher figure if they play the requisite amount of first-class or T20 games.

Trialists, meanwhile, will be paid a daily rate (whether they play or not) and will automatically become full-time professionals after a certain number of days. The county salary collar – the minimum amount counties can pay players – will rise from £750,000 a year in 2019 to £1.5m a year by 2024. The salary cap is rising to £2.5m.

The point of this? Research conducted over recent seasons found that some professionals were earning under the minimum wage. As little as £4,000 for the entire season in a couple of cases. Some counties – not many, to be fair – were exploiting the desperation of young people to pursue a career in the game, by employing them on terms which should be deemed unacceptable in modern sport. From now on, every contract will have to be filed with the PCA to ensure it meets its criteria.

There could be a downside to this. It could be that counties are reluctant to take a chance on players for fear it will incur too great a cost. But there are, for now at least, still 18 first-class counties – which should ensure a decent amount of opportunity for talented players – and the hope is that smaller but better paid staff will result in a less exploitative experience with more playing opportunities. After many months’ deliberation, it seems most counties have either signed their CPA deals or are about to do so.

Farbrace – a last-minute replacement for an unwell Ashley Giles – is among those invited to Edgbaston on Tuesday to address the latest batch of county recruits on the now regular ‘rookie camp’ which precedes every season. Saqib Mahmood and Rory Burns also share their experiences. Ten years ago, Burns was one of the attendees at the first rookie camp.

In those 10 years, 300 young people – there are two women and 50 men at Edgbaston for this version – have been through the process. 16 of them – men and women – have gone on to represent England at senior international level. A far higher proportion have dropped out of the game altogether.

A common phrase on the day is that there has “never been a better time to be a professional cricketer”. It’s largely true, too. With higher salaries and the proliferation of T20 leagues, today’s players will never find themselves needing to pick celery to keep the wolf from the door. “We played cricket,” Farbrace tells the young players. “But you lot are professionals.”

But the modern game has also thrown up new dangers. Among them are match-fixing, gambling (particularly on-line gambling), drugs – recreational and performance-enhancing – and the challenges presented by social media. Alarmingly, Ian Thomas, the PCA’s director of development and welfare, reports that the organisation helped 85 members with mental health issues in 2019. Forty of them (mostly, but not entirely, men) were current players. That means that just under 10 percent of professional cricketers in England and Wales are receiving help with mental health issues.

“The pressures of life are different now,” Thomas says. “And people are more willing to come forward. Marcus Trescothick made a huge contribution in taking the stigma away from mental health and we need to keep encouraging people to come forward. But it’s a tough challenge for our charity – the Professional Cricketers’ Trust – because the cost of treatment is not cheap.”

Making the transition once a playing career ends remains the biggest challenge of all. Players lose not just their livelihood, but much of their sense of purpose and identity. Gone is the salary and the support network of the dressing room. Giles believes every player he knows has struggled in the aftermath. Some never fully recover and move on.

So as part of these rookie contracts, players are obliged to undergo further personal development. This can take the form of education or vocational training and work placements. The hope is this will ensure the number of former players falling on hard times – and there are some horrific stories of poverty out there – are minimised. The PCA’s funding has been increased by around 23 percent and that money has gone almost entirely on employing three more personal development managers (there are six at present) to help players plan their next steps.

Over the course of the day, the young players are given presentations about social media, corruption, the law and gambling; the last given by Patrick Foster, who enjoyed a brief first-class career before developing a gambling addiction that had appalling consequences. In the coming weeks, they will also be obliged to take on-line tutorials about drugs, corruption and the issue of sexual consent. Every professional player registered in England was obliged to sit through such a session in 2019.

In recent years Chris Lewis and Mervyn Westfield – jailed for their parts in drug trafficking and match-fixing respectively – have provided cautionary tales for young players. In time, Thomas agrees, Alex Hepburn, currently serving a five-year sentence for rape, may have a role to play in providing similar testimony.

Will any of this help England win more games? Probably not. But that’s not really the point. It’s more about learning from the past and helping today’s young players avoid the mistakes made by their predecessors. It’s about a duty of care towards young people making their way in a sport in which, even if they excel, they will probably be forced to leave in their mid-30s.

“We’ve saved a lot of lives,” Thomas says as he reflects on the PCA’s contribution. And he’s no doubt right. There’s not only never been a better time to play the game, there’s probably never been a better time to leave it, either.