Cricket: Who's next in line?

By Dylan Cleaver

Three players appear to have the inside running to take the New Zealand Cricket (NZC) contract vacated by Hamish Marshall.

Daryl Tuffey, Craig Cumming and Mathew Sinclair are understood to have just missed out on the central contracts announced at the start of the month and could see themselves offered a $45,000 lifeline.

In a shock announcement on Friday, Marshall declined the offer of a central contract to pursue opportunities overseas. That may open the door again for Sinclair or Cumming, although Cumming nominated Sinclair as the one he expected to gain a contract after originally being omitted.

Marshall, 28, is currently registered as an overseas player with Gloucestershire but he carries an Irish passport, meaning he can remain as a local 'Kolpak' player. He has not played test cricket since the tour of South Africa last April and was a late addition to New Zealand's squad at the World Cup, where he featured in three matches and scored one half-century.

New Zealand manager Lindsay Crocker said the selectors would make a decision early next week.

The obvious choice is the player numbered 21 on their original list but, if that is Tuffey, it might not make sense to replace a specialist batsman with a bowler. The next batsman on the list would almost certainly be Cumming or Sinclair, with Cumming probably having the inside running based on the past two tests and his ability to open, undoubtedly New Zealand's Achilles heel.

However, he has told the Otago Daily Times that he would be surprised to be offered a contract and expected that Sinclair would be offered it instead. Sinclair has indicated he is looking offshore to further his career, though his lack of a UK passport might hinder him.

Others in the frame could be Hamish's twin brother James but he also holds an Irish passport and the Herald on Sunday understands he could also investigate opportunities in the United Kingdom, which would also rule him out of New Zealand consideration.

The England and Wales Cricket Board is reducing the number of overseas players allowed per county next season from two to one, making players such as the Marshalls attractive to coaches and marketers.

One of the problems facing NZC is an unavoidable one. Players ranked 17 to 20 receive a retainer of $45,000, which is fine only if it is being regularly topped up by the $6000 and $2500 payments awarded for tests and one-day internationals respectively.

However, those ranked in that low tier are there for a reason: they are fringe players at best and would expect limited opportunities only.

Players' Association manager Heath Mills said the contract system was robust and well regarded by players and administrators.

"But some players will be at risk of missing out on match payments and therefore will make a decision based not on emotion but on professional opportunities. This will guarantee [Marshall] being in a really good financial situation when he retires."

This is what motivated Marshall, understood to have been disappointed his ranking had slipped into the bottom tier, to seek the security of being able to pursue contracts on both sides of the hemisphere, enabling him to play for pay 12 months of the year.

Marshall admitted his decision was based on securing his financial future. "This has been the most difficult decision of my life," he said. "I have been extremely proud to represent my country during the last six years."

So while it might be nice to play with the silver fern on your chest, it does necessarily pay the bills.

* Brendon McCullum is poised to announce he is returning to Otago to play his domestic cricket, a situation that could see New Zealand's two contracted wicketkeepers in the southern-most association. McCullum moved to Canterbury for the 2003-04 season with Gareth Hopkins moving the other way in return. Hopkins was in outstanding form for Otago last season, earning himself a New Zealand contract.

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