Is this a new era of specialists?

After serving Worcestershire with distinction for 16 seasons and helping the club to three County Championship titles, Ron Headley decided in early 1975 that, with a job offer outside the sport, he no longer wished to play first-class cricket but could still turn out for them in the one-day competitions.

Finding his employers unwilling to agree, Headley – son of the great West Indies batsman George and father to the future England seamer Dean – cancelled his registration at New Road and, following special dispensation granted at a meeting of the old Test and County Cricket Board at Lord’s, the 35-year-old then signed for Derbyshire, where he would see out his playing days as as a limited-overs specialist over the next two summers.

“We are not objecting to Headley’s special registration, but we are not very happy about it for the good of cricket,” chuntered Jack Roberts, the Worcestershire chairman, to the Birmingham Post at the time. If that sounded like an early warning over the game splitting by way of format, the gripe in fact surrounded the nature of Headley’s transfer between the two clubs. The stylish left-hander’s new preference for the short stuff barely caused a murmur.

Headley’s departure was cited last week on the club’s website in response to the decision of Adil Rashid and Alex Hales to place their first-class careers in cold storage. There are clear differences – the modern pair are in their prime, age-wise, rather than winding down and have both played Test cricket in the past 18 months – but it was, nevertheless, a reminder that the precedent of specialism goes back further than the advent of Twenty20.

In essentially taking a pay cut to rest at the start of the county season, both Rashid and Hales could be viewed as simply continuing what has served them so well on the field, weighing up risk against reward and backing their instincts.

The luxury of being centrally contracted by England may have helped them in doing so but with time in the middle now reduced, grooving their respective games will be a greater challenge and there are no givens beyond their existing deals with Yorkshire and Nottinghamshire. They believe they can pull it off and hit new heights. Good luck to them, says The Spin.

But while they are just two of the 400 or so professionals who will ply their trade during the English summer – this is no exodus just yet – they are not exactly pioneers when you consider the number of overseas cricketers already travelling the world as short-form freelancers. Rashid and Hales have somehow heightened the existential angst surrounding cricket’s future; one that Jos Buttler, their England team-mate, recently predicted could result in a one-format sport.

Will such decisions start to be witnessed from players earlier in their careers? With overseas Twenty20 leagues now in abundance (Canada and Sri Lanka have announced new ventures in the past week alone), the County Championship pushed to the margins of summer and a second Twenty20 competition starting in 2020, the landscape in England and Wales certainly appears ripe for throwing up such specialists in greater numbers.

But while those running the English game talk this up as the answer to three diverging formats in an international schedule they choose to cram so glutinously, can the 18 first-class counties that underpin the national team really accommodate a raft of short-form only players?

And though the Championship remains a much-cherished competition, the value of which should be judged beyond those sat in the stands (the BBC, for example, recorded 2.6m streams of its radio commentary last season via the website alone), will its future quality not be compromised by this?

Ashley Giles, who as the sporting director at Warwickshire oversees all levels at the club from academy to first team, is one of many in cricket predicting more players to follow Hales and Rashid but maintains that counties will still look to develop all-format players from the outset; after all, given the transient nature of the freelance Twenty20 lifestyle, only the best will make specialism truly work.

“It’s a very fragile existence and there are only so many overseas places in the Twenty20 leagues around the world,” said Giles. “There are no guarantees, you will have to be among the best because I can see those leagues becoming more and more cutthroat and transactional, like American sports.”

The luxury of being centrally contracted by England may have helped Alex Hales and Adil Rashid, above, to slim down their cricket schedules. Photograph: Paul Childs/Reuters

The former England spinner’s expectation too is that the £1.3m each county receives from the new Twenty20 competition could see those clubs who have perhaps prioritised white-ball cricket of late invest more in their Championship squads, especially if the conference system mooted in some quarters – one that ends the short-term expediency of promotion/relegation, and gives every team a title shot – is adopted.

From the ongoing Lions tour of the Caribbean, the head coach, Andy Flower, told The Spin that while white-ball specialism has been a “hot topic” among his squad, the next generation remain desperate to represent their country regardless of the format. “That said, no one knows which way the game is going. It’s exciting in some ways and worrying in others. But the players are watching and waiting like everyone else,” he added.

“I worry about how the ICC are going to shape the future of the game and balance franchise and international cricket. It is going to take some wisdom and clarity to make good decisions in this regard.”

Clarity is something Joe Root similarly called for this past week . Among his observations on the topic, which included encouragement for the Test careers of Hales and Rashid down the line, despite neither being picked during his captaincy reign, Root echoed a common sentiment among players that, in an ideal world, those scheduling the sport would not force participants to choose. It read as a call for less being more, from a player who admitted to some unease at both entering the IPL auction and resting from England’s recent tri-series.

Indeed beyond the future workings of the English game, the greatest fault line occurs between the Twenty20 leagues and the international game overall. How the West Indies team trying to qualify for the World Cup in the coming weeks, for example, would dearly love to call upon some of those currently turning out for teams in the Pakistan Super League.

But though windows for the Twenty20 league are often cited as a solution here, the International Cricket Council appears reluctant to do so beyond some moves to free up time around the Indian Premier League; to accommodate them all, in fairness, would turn cricket into a Twenty20 greenhouse.

Instead, the governing body is hoping the new Test championship from late 2019 onwards, one that slims down the volume of obligated matches but adds an extra layer of meaning and the carrot of a showpiece final, will re-energise the format outside the marquee series involving England, Australia and India.

Calling this Test championship (and to a lesser extent the accompanying 13-team ODI league) the last roll of the dice for the international game would be as extreme a prediction as Buttler’s one-format sport, but what emerges at the end of the initial cycle remains a huge unknown.

With huge slabs of prize money unlikely to be offered – one senior ICC source told The Spin it would take away from development projects and the women’s game – it will likely still be a case of international cricket’s glory and prestige going up against the market forces of Twenty20 and thus there is every chance the players, for all the vast opportunities on offer, will remain as torn as ever.

This is an extract taken from The Spin, the Guardian’s weekly cricket email. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.

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