The role of the club pro in England, and how it is perceived by English clubs in general, is evolving fast.
First, some historical context: The English club pro was introduced to the game in the late 1800’s. In the industrial heartland, the Birmingham League set the trend and were quickly followed by Lancashire and Bradford Leagues. Cricket clubs were extensions of the industries in the area, run as businesses. In a time when mobility (no cars) and leisure options (no television, no mobile phones) were limited, the local cricket club was a focal point for the community. Throw a club pro into the mix and you really have a social magnet.
With a decent salary from the local factory, supplemented by the traditional ‘collection hat’ doing the round in the pub on a Saturday night, the club pro was well off. In 1901, the right-arm opening bowler, Sydney Barnes, was picked for England while playing club cricket in Birmingham; signing for a county would have diminished his earning potential. In the 1930’s, the West Indian legend, Learie Constantine, was the club pro at Nelson in the Lancashire League and the highest-paid sportsman in England. As late as the 1970’s, the England fast bowler, Peter Lever, was earning less money playing for Lancashire than his brother, Colin, who was the club pro at Todmorden.
Beyond the money, there was also the prestige of being a club pro in England. In 1981, Andy Roberts, Michael Holding, Kapil Dev and Franklyn Stephenson were all club pros in the Lancashire League. But the proliferation of international matches since the 1990’s and the emergence of T20 cricket have restricted the availability of the big names for club cricket.
Then there was 11 September 2001. Since then, clubs have to jump through various bureaucratic hoops to get the signature of their overseas pro. In short, the club must first get a Sponsor’s Licence from the England & Wales County Board giving it permission to contract a pro. Then a Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) by providing various documents (police clearance, contract, coaching certificate, etc.). The GBE is then sent to the UK Border Agency (UKBA) for a Certificate of Sponsorship, which the overseas player must present at the UK consulate or visa office in his home country. Once the player has arrived in the UK, two officials of the club must then always vouch for his whereabouts.
The waning lustre of club cricket, coupled with the UKBA red tape, have compelled English clubs to consider whether it is still worth it to have an overseas pro. Are you buying an increased chance to win games and the league? Is the overseas pro just a symbol of the club’s purchasing power, a power statement? Do you want the pro to be a focal point of the club, nurturing young talent and inspiring the older guys? Thinking of those draconian UKBA rules, is it not perhaps better to spend the club’s money on a few local players? There are no right answers, and clubs as a result have identity crises.
Whatever the clubs’ outlook, one thing is true: The once-revered figure of “The Pro” is receding, losing prestige because of declining availability, quality, and even meaning.