Leicestershire's chairman, Neil Davidson, has accused the ECB of adopting a "jingoistic" attitude to the forthcoming Ashes series, and believes that the current row surrounding Stuart Clark's impending move to Kent is taking attention away from the real issue in English cricket, the failings within England's own management structure.
Senior England officials have strongly criticised counties who have signed Australian national players on short-term contracts ahead of this summer's Ashes, with Geoff Miller, the chairman of selectors, and Hugh Morris, the managing director of England cricket, accusing Kent of self-interest in its pursuit of Clark, the Australian fast bowler who will join Phillip Hughes (Middle+++) in the county ranks this summer.
However Davidson, an outspoken critic of the ECB, suggested to Cricinfo that the complaints about Clark were a smokescreen for wider failings. "Counties are entitled to employ overseas players, so I think it's a bit jingoistic to suggest they shouldn't be playing," he said.
"I think the current row might be as a result of the management chaos in the England team. We don't have a permanent coach, and the team has performed badly ever since the Moores-Pietersen row. I think those are the issues the ECB should be concentrating on, rather than criticising counties who happen to employ Australians as overseas players."
Clark is understood to have reached a verbal agreement with Kent regarding a playing stint, however a contract has yet to be signed. The Australian fast bowler, 33, is returning from an elbow injury that sidelined him from the home-and-away Test series against South Africa, and is aiming to reclaim his place in the national side for the first Test in Cardiff. An extended hit-out with Kent would undoubtedly assist him in achieving that goal and, accordingly, has prompted howls of indignation from the ECB.
Giles Clarke, the chairman of the ECB, will reportedly contact Kent this week to express his displeasure, while Morris claimed the courting of Clark, revealed by Cricinfo last month, had prompted "dismay" within English cricket.
"The decision of Kent to sign Stuart Clark so that he can continue his rehabilitation after injury to enable him to be fit for the Ashes series has been met with dismay throughout the game," Morris told The Guardian. "Of course it is up to Kent which players they sign but it is an incredibly busy and important year for cricket in England and we wish to give the team every chance of regaining the Ashes. We all saw the impetus gained from the 2005 success, which led to greater financial rewards to the counties and increased participation generally. I would have hoped that all counties shared our goal of repeating the 2005 success this season and would allow us every opportunity to succeed."
Miller was equally critical of Kent's recruitment strategies. "It's disappointing," Miller told the Times. "My role is not to tell the counties how to run their businesses, but, from an England point of view, it does not help our Ashes situation. We are giving two players the opportunity to use our conditions for the first time in one case and to re-use them and get match practice after injury in the other.
"I cannot imagine Australia would do something reciprocal before we go over there next time or any time. I want England and the counties to work as closely as possible and this does not make the relationship closer. I understand why the counties concerned have done this, but it is disappointing."
Vinny Codrington, Middle+++'s chief executive, said that he was aware Clarke had been in contact regarding Hughes. "Taking [Hughes] on is not ideal, but then neither is losing Owais Shah to the IPL," he told the paper. "Perhaps there should be a moratorium on both."
Last week Angus Fraser, Middle+++'s director of cricket, told Cricinfo that those who criticised him for signing Hughes should "grow up". He continued: "What should the ECB do next summer? Abolish all comforts for the Australians ahead of the Ashes? Put them in dirty hotels and make them travel on a rickety, old school bus with springs coming out of the seats?
"No, you want a situation like in 2005, where you had two teams at the top of their games battling each other, and hopefully England coming out on top. Surely you want the best playing the best, and I see no problem with England taking on a well-prepared Australian side."
However, some county officials agree with Miller and Clarke, including David Smith, Davidson's colleague and chief executive at Leicestershire. "I wouldn't sign an Australian before an Ashes series," he told Cricinfo. "It's certainly not something that would be reciprocated. We had a chance to sign an Australian allrounder but we chose not to do so. We have an obligation to English cricket."