Winter now brings big paydays not empty schedules for English cricketers

It was just over 20 years ago that Surrey’s Ed Giddins and Nadeem Shahid spent the first half of the off-season getting needles in their socks flogging Christmas trees at Wandsworth roundabout. Times have changed rather rapidly since then. Gone are the six months of empty schedules and emptier pockets. Nearly all players are on full-time contracts with their counties and not many of Surrey’s Championship-winning squad are hanging around to pull crackers with Alec Stewart over the mince pies.

Surrey’s England players are doing England things, while Ben Geddes, Josh Blake, Tom Lawes and Cam Steel are playing club cricket in Australia. Gus Atkinson is plying his trade in the Abu Dhabi T10 and Chris Jordan is rolling out for the Sydney Sixers in the Big Bash. Surrey are also sending out a handful of their youngsters – Conor McKerr, Nick Kimber, Gus Atkinson and Nathan Barnwell – to be net bowlers in the new UAE T20 competition at the beginning of next year. Dan Worrall breaks the mould, going back to Australia to continue his master’s degree in applied finance.

Fifty miles south, and 16 places lower in the final Championship tables, there are similar plans at Sussex. Three players – Fynn Hudson-Prentice and the 21-year-olds Ollie Carter and Ali Orr (run out for 198 on the last day of the season) – are heading to Adelaide. Tom Haines and Jack Carson are with the England Lions in the UAE – alongside such youngsters as the Leicestershire leg-spinner Rehan Ahmed and those who have already had a dip in the big time such as Haseeb Hameed and Dan Lawrence. For others, including Steven Finn, it is rehab, woolly hats and winter training at the Hove indoor school.

A quick glance at players’ social media posts shows a similar pattern round the country. There is Yorkshire’s Adam Lyth, looking chirpy as he arrives to play for Northern Warriors in the sixth season of the Abu Dhabi T10; while the squad list for the Desert Vipers, one of the teams lined up for the UAE T20 league early next year, has a familiar hue. Lyth’s face pops up again, alongside Tymal Mills, Alex Hales, Benny Howell, Saqib Mahmood, Sam Billings, Tom Curran, Ben Duckett and Scotland’s Mark Watt.

Desert Vipers are owned by Lancer Capital, a private equity firm chaired by Avram Glazer of Manchester United fame – the Glazers getting involved with cricket just as they look set to dump their football club. With top players earning $450,000 for the six-week tournament, the new competition has leapt over the Big Bash and Pakistan Super League to become the second most-lucrative cricket tournament out there. Only the Indian Premier League lies ahead on its velvet chaise longue, where top-earning players can pocket nearly $2m for their efforts.

Such money swilling around would have been beyond even the wildest fantasies of county cricketers of the past. Players were laid off at the end of the season, and expected to pick up work that would tide them over until the beginning of April – whereupon they would suddenly, and brutally, have to run themselves into fitness.

Much of the winter work available was physical, tiring and cold, if not carbon-budget busting. While the pint-sized Harry Pilling used to dig graves, Ian Austin worked at his physique by hauling heavy carcasses about for a Lancashire butcher. Building sites were the destination for many a cricketer with a forlorn-looking CV. Ian Botham turned out for Scunthorpe, Denis Compton on the wing for Arsenal and Arnie Sidebottom for Manchester United, Halifax and Huddersfield. Graham Gooch, though he never made the team, spent his six months away from the game training with his childhood love, West Ham.

The media has always flirted with cricketers. Retired players pop up in suits mid-innings on BT Sport at unsociable hours of the winter, but Test Match Special’s Jonathan Agnew cut his journalism teeth with BBC Radio Leicestershire in the late 1980s, working as a sports producer in the off-season. Such opportunities may be rarer in the future with the proposed cuts to BBC local radio funding.

In the women’s game there are still some who maintain their other careers alongside cricket. At Central Sparks, seven of the players are on 12-month contracts, the others have pay-as-you-play status. Liz Russell fits cricket around being an NHS pharmacist and Anisha Patel with working in pharmacovigilance – but combining the two is becoming harder. Central Sparks also have a handful of students – Grace Potts is at Loughborough studying psychology, Ria Fackrell has split her final year there over two years and is playing club cricket in Australia, while four Sparks join England’s Under-19 T20 World Cup squad.

At the top level, four England players – Alice Capsey (Melbourne Stars), Sophie Ecclestone (Sydney Sixers), Tammy Beaumont (Sydney Thunder) and Danni Wyatt (Brisbane Heat) – have been picked up for the Women’s Big Bash.

But not all old players look back on those old 20th century winters with discontent. Surrey and Nottinghamshire’s Darren Bicknell spent some of his off-seasons working in a knitwear factory. “We were able to do what we wanted to do, which was, in some ways, really good,” he told the Cricketer.

“It gave you a break from cricket but also meant that you got to see the real world – not just the cricket world you got cocooned in.” It also meant players could spend time reconnecting with their families and live relatively normal lives – at least six months of the year.