Roddy Smith: The confusing criteria of sport

THE recent confusion surrounding the eligibility of the rugby player Steven Shingler has brought into sharp focus the confusion that exists within sport in regard to how players are deemed eligible to represent a country

Although each national and international governing body is within its rights to define their own criteria to determine eligibility, they often do so in a contradictory and totally arbitrary fashion. There is little consistency across sports and in many cases sportsman and women could be comfortably eligible to represent a country in one sport but not another – with The Scotsman reporting recently that former Scotland rugby player Thom Evans is not eligible to run for Scotland at the Commonwealth Games.

There are also many varying approaches to athletes who wish to change their nationality either through a eureka moment about their heritage, or a realisation that they have a better opportunity to play internationally for a country other than their birthplace. In cricket, for example, you could play for Scotland one day and England the next if you have been born in Scotland but resident in England for four years. If you wish, a player could then reappear for Scotland four years after his last game for England. This situation has occurred twice in recent years, with Dougie Brown and Gavin Hamilton.

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Sign up to our Opinion newsletter

Many countries allow players with a parent or grandparent born in that country to be eligible, whilst most also include a residency qualification to allow players who cannot meet a blood line qualification to qualify through showing a residential commitment to that country. With the advent of more professional sports and the migration of professional players to countries outwith their own, the issue is becoming even more complex. In a small country such as Scotland, we can often use the criteria to our benefit to strengthen our playing capabilities, but often this is at odds with developing our own talent and not least the real “Scottishness” of our teams. Throughout the United Kingdom, our population travel for study and work and often settle away from their initial home. Therefore a player who was born in England to a Scottish mother and Northern Irish father who then moved to Wales could be eligible for all the home nation countries in some sports. This situation, similar to that of Shingler, will become more common. With significant rewards available for international players, there will be more and more investigation into how a player can meet his international ambitions.

The vast majority of Scottish sports have benefitted in recent years from players qualifying to represent our national sides through using the regulations to their advantage, and they would be foolish not to. Sports are judged on the success of their national team and have to weigh up their principles against potential success. The sacrifice of some negative reaction from press and fans will be immaterial against success gained on the pitch.

Cricket has in place some of the strictest eligibility criteria of any sport, through its world governing body the International Cricket Council (ICC). The criteria involve birth (player only), residency and nationality regulations only. Therefore, if a son or daughter of Scottish parents is born anywhere in the world apart from Scotland they are ineligible for Scotland unless they meet the residency qualification which is four years. When compared to one Scottish grandparent being enough in some sports – such as football and rugby – the difference is stark. Once players have qualified through residency they must also justify keeping this status by not leaving the country for more than 183 days a year, even if they have lived in Scotland for over 30 years.

The most interesting criterion is that of nationality. The ICC defines nationality as either having a passport, or by the definition given by a country’s government. In fact, a few cricketing countries have based their national side’s development solely on scouring the world looking for ancestral passport holders, or the potential to obtain one, to supplement their home-grown resources. In some instances, a player’s first visit to a country is when they travel to it for a match.

The British passport, as it covers more than a single ICC member country, is of no use in a cricketing context to Scotland (or England). However, there would be scope within the rules if the Scottish Government defined what the criteria are to be defined as Scottish. At present, Scotland is caught up in the latest nationality debate and we will have the opportunity at some point to vote on the issue in one form or another.

I have a great deal of sympathy for the SRU in the Shingler case, as they were simply using the rules as they believed and understood them, to recruit a quality player to play for Scotland. In the professional sporting context, the overall issue of eligibility is a moral, legal and political minefield. Rules in all sports will work well for one country and less well for others and this has to be accepted and dealt with. Who knows what the future may or may not bring in terms of Scotland’s nationality and independence, and its subsequent impact on eligibility for Scotland and Great Britain teams in all sports? Whatever the outcome, it is hard to imagine that the current confusion and inequity could become much worse.

• Roddy Smith is chief executive of Cricket Scotland