Australian news June 11, 2011

Major overhaul for Futures League

One of the most widely cited contributors to Australian cricket's sharply declining fortunes over the past few summers, the Futures League, will be drastically overhauled for next season.

At the same time Simon Katich was raging against the compromises and inconsistencies he saw in Cricket Australia's management and selection structures, the board signed off on a plan to tear up most of the measures introduced to the Futures League - formerly the second XI competition - in 2009.

Age restrictions limiting the number of players over the age of 23 to three per team will be relaxed to allow six players over 23, while matches will be returned to four days' length rather than three. Restrictions on the number of overs in each innings - 96 in the first innings, 48 in the second - have also been thrown out.

The changes were recommended to the CA board by the playing conditions sub-committee, which included Mark Taylor, Matthew Hayden, Greg Chappell, Shane Warne, players' union chief executive Paul Marsh and CA chairman Jack Clarke.

Marsh said the Futures League, a gambit largely introduced by Chappell when he was head of the Centre of Excellence in Brisbane, had severely weakened domestic cricket by thinning out the number of experienced players available to state sides.

"The Futures League with the restriction of only having three players over the age of 23 has made it a very weak competition," Marsh told ESPNcricinfo. "The players would say almost universally that the gap between grade and first-class cricket has never been larger than what it is now.

"Therefore the Futures League or second XI competition, which sits in between those competitions, is even more important than ever. Yet it's being made artificially weak by these age restrictions. One of the outcomes of the playing conditions committee meeting was that they would lift that restriction to allow six players over the age of 23, which is a step in the right direction.

"From our perspective I'd prefer to see no age restrictions in there; you only need to have a few good young players coming through your system but you want to make sure that they are getting the best possible development opportunities.

"You want them to have the best possible development through that pathway and I think we've gone away from what's made us strong through our grade system and through our first-class system."

The views of Marsh have been echoed by numerous players and coaches, including Tasmania captain George Bailey, who led them to the Sheffield Shield title last summer.

"It's become really difficult to have guys who aren't in your best XI, consistently playing good, hard cricket against other teams, with that under-23 rule," Bailey said. "I've got no doubt that cricket and the way the bodies are, you play your best cricket after you're 23, and it's much the same as the Australian team. I think the best Australian players are better for having a really strong first-class system and we're much the same.

"Domestic cricket is only as good as the depth in squads, and the guys who, when they do enter first-class cricket, are ready to play. So that's been a real challenge: to keep the guys who aren't in your immediate XI or XII playing at the level that you expect of them at first-class level."

Daniel Brettig is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo