April 4, 2012

'Goodbye to the park bench'

My name is Kenny Shovel and I'm determined to have my say ...

My name is Kenny Shovel and I'm determined to have my say ...

I hate winter, with its interminable months of feigning interest in New Zealand v Sri Lanka, failing to find pattern or logic in the coming summer’s fixture list, and wondering which players will need to take a long hard look at themselves after only giving 109% during pre-season training. With no live cricket to watch, the closest you get to a day at the county ground is drinking beer on a deserted park bench. Although without the threat of somebody in a high visibility tabard insisting you move out of the family friendly seating, it’s just not the same.

Fortunately you can always rely on the ECB to prepare you for summer, as their ability to bend the light of common sense round the gravity well of modern sports administration has long since turned English cricket’s regular bouts of domestic restructuring madness into an unwanted New Year surprise.

Their latest attempt to herd 18 cats towards water, the Morgan Review, has proved as welcome with supporters as a postal order from Allen Stanford. I forget the exact small print - something about umpires dressing as the Banana Splits during T20 games and leg-side boundaries scoring Pi, I think – but the headline change was the proposed reduction in first-class matches. Given the Championship is the one part of the English season that spectators around the county circuit believe works well, it’s little wonder plans to change it were greeted with the enthusiasm normally reserved for a dentist who’s offered to mend your bridging work by punching you in the face.

Of course, no one would suggest that the English domestic season is perfect. It’s clearly in need of better organisation. Ask supporters for suggestions and you’ll get a list as long as Joel Garner’s arm. The trouble is, no one ever does bother to ask them. The Morgan Review was supposedly a result of extensive consultation. But who did they ask? County CEO’s, coaches, sponsors, various media outlets, Larry Mullen Jr, the cast and crew of hit American show Cougar Town, but relatively few spectators. Certainly no large-scale canvassing of opinion. As fans, we’re just the ones who are expected to turn up year after year, pay our money, and accept that the game isn’t played for our benefit. Because if ignoring your existing supporter base was cool, county cricket would be the Miles Davis of sport.

It’s an attitude that feeds into the dysfunctional nature of the English game. The two major branches, Team England and the county circuit, have a mutual dependence, with the counties needing money generated by international cricket to be financially viable, and the England side reliant on the counties to develop experienced players capable of performing at the highest level. Yet for county supporters it’s a relationship that feels overwhelmingly one-sided, with the Championship itself - supposedly the jewel in the crown of the domestic game - shown a distinct lack of respect as it’s shoved ever earlier into the unpredictable weather of April to make way for a T20 competition where games come so thick and fast that they disenfranchise fans on a budget and leave anyone who doesn’t enjoy the format with a month in the middle of summer that’s cricket free.

More frustration comes at just how far down the pecking order county cricket finds itself when it comes to player availability. As priority is given not only to appearances for England, but also England Lions, England U-19’s, strength and conditioning camps, IPL, IPL strength and conditioning camps, and invitations to Giles Clarke’s midsummer Hawaiian luau. Avoid all that and, should Andy Flower feel inclined, your county just might get to field a player it’s been developing since he was a pre-teen. Little wonder that some county supporters have an ambivalence boarding on hostility towards Team England; hardly a development that’s in the best interests of the game.

Yet for all that, county cricket continues to survive, ambling along as it’s always done. The one man and his dog image remains largely an exaggeration from those who don’t watch domestic cricket. Concerns about the age demographic of supporters that attend games are exactly the same as when I first started watching cricket thirty years ago. Chances are they’ll still be the same in another thirty years’ time, when the generation currently following the county game from their work computers are making up the crowd.

Not that I’ll be waiting that long. Come April 5 I’ll be sitting in the stands waiting for the first ball of summer. And that moment is just round the corner now.

Kenny Shovel has never sat in a press box or charged a match programme to expenses