May 4, 2012

England Lions: the team you often pick but never watch

Hell yeah

Hell yeah! The first England Lions squad of the year has been announced! You’re cheering, right? Punching the air as you sit behind your keyboard? Mentally giving humanity a group hug? Ok, perhaps not.

For county supporters, Lions games tend to illicit an emotional response somewhere in the range of indifference through to dread, with isolated feelings of arousal from that weird bloke in the main stand that everyone prays goes and sits next to someone else; you know the one I mean.

But while the matches themselves are viewed with the same level of interest as an audio book of the telephone directory narrated by Bob Willis, the actual make up of the squad is always a talking point. Which counties are producing potential England players, which counties aren’t and more importantly, which of your side’s best players will be stopped from appearing in the championship this time?

The problem is that Lions selections can feel like a county is being punished for success, as when you get your season off to a good start like Kent, you find your most in-form player, Matt Coles, gets taken away from you.

That’s how Lions games are viewed by spectators – as yet another excuse for the ECB to weaken the championship. But for once I have some sympathy with those organising the English domestic schedule. After all, what is the purpose of Lions home games? A chance to observe the best young cricketers in the country as they compete against emerging players from overseas? Sure, but there’s more to it than that.

There’s also an element of reciprocation. The ECB are duty bound to provide touring sides with the best possible opposition, as that is what we expect in return. And in general that is what the Lions - or England A or the Development Squad or The Justice League of the Home Counties or whatever the hell they’re calling themselves that particular winter – gets when they tour abroad.

On several occasions opposition cricket boards have gone as far as integrating an England tour into their own domestic first-class competition. England Lions took part in the Caribbean four-day tournament in 2011, as did an England A team containing Ian Bell and Graeme Swann ten years prior to that. Monty Panesar and Jonathan Trott were also part of an England side which competed in the Duleep Trophy, India’s regional first-class competition, back in 2008.

But what have overseas development sides touring England traditionally received in return? A series of friendlies scheduled against county opposition. But county sides in name only. Teams packed with second eleven and academy youngsters, fringe players, bowlers coming back from injury, batsmen out of form and in need of time in the middle.

If counties are not prepared to field their first team for these kinds of matches they can hardly complain if the ECB have to organise better quality opposition for touring sides. But then with no incentive to do so, why would a county coach risk injury to his most valuable assets? It’s a circle that seems difficult to square.

That’s why I’ve come up with a proposal. That we follow the lead shown by India and the West Indies and integrate touring overseas development sides into the championship, with each county getting an extra home game that counts towards the title.

Now, before you ask, both my paddles are still in the water and I’m fully aware that this idea has no chance of ever being agreed. That’s what makes it perfect.

As what I’m actually suggesting is that during the off-season, county supporters petition the ECB en masse for an expansion of the championship to seventeen games and then, as soon as they show the slightest indication of taking that idea seriously, petition them again to leave the championship alone. That way, by the time they’ve finished discussing my completely unworkable idea they won’t have chance to produce a far more idiotic suggestion of their own.

Together, county cricket supporters can use the power of pre-emptive stupidity to prevent the ECB’s annual domestic structure revue turning from its usual omnishambles into a permanightmare. I believe this tactic is known in American sports as running interference and I commend it to the house.

My final thoughts this week turn to Yorkshire, a club that has been running interference on itself for so long, someone needs to knock on their bedroom door and tell them to cut it out. This past few days have seen Yorkshire scratching their collective head after a third bowler in as many years has had to “move onto a fresh challenge”. That departure means you can now form an attack of ex-YCCC players - Hoggard, Shahzad, Kirby, Keedy and Wainwright – that looks like it could mount a decent challenge for the championship.

If someone could persuade that ECB domestic revue meeting to award bonus points for internecine arguing then perhaps Yorkshire might be capable of doing the same thing.

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