August 9, 2012

Keep it simple, stupid

I love county cricket as much as the next man - unless the next man happens to be George Dobell

I love county cricket as much as the next man - unless the next man happens to be George Dobell. Not that he ever is the next man, though.

Cricinfo’s No 1 Rikki Clarke fanboy enjoys the pampered luxury, giddy intellectual discourse and Michelin-star dining on offer in the average county press box. While I sit in the stands overhearing 20-minute conversations about the difference between fast-medium and medium-fast, sampling the culinary delights of the burger van that time forgot and, during my latest day of spectating, finding myself sitting near someone who, for no discernible reason, decided to change into a pantomime cow outfit for the middle session of play.

Well, at least I can claim to love county cricket as much as Random Animal Costume Man. Probably a bit more actually, as he didn’t seem to mind missing a wicket whilst putting on an imitation Friesian head with ‘come milk me’ eyes and an ‘I failed my GCSE in Common Sense’ lolling tongue.

But something odd happened recently. That love I have for the county game was tested when I had a mini existential cricket crisis. Not a dramatic, full blown apostatising of the lbw laws in favour of the rules of offside. But I did - and this is difficult to admit - notice that my county’s latest CB40 game was being televised and thought to myself: “Meh, I can’t be bothered to watch.”

Worrying, I know. A wandering from the righteous path that I could try to pass off as a temporary infatuation with the Olympics; because, yes, like so many others, London 2012 has drawn me in, covered me in gold dust and then spat me out like an overweight, middle-aged, male Shirley Eaton. Sure, that’s a pretty great look, and I’ve the cheekbones to carry it off, but the Olympics are only part of my temporary cricket ennui.

My problem is more a deep-rooted dissatisfaction with the CB40 at this point in the season. Games are being played in dribs and drabs to fit in with Sky TV scheduling requirements, rather than as part of a full round of matches. It leaves the tournament lacking a sense of structure or momentum.

There’s little feeling that the group stages are reaching any kind of climax. The qualifying tables are a mess, with some teams having played eleven games, some seven. How is the casual sports fan, the spectator the game desperately wants and needs to attract, supposed to work out which sides are doing well from a quick glance at the tables?

But then the later stages of the CB40 always feel to me like they lack soul because it’s a competition that lacks quarter-finals. I’ve mentioned before in this column that three groups of seven feeding straight into semi-finals leaves too few teams with any realistic chance of qualifying by the time they’re even halfway through their games. Why would spectators want to pay good money to watch teams with nothing to play for, no goal to motivate them?

It’s an all too typical example of how the politics, scheduling and financial imperatives of the domestic game manage to complicate what should be a simple task. Four groups of five, top two qualify from each into a quarter-final stage with most teams having something to play for right to the very end.

It seems easy. But counties understandably fear the loss of income as the number of home matches drops from six to four. Any reorganisation of the CB40 would require a certain leap of faith that spectators would turn out in greater numbers for games were both sides were fully motivated.

Perhaps the muddle of the CB40 highlights how well the two-tier championship has worked, how strange the calls are for it to be altered. Back in the days of the single division championship would a ninth-place Durham, minus the threat of relegation, be staging the kind of revival we’re currently seeing? Would they be on the verge of a second consecutive win if their motivation was seventh in the table?

Instead of commissioning reports that recommend altering the structure of the County Championship, English cricket should recognise it as the blueprint for a successful tournament. Two divisions, two up, two down, everyone plays each other home and away: the genius of simplicity.

Cricket is a complex game, that’s one of its many attractions. But administrators need to avoid extending that complexity to the structure of tournaments. Keep them clear, easy to follow, and whenever possible, organise them so that games remain meaningful throughout the qualifying stages. It’s not as difficult a task as cricket sometimes makes it out to be.

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