August 17, 2012

English cricket

How to boost English domestic cricket

Paul Leary
The sell-out crowd at the annual Lilac Hill festival match, Cricket Australia Chairman's XI v England XI, Lilac Hill, Perth, December 8, 2006
While the vibe at domestic Twenty20s has been on the wane recently, festival cricket matches continue to thrive  © Andrew Miller
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As the Olympics began to wind down last week, I found myself undertaking ECB's new county cricket questionnaire, which they will hope to roll out to over a million people in the coming weeks, undoubtedly in order to ascertain some slightly more coherent proposals going forward than the failed Morgan report. Having batted patiently through a substantial section of the questionnaire, fending off fiendish questions such as whether I would want to see championship cricket played between 2pm and 9pm on a Thursday, or whether I might be more inclined to a Twenty20 on a Friday afternoon between 2pm and 5pm, I began to tire.

I'm sad to say, that at 65% way through my arduous innings, I lost concentration (not to mention the will to live) and made a rash swipe at the exit box in the corner of the screen. The thought that, as a 17-year old student, all of my answers to the convenience of fixtures would probably be completely different in a few years, may have also had something to do with it. Therefore, I decided to give my honest take on the English summer on this platform, unconstrained by the ticking of multiple choice boxes.

Let's start with the County Championship. This will always be close to the hearts of those who keenly follow it, including myself, and of little interest to the larger portion of the cricketing public who don't. While not strictly relevant to this debate, it's also worth mentioning that many follow the competition despite not being able to attend most matches (something often forgotten by the competition's critics). However, due to the prolonged nature of the sport, there will always have to be cricket played in the middle of the week while the world is at work, and like it or not, from a practical point of view, the format played mid-week has to be the four-day game. Spectator numbers could rise if the abundance of international cricket falls, thereby changing people's priorities when it comes to buying tickets and arranging days off work.

That won't happen, but, still, in cricketing terms the current format works well, breeding players prepared for Test cricket. There's no need to reduce the amount played in order to accommodate the IPL-weighted Champions League (see Trinidad and Tobago's requirement to qualify), which also currently curtails the county season prematurely. If we can accept this, then limited-overs cricket will be at the forefront of ECB's thoughts when it looks to change the county schedule, as it should be.

Due to the financial troubles suffered by so many counties these days, maximising crowds and increasing county support is essential in these two shorter forms of the game. With this in mind, a six-eight week T20 tournament, during which teams play two matches a week on Thursday and Friday nights, preferably one at home and one away, seems to me the best option, with the County Championship generally running from Sunday to Wednesday during this period. The 40-over competition would run on Fridays and Sundays either side of this period, ensuring that both limited-overs competitions would give themselves the best chance of maximising numbers through the gate.

Detractors might point to the lack of overseas availability with an elongated T20 format, but this argument seems to me overrated, considering the sparse availability of full international players currently. Besides, to the casual spectator, the presence of a Richard Levi or Shaun Marsh will make little difference. They are not household names in world cricket. Of more impact would be the release of England players for some T20s, depending on the international schedule.

My final point is with regards to a rejuvenation of festival cricket. Unlike in football, where a supporter can see their team play just down the road (assuming they're not glory hunting Manchester United), county cricket does not have that luxury, and so has to be more proactive in bringing the game to the different corners of their county. Atmosphere wise, outground cricket is immeasurably more intimate and enjoyable, especially for the younger generation, and there's the bonus of each festival tapping into a different audience, who don't watch much county cricket the rest of the year round. This has been clear to me at places that currently still get festival cricket, such as Guildford. While the vibe at T20s has been on the wane recently, matches at these grounds and locations continue to thrive, and more are needed.

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Posted by EDC on (August 29, 2012, 14:34 GMT)

You can't say that by having a short T20 tournament defined by brevity, not monotony, that it would only entice the likes of Richard Levi - who already is attracted to the current dull, long version - to come and play. During other countries' winters (hardly "sparse availability"), a short, two-week competition coupled with money-backed franchises would encourage the rapacious international cricketers (perhaps poorer internationals especially from the likes of NZ, WI and Sri Lanka) to play. Chris Gayle, not Chris Read, brings punters in. A short competition might also enable England internationals to participate, which would enhance the T20s hugely.

Agree about Man Utd though; hard to support your local team when you live 3 hours away in London (or China).

Posted by AB on (August 21, 2012, 8:37 GMT)

Yes, basically agree, although I would rather see a nice consistent, season long schedule of Friday and Saturday night T20s and Sunday afternoon CB40s, with CC games Monday to Thursday. Lets try it: every game starting on the same day, every week.

Also: more outground cricket, definitely a good thing. Maybe even try the neighbouring counties if they don't have their own first class side. Here in Cambridge we would love to see Essex come and play a game at Fenners. Think of all the new supporters they would gain if they promised to play one game a year there.

Posted by Barrick on (August 17, 2012, 23:41 GMT)

On festivals, I entirely agree. Scarborough was always a delight. Sadly, Harrogate, Sheffield and Bradford no longer host Yorkshire.

Now living in Bath, it is really disappointing that Somerset only play one match a season here - their only one away from Taunton - although it was upgraded from a T20 to a 40 over match this season, which was eventually washed out.

Given that Bristol is only ten miles away, and Taunton is almost as far as Worcester from here, it does seem odd, but that itself probably explains it; in the straightened financial times, why haul everything 70 miles up the road to cramped conditions?

Posted by Barrick on (August 17, 2012, 23:35 GMT)

On T20, it needs to be accepted by the ECB that the IPL has first mover advantage, despite the format originating here. If each country has its own T20 competition, then naturally, the most in-demand players will prioritise, given their commitments to their national sides, and any ECB competition already has less prestige than the IPL.

A good deal of money could be spent trying to revitalise the T20 format in England, which may well not bring in any extra revenue for the counties. If the CB40 can include the likes of the Netherlands and the Unicorns, why not add them to the 18 first class counties, and have 4 divisions of 5 for the T20, with the top 2 from each forming the quarter finalists? Or even 2 divisions of 10 to remove the familiarily and the necessity to play each time four times?

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