English cricket August 17, 2012

How to boost English domestic cricket

Paul Leary
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

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.