January 19, 2014

Time to regionalise county cricket?

A six-team tournament above the Championship might strengthen the supply line for the England team

In region-based tournaments, fans can continue to indulge their traditional loyalties © PA Photos

So tenaciously and unstintingly do our passions drive us along through life that it's often hard to be clear whether one's apparently "rational" or "logical" take on some aspect of the world, even if sincerely felt, isn't a giant fig leaf for something much more throbbingly irrational.

This is especially true of the institutions under whose benign, comforting shelter our identity has been forged. Hard to let go, it can be equally difficult to bring ourselves to face their potential obsolescence, to admit they are mortal and submit them to transformation, making them serve our needs rather than us serving them, "needing" them.

Which brings us to Lord McLaurin's recent suggestion that the number of first-class counties should be culled from 18 to 12, an idea that has been about as welcome in some quarters as a Tesco on Hyde Park Corner. Lost in the brouhaha, McLaurin's implicit point - that we might need a stronger domestic first-class structure - is surely something worth pondering. Adapt or die, right?

David Hopps has made a good case for evolution over revolution, arguing that counties should prove their financial viability or else fold, yet we are still left to ask whether balanced books equates to a decent crop of players. The county game is still producing players, its diehard apologists will say. Yes, and the Amazon Basin is still producing oxygen. The England team will always need 11 players, so there will be the same supply (198 county first-teamers).

It's not the quantity that matters - and, with more leisure options available, there are fewer and fewer kids playing cricket (to the degree required to turn passion into an obsessive quest for mastery), which is surely in the "pro" column for McLaurin's streamlining - but the quality, and this is impossible to measure objectively. The number of players who sashay seamlessly out of county cricket and into the international game, much like the results of the England team itself, has just as much to do with the strength of other teams as "the system", the health of which can therefore only ever be inferred.

In any case, positive transformation shouldn't always be a question of results. England No. 1? "Change? If it ain't broke… Kneel before Zod!" Beaten 5-0? "Disgrace! Let's copy the Aussies!"

McLaurin and other would-be reformers are accused of jerking knees, of an overly emotional response to a thrashing. Perhaps so, but if you hold this view then you can't equally trumpet the rude health of the county game when England are winning. Either they correlate or they don't. Anyway, the motive behind a proposal, while often revealing, is less important than the merits.

So to tinker or not?

The evolutionary analogy is helpful here. While in English cricket "natural selection" often just means someone who has been through Loughborough and the England Performance Programme - scarcely a natural environment - this Australian team has several gnarly old pros who have grown self-reliant through knockbacks and struggle. Life as sorting device?

There are, of course, more "selection pressures" in nature than simple adversarial, predator/prey dynamics, just as for English cricket there's more than just the performances against Australia. There's also sexual reproduction, comparable to bringing the crowds in, competing with other males (leisure options) for a mate (supporters, participants).

If we need a better sorting device for England, one that draws larger crowds, then perhaps the answer is as simple as creating a regional tier of first-class cricket, like India with the Duleep Trophy. Rather than a Frankenstein-type experiment, think of it as building a bio-diverse wetland, then allowing the flora and fauna to get on with it.

Sketchily, it might work out like this. You have six regions, as follows:

North: Yorkshire, Lancashire, Durham
West Midlands: Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Derbyshire
East Midlands: Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire
West: Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Somerset
South: Hampshire, Sussex, Surrey
South-East: Kent, Essex, Middlesex

There would be ten first-class games per season, plus a five-day final. The administration could be carried out by the ECB or by specially established regional bodies. Profits could be evenly distributed or indexed to gate receipts at each game.

The County Championship can subsist, effectively replacing the Second XI Championship as the shadow domestic competition, thus creating a stronger feeder for the top tier. The nitty gritty of the fixture list can be worked out - it's an idea; feasibility studies will be needed! - but the counties themselves can focus their operational energy on limited-overs cricket (T20 and 50-over formats) that still attracts punters, and on producing players for the regions and beyond. Players would still have county contracts and be paid pro rata for long-form games, be that for region or county.

The central idea - and this isn't quantum mechanics - is to have the very best players playing against each other more often. Who knows, more people might want to watch that. Sky might broadcast it. Or the BBC! Chuck in a marquee overseas star each if you like, but no artificial age criteria. And there's also no need for funky franchise names (though Southern Softies and Northern Know-it-Alls have a certain ring) or gauche marketing gimmicks.

Now, there may be several holes in this idea, but one of them isn't intransigent supporters unwilling to set aside their familiar, wind-hewn antipathies to sit side by side following these new-fangled entities. In my experience, Roy from Rochdale and Harry from Halifax have scant reticence when it comes to asserting their superiority over t'South (Nottinghamshire, say).

I ought to confess that the fate of no particular county, nor the competition overall, is woven into my soul. This idea - which, by the way, isn't irreversible; altering county cricket isn't like flattening a UNESCO World Heritage site - is simply to prompt a conversation.

I'm fairly certain that I don't know best - that I ought not to be a very loud voice in that conversation - yet by the same token I don't believe that watching aeons of county cricket necessarily makes you better qualified. It often simply means you are more likely to have a mysteriously sentimental, perhaps umbilical attachment that's all the harder to break.

Scott Oliver tweets here