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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Peter on January 21, 2014, 23:45 GMT

    Bionic bowler might have the answer, 3 divisions of 6 teams with the best players playing in the top division.

    More important though is the ECB need to stop picking players on division 2 stats like they do at the moment. Players should be forced to move county and play in division 1 if they want to be considered for England.

  • Harry on January 21, 2014, 17:10 GMT

    @py0alb Absolutely agree with you: full houses for the FLT20 show that there is County loyalty in England and the attendances for Test matches show that there is an audience for the First Class game. What you need to do is have the CC on BBC/ ITV/ C4 and make sure that the games finish on weekends. Or experiment with day-night matches (I understand it was tried about 100 years ago, maybe time to give it another go). Then - if you keep the current team structure - make sure the big derbies (Red Rose, Middlesex-Surrey etc) are played over bank holidays, maybe play over 5 days to get more results and simplify the points system. Personally, I think 3 leagues of 6 teams (North, South, Rest), followed by semi-finals and a final each year, would be a good idea.

    Oh yeah, then stop fiddling around with the formats of the league and cups (which might seem contradictory considering what I've just said). It seems like the OD and T20 formats change every year according to ECB whim.

  • Paulo on January 21, 2014, 15:45 GMT

    @India_ANY_track_bully you come across as very naive. Your obviously an Indian fan, therefore would have noticed the dry summer and oitches which your country enjoyed when winning the champions trophy. And you probably missed the FLT20, where pretty much everyone had incredible weather and full houses. So much for " It always rains" and "no ones comes to watch it". Furthermore on the "People are mostly there to drink beer", apart from that being not true, how could you possibly know this?

    I won't even get started on your name.

    However I admit people don't often go to see championship cricket. And there is not much money involved- ECB's money is probably been taken by central contracts and the abundance of England support staff

  • Marius on January 21, 2014, 12:35 GMT

    It's worked in South Africa with our franchise system. The 11 teams were reduced to six, and we're the best team in the world now.

    Strength against strength will always result in a stronger national side.

    But I do understand that country cricket has a long and proud history, as do many of the counties.

  • Indian on January 21, 2014, 7:30 GMT

    County cricket will always be a failure. Why? 1. No ones comes to watch it. People are mostly there to drink beer. 2. The teams play too negatively. Bowlers bowl outside off and batsman do a leave 5 balls out of 6. 3. No money for players 4. No established international player wants to play county anymore. 5. It ALWAYS rains. There is no such thing as summer in England. It's varying degrees of rain... all the time!! Sorry, but county will remain for over 30's who have no chance to progress.

  • Adam on January 20, 2014, 23:04 GMT

    CC games would pay for themselves... if they were actually shown on tv rather than being censored from public view by Sky.

  • comedy on January 20, 2014, 21:27 GMT

    The trouble with this and the inevitable but ill thought out comparisons with the number of sides in shield or currie cup cricket is the simple fact that there are many more people in the UK than in Australia, thus a far wider potential pool of players and like wise in South Africa, although much close in population terms with SA, the number of SA's population who actually has any opportunity to play cricket is tiny given the situation there.

    as such with such a large population and potential player pool having a reduced number of teams in counterproductive as players will be lost to the game. if the above happened the county championship as a supposed replacement for a 2ndx1 competition simply wouldnt have any support and would not financial support pro players and would become effectively a minor county equivalent comp, with semi pro players, thus further reducing cricket as an attractive career choice in finanacial terms and losing many potential stars to the game.

  • Paulo on January 20, 2014, 17:40 GMT

    Decreasing county number could be beneficial. Would hate to share a team with Surrey and Sussex though. And would have less games to go and see.

    Personally would increase overseas allowance to 2 players and tighten kolpak controls (such as must have British passport- ie not Irish, European). 2 overseas would help raise the standard and remove kolpak temptation, and reducing kolpaks would give more English players a chance.

    Another option could be creating a 3rd (and possibly 4th) division(s), and allowing some minor counties or irish/scottish teams to play (more teams to please fans) but concentrate the better players in division 1.

  • Dummy4 on January 20, 2014, 14:31 GMT

    Looking at the geographics again, you'd have Essex, Surrey and Middlesex as London and Hampshire, Sussex and Kent run all the way along the south coast for the South.

    If the counties could get rid of four day cricket and just play limited overs and T20 they all might make some money but they would have no incentive to employ young players most suited for four day cricket

  • Dummy4 on January 20, 2014, 13:10 GMT

    Cricket has nothing to lose but the chains of 18 counties.

    What about the 19th ECB member? Do they get 2 tests & ODIs per year still? I think they should get rid of any county the season after they get bowled out for less than 25 in a championship game! (I'm an Essex supporter).

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