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Does county game deserve Ashes blame?

England's Ashes whitewash has again invited criticism of county cricket, but what is needed more urgently than revolution is a good dollop of honesty

David Hopps

January 13, 2014

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Lord's on a beautiful sunny day, London, July 18, 2013
There will be more agonising at Lord's after an Ashes whitewash © Getty Images
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England have been whitewashed in an Ashes series, so it was no surprise to hear the old debate rearing its head again at the weekend. Sooner or later somebody pins the blame on county cricket and sure enough it fell to Lord MacLaurin to propose the amalgamation of the smaller counties to best serve the England cricket team.

Lord MacLaurin is a retired businessman, a past chairman of Tesco, Vodafone and, as an additional hobby, the ECB. He could barely look at Leicestershire or Northants during his time at the ECB without mentally drawing up some sort of merger plan. Most powerful businessmen are consumed by an acquisition obsession just as most fans have a knee-jerk opposition to change.

To complete the debate, all you need then is to find one such idealist from the Shires, somebody who regards 18 first-class counties as a vital part of the fabric of England. It is a Midsomer Murders version of the English professional game, a vague, rose-garden attachment to a simpler age, and it has long held sway on a circuit which both brings pleasure to its devotees and it is ignored by millions.

As the businessman affectionately known as The Grocer mounted his soapbox once more - that is a metaphorical raised platform by the way, not an old carton of Persil - he condemned the outdated set up of county cricket and at one stage mentally joined Kent to Sussex, in essence creating a supermarket where once there had been a couple of corner shops.

Whatever view you hold, it was all a depressing sideshow as the review into the Ashes debacle is about to play out at Lord's, and in Australia, under the stewardship of the new MD of English cricket, Paul Downton.

The Ashes review will be limited in form and will not be revolutionary. Far from supporting MacLaurin's contention that an 18-county structure is unfit for purpose, the ECB likes to present them as "18 Centres of Excellence" and, indeed, progress has been made on the development of academies and discovery of new income streams so that county cricket becomes more financially self-sustaining.

But in the pessimistic dawn of a failed Ashes challenge, much remains unfit for purpose. If you want a single premise to convey what is wrong with county cricket, it is not particularly that there are too many counties, it is that the catchment these counties draw upon is too small.

For example, a quick rifle through the 2013 Cricketers' Who's Who confirms that Leicestershire, bottom of the pile in the Championship again last season, draw more players from a couple of public schools with an excellent cricket culture than they do from the city with the highest percentage of Indian immigrants outside south Asia, young people too. How can that possibly still be the case?

The absence of cricket in State schools remains a colossal drain on English cricket's resources, robbing the game of its maxium number of ready-made players and fans. It is alleviated but far from solved by the admirable Chance to Shine charity, but a further dramatic shift of resources to strengthen bonds between state schools and nearby clubs that can provide the facilities they need is long overdue.

That would be considerably more effective than tacking Sussex onto Kent and calling it South.

But there is another malaise. For all the expressions of faith in an 18-team professional system, the ECB repeatedly encourages England to act in a manner that not only weakens but rubbishes county cricket at the same time.

Under this duplicitous arrangement, when England win Team England gets the credit. When England lose, it is not long before blame is pinned at the door of the county game.

One of many examples last season of Team England running roughshod over the county cricket structure it clearly does not view as excellent came when Jamie Overton, the most promising young fast bowler around, was withdrawn from Somerset's relegation fight because sitting around with England's ODI squad in the series against Australia was regarded as more useful for him, even if he did not play.

This same dismissive attitude was seen in the perpetual use last summer of Jonny Bairstow as an England drinks scuttler. At a time when Bairstow is as confused as England over whether he has more talent as a long-form or short-form cricketer, and whether keeping wicket remains a sensible career move, he needed as much cricket as he could get.

The outcome of that was Bairstow's two bad Tests in Melbourne and Sydney and a pile of personal abuse. It is a strange system which crams so much cricket into an English season that the contradictory result is that some players do not play enough.

Only an England set-up with such a disregard for the county game could have conceivably selected Chris Tremlett above Graham Onions for the Ashes tour in the belief that by some strange transformative process brought about by an England net or two Tremlett would regain the sort of form that had been conspicuously absent for Surrey. It was a selection based on theory and not on actuality.

The ECB champions the county game but then suffocates it with a non-stop international schedule, Lions matches included, even treating its showpiece limited-overs finals with disdain by leaving it until the last minute to decide whether England players will deign to take part. Excellence cannot prosper with such an approach. No wonder there is a perception that standards have faltered again in the past year or two.

Neither is there much chance that this summer's latest revamp of the county game will be promoted with any conviction. The main interest in a deeply conservative reshuffle is that Twenty20 will be played primarily on Friday nights all summer long. But it is asking a lot of 18 county clubs to produce the sort of high-quality entertainment needed to pull in the crowds and widen the fan base when top-grade overseas players will be hard to attract over such a long time span and when England players will be conspicuous by their absence.

As Lord MacLaurin took to the airwaves to recommend slashing the counties by a third, it seemed that what English cricket needs above all is a good dollop of honesty.

If the 18 counties really are centres of professional excellence, valued by the communities they serve, then the ECB should demand ever more aggressively that they prove it. If revolution is not the answer then make evolution happen faster than ever.

Prove the worth of a county by results, by coaching (and no more fiddled figures), by compulsory involvement in school-club links, by growth in membership and attendance figures, by a rise in cricket and non-cricket revenue streams, by website engagement (we will even send the ECB our figures- and they tell a tale or two), by as many sensible ways as can be devised to measure their worth.

If and when they prove their worth, it is high time England treated them with respect. If a couple of them are not up the the job, then at least a couple of bankruptcies or mergers will bring some sanity to the fixture list.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

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© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by   on (January 20, 2014, 2:32 GMT)

Sorry but the "cricket not played in state schools" argument is the biggest myth going. State schools don't have and will never have the time, money, facilities or the coaches to play a high standard of cricket. It takes too much time & money & it isn't an efficient use of school time. Even the surviving Grammar schools struggle to run decent cricket teams. It is the clubs that are key to youth and elite development not schools. In Australia cricket is focused around clubs not schools and that is one of its strengths. It is the clubs that have the time, the money, the expertise and the will to play a high standard of cricket not state schools. It isn't surprising that the counties with the strongest club systems produce the best young players. Yorkshire, Lancashire, Durham and Warwickshire. The state schools argument is a massive red herring.

Posted by kafkasghost on (January 15, 2014, 20:38 GMT)

Spot on with nearly every major point. What especially rankles is the choice of Tremlett, and, as the article so rightly says, the utter contempt it shows for the County game, the staff at Surrey, and most of all, for those bowlers and batsmen who craft worthy careers which are ignored due to some perceived lack. Compton and Onions should have been in that Ashes squad. Would it have changed the result? No. Would England have played with a little more spirit? Certainly. A jaded group of players, tired and bored need revivifying by County players eager to make a name for themselves. While the selection policy of the earl nineties was stupid in the extreme, the hermetically remote Team England of 2014 also needs to change, and quickly.

Posted by pjrfd on (January 14, 2014, 22:56 GMT)

Next time there's an earthquake or unscheduled solar eclipse,Lord MacLaurin will find a way to blame that on there being too many first-class counties, too.Merging to 12 teams leaves only 6 current counties unaffected- Yorks & Lancs to become 'Aye-LadShire'? Ridiculous - will he be so keen if his own is one of those consigned to the scrapheap? Possible*real*reasons the Ashes were lost:(1)Cyclical change- inexperienced Aus team getting better;experienced Eng players just past their peak.(2)Excessive number of Ashes tests in last few years- no matter how players may spout that 'This is the Ashes,it's huge',when they've won them 3 times in 4 years, can they really be quite as motivated for the 16th-20th Ashes Tests in that period, as for the first 5? (3)The ludicrous, loathsome need of modern British crowds,to bait & ridicule an opponent when he's down,may just have spurred on MG Johnson's development into a world-class bowling all-rounder? (4)Simply,6 of 10 times,being out for under 200.

Posted by jb633 on (January 14, 2014, 21:45 GMT)

@Big_Chikka, the ECB now pay for the expenses of players and coaches when travelling to any ECB youth event. I am just saying I think there needs to be more coming from the individuals within the minority groups as the ECB are trying desperately to find any young talent within those groups. At the end of the day if the counties offer the trial, pay for expenses and encourage participation then surely the rest is down to the individual or the parents to perhaps move out of the comfort zone and give it a go. In terms of the state school argument i agree entirely. I think one logistical problem with cricket in the UK is the fact it always clashes with exams and has to cope with a shortened summer term. The state school cricket simply must be improved as it is an utter shambles at the moment. Kids need to be encouraged more at primary school and hopefully participation at a secondary school level would improve. Enough of the egg and spoon race, we want competitive sport with winners.

Posted by Cyril_Knight on (January 14, 2014, 21:04 GMT)

The first division of the County Championship is by so way the most competitive form of the longer game. The standard is incredibly high with many home-grown players performing superbly. The ECB have a vendetta against the counties, they want to bankrupt the smaller ones, the Leics and Derbys, to eventually create their franchise T20 league. The baffling selections of out of form players show the contempt with which the establishment view County cricket.

It's time for a rethink, but it's nothing to do with the failure of the England team. County cricket fans have to start turning up, which is even harder with the nonsensical fixtures produced by HQ. Cricket lovers love watching great players, we need the England players to actually play County cricket, when Graeme Smith and Kevin Pietersen are playing for Surrey this summer, you can guarantee attendances will swell. The obsession ECB has with T20 will ruin cricket for everyone unless all cricket fans actually start attending matches.

Posted by JG2704 on (January 14, 2014, 20:48 GMT)

@salazar555 - I agree that loyalty is starting to go out of the player and Jos leaving still hurts. I suppose Somerset were put into an impossible situation whereby if they bowed to Jos they'd have been showing disloyalty to Craig. I certainly don't think it should be encouraged though

Posted by StraightDRIVvE on (January 14, 2014, 19:53 GMT)

County Cricket, is not responsible for Englands failure.

The people responsible for selection is to blame, I mean some should not be even be in the squad.

Another thing is state schools need to play more cricket and more University needs to be part of MCC universites giving people with state school background an opportunity whilst assuring there parents their academic is not at risk. Not everyone might want to go to those handful universities part of mcc as it may be too far or a certain subject is not there. this will ensure the roots of england cricket is giving players with talent an opportunity all over the country rather than them worrying what shall I follow/sacrifice. Universities can also organise series/matches abroad or foreign University teams playing university in England. This allows both sports(cricket) and educational development.

Posted by salazar555 on (January 14, 2014, 18:40 GMT)

The structure top to bottom is bust, more local cricket clubs are needed right across the country and more cricket needs to be played in state schools. Get it right at grass roots and hopefully we'll see the results at the top. For too long cricket has been a game for the privileged so it shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone that we have to have 4-5 overseas players making up the numbers because we can't find players good enough for the top level. The population of the UK which is 65 million, 3 times that of Australia can't get a decent team of home grown players because they are being chosen from a very small group within that 65 million.

@ Chikka - The huge group that is missing out is not minorities who make up 10% of the UK population, it's white working class kids in state schools who by far have the biggest numbers of people and are the least represented

Posted by Big_Chikka on (January 14, 2014, 16:21 GMT)

@jb633 yes, some kids don't turn up to county trials, some parents can't even afford the junior age group county circuit traveling up and down the country either.......to clarify the point though : 1,consider state school cricketers to be in a minority, as would be people from west indies in the set up...its not just the race; 2. accept the statistically proven point that while asians play lots of cricket the data shows more are disproportionately discarded by counties come the business end of contracts/trials. why? its not talent, if one were to believe that that, india, sri lanka and pakistan would never have won world cups, produced the akrams, desilva's of this world. as i said open the game up, more routes to the top not just academies, more opportunities and above all more competition so it really is the best we see in the national side. win / lose pick the best from a much larger pool, e.g. make it possible again to play for england schools even if your don't have a county.

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David Hopps David Hopps joined ESPNcricinfo as UK editor early in 2012. For the previous 20 years he was a senior cricket writer for the Guardian and covered England extensively during that time in all Test-playing nations. He also covered four Olympic Games and has written several cricket books, including collections of cricket quotations. He has been an avid amateur cricketer since he was 12, and so knows the pain of repeated failure only too well. The pile of untouched novels he plans to read, but rarely gets around to, is now almost touching the ceiling. He divides his time between the ESPNcricinfo office in Hammersmith and his beloved Yorkshire.
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