England news January 13, 2014

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

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soapbox once more - that is a metaphorical raised platform by the way, not an old carton of Persil - he condemned the outdated set up of county cricket and at one stage mentally joined Kent to Sussex, in essence creating a supermarket where once there had been a couple of corner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