County cricket January 11, 2012

A bad decision for English cricket

George Dobell
David Morgan will certainly leave his mark on the domestic game in England and Wales

It is often said that the finest wicketkeepers are barely noticed and unappreciated: it's only the drops and the spills that capture our attention.

Perhaps it's the same with administrators. Perhaps the best administrators are the ones we don't notice and who leave the game untouched. The best legacy is no legacy at all. Cricket, after all, managed rather well before their involvement.

David Morgan will certainly leave his mark on the domestic game in England and Wales. While there is no doubting Morgan's integrity and experience, we all know where the road paved with good intentions leads. He's simply got this wrong.

The recommendations in his review, recommendations which look certain to be ratified by the ECB board, may represent the most damaging changes to the county championship in its history. While they are designed to enhance the fortunes of the international team - an admirable aim - they will achieve the opposite.

Let us leave arguments about a return to 50-over cricket to one side for the moment. Suffice it to say the desire of Team England that domestic limited-overs cricket mirror intentional cricket has been met. The views of spectators have, largely, been ignored.

And let us leave arguments about the amount of T20 to one side, too. Again, suffice it to point out the irony of the ECB announcing an increase in T20 cricket about five months before implementing a decrease that is the result of their last review. Their track record really doesn't promote much confidence.

Let us instead concentrate on the Championship. The much-derided, unappreciated, abused and, somehow, enduring Championship.

Morgan has recommended cutting the Championship schedule so counties play 14 games each rather than 16. He's also decided that the counties will remain in two divisions with promotion and relegation between them.

And there's the rub. For there's no method yet suggested that achieves that without compromising the integrity of the competition. Teams could win the Championship - or promotion - simply through having a kinder fixture list than their opponents. As a result, the Championship continues its slide from a meaningful competition to little more than match practise. It is inevitable that the tournament - described by Justin Langer not so long ago as the toughest domestic cricket he had experienced - will lose some of its intensity. The gap between Test and county will grow and the England team will suffer.

It's hardly the first sacrifice the county game has been asked to make. Over the last few years, the counties have accepted the withdrawal of many of their best players on England duty, England Lions duty, IPL duty or even just to attend gym session

It is the latest - and most serious - of the ECB changes that have contributed to the gradual degradation of the Championship. It's hardly the first sacrifice the county game has been asked to make. Over the last few years, the counties have accepted the withdrawal of many of their best players on England duty, England Lions duty, IPL duty or even just to attend gym sessions, they've seen work permit criteria tightened so that it's harder to sign overseas or any other type of non-England qualified players, been penalised for retaining English players aged 27 or over and seen their fixture lists rendered so unintelligible that spectators have no chance of attending with any regularity. They've then been criticised for failing to stand on their own two feet.

All these changes have been for the benefit of Team England. And that, to a point, makes sense. The success of the England team creates the vast majority of the ECB's income and, without it, the county game is scarcely viable.

But it's foolishness to dilute the county game. The Championship continues to provide the foundations of the national side. It identifies, provides and trains the players. Anything that lessens the intensity or the integrity is dangerous.

The decision to cut the volume of first-class cricket will allow counties to utilise smaller squads - which may well limit opportunities for young players - and result in fewer opportunities - and less need - for clubs to field the best England or overseas players. It will lower the standard. It will also damage membership numbers and increase counties' reliance on the ECB. It's absolutely true that county cricket can't do without the England team. But the England team can't do without a vibrant county game, either.

What makes all this so regrettable, is that England are currently the No. 1 Test team in the world. They are world T20 champions. They are, arguably anyway, as good as they've ever been and the last few years have produced thrilling finishes to the Championship season. Not only that, but the county game has also produced many fine cricketers who have taken to international cricket with something approaching ease: the top three all made centuries on debut. Why change something that is working so well?

The key issue is the introduction of the Champions League. The competition, in which the ECB has no stake, has a window in the Future Tours Programme, and will be staged, in most years, in mid-September. The ECB has taken the view, therefore, that if the counties want to participate, the domestic season needs to have ended by that date.

It is understandable that the counties want to take part. Not only are they - and the players - offered the remote prospect of great riches, but they also feel they can improve their game by competing in different conditions and against different players. That all makes sense.

But at what cost? The decision to play in the league has compromised the entire English domestic season. By curtailing it - the 2011 season ended almost two weeks earlier than the 2009 season - it has created fixture congestion. If the counties didn't participate, many of their current difficulties would simply disappear.

Besides, the Champions League may well prove to be the Betamax of cricket. The rules are designed to provide the 'stakeholder counties' (India, Australia and India) with an advantage. So, English teams are forced through an extra qualification process and are allowed to register just two overseas players. Mumbai Indians were allowed five. As a result, the credibility of the Champions League is mightily compromised.

This decision comes on top of the decision to allow the best English players to skip county duty to participate in the IPL. One of the reasons ventured for this is to allow players to improve their game in different conditions. An alternative view might have suggested that English players are required to play in all English competitions to ensure they are maintaining the standard. It would be nice if the ECB protected and fought for their own competitions as jealously and proudly as the BCCI.

To some extent, the ECB board cannot be blamed for taking this decision. They have been asking the counties to decide what they want for years. The English game has undertaken numerous reviews, tinkered endlessly and prevaricated at length. Finally, the ECB board has decided to seize the nettle and make a decisive decision. It is, in a way, admirably strong leadership. But General Custer showed leadership. It doesn't mean he was right.

This decision will further weaken the foundations of the whole pyramid that is the English game. And you don't have to be an architect to work out what happens if you keep weakening foundations. This decision will return to haunt England.

George Dobell is senior correspondent for ESPNcricinfo

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