County cricket

A bad decision for English cricket

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

George Dobell

January 11, 2012

Comments: 35 | Text size: A | A

Andy Flower chats with Andrew Strauss, Dubai, January 6, 2012
Andy Flower and Andrew Strauss are likely to be pleased by changes to county cricket but will they really help England? © AFP

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.

James Hildreth hits out on his way to 39, Somerset v Mumbai Indians, 2nd semi-final, CLT20, Chennai, October 8, 2011
Somerset appeared in the Champions League last year but the scheduling impedes the county season © Associated Press

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

© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.

Posted by CricketingStargazer on (January 14, 2012, 14:06 GMT)

200ondebut, how many of the current England side play in CC2? Answer: 1 (2 if you are pedantic). Alistair Cook was playing in CC1 when originally selected and Tim Bresnan will, if he plays any county games next season, do so in CC2 because his team was relegated.

Posted by 200ondebut on (January 14, 2012, 6:49 GMT)

George obviously does not understand cricket - which is played out by the fact that he makes many criticisms but no suggestions. The current system is wrong on two counts - too many sides meaning that the best players do not continually play against each other and an ineffective two division system. The last point is held up by the number of the Engalnd side representing 2nd division teams. The main problem though is that it is governed by self interest - the counties always put themselves before the Country.

Posted by FreddyForPrimeMinister on (January 14, 2012, 3:48 GMT)

Excellent article George - and with the obvious exception of RandyOz, excellent comments all round. Why David Morgan is ever allowed near a cricket committee is beyond me. It was he who engineered the total loss of all live cricket to terrestial TV channels at the very time (after the 2005 Ashes) that the English public were craving more cricket - especially the potential for new followers of the game as "cricket became the new football". As a club chairman and junior coach, I believe the damage that did to the encouragement of youngsters into the game is incalculable. 20/20 is a bit of light hearted fun and the saturation of it (along with excessively long and meaningless ODI series) on our tv screens is already becoming tiresome. The Champions League only interests those clubs participating in it and is yet another source of income for the BCCI. The County Championship (so exciting in recent years) is the breeding ground for new English Test players - diminish it at your peril. Jem.

Posted by GeorgeWBush on (January 13, 2012, 22:14 GMT)

Thanks for pointing out my stupid mistake, David/Jeff. I had a nagging doubt that I was forgetting someone. With regard to my reason why hampshire might want to merge with Surrey and Sussex I would point out that they have gone in bankruptcy trying and failing to win international cricket fixtures. The current state of affairs does not seem to be sustainable without some change. Several other county teams are also in financial difficulty. I don't see how that can continue to be ignored indefinitely. My idea was simply an attempt to have a maintain a geographical spread with each team getting some international cricket guaranteed each year and also supported by a large catchment area based around one of the major cities in the country. I do acknowledge my idea is a bit half baked. I was just throwing something out there to see what others thought.

Posted by hhillbumper on (January 13, 2012, 19:34 GMT)

did Randy Oz write a comment asking for an unbiased report.The most rabid fan who has a complete lack of understanding that being Australian does not make a world player.Do they do Irony in Australia.Listening to match commentary this morning Dave Warner was being compared to Gary Sobers. As Unbiased as they come the Aussies. I need to lie down to get over the irony overload.

Posted by bumsonseats on (January 13, 2012, 15:08 GMT)

george w are you not missing the red rose out of the melting pot, the current c1 champs. we are spending millions to bring the ground back up to be the best test pitch/ground in england ( i hope ur not a yorky ) . but as you say it could be the way to go. as to many counties wanting to gain test match status. dpk

Posted by shillingsworth on (January 13, 2012, 14:29 GMT)

@treidy - interesting perspective but fans didn't exactly 'flock in' to see the 3 day championship, overseas players and all, in the 70s and 80s. The idea of unlimited overseas players isn't exactly exciting when fans these days get Phil Hughes rather than Tendulkar or Kallis. My abiding memory of uncovered pitches was sitting around for hours in bright sunshine waiting for play to start.

Posted by JeffG on (January 13, 2012, 10:25 GMT)

@GeorgeWBush - interesting but 3 rather obvious flaws in your plan, driven by the fact there are already 9 test match venues in the UK, not 6!!! - 1) why would Hampshire want to merge with Sussex & Surrey when they've invested all that money in the Rose Bowl? 2) For the same reason, why would Durham want to give up the Riverside and merge with Yorkshire and most obviously 3) What have Lancashire done wrong to be ommitted from your plans completely?

Posted by jackiethepen on (January 13, 2012, 10:06 GMT)

A very fine article from George Dobell. I hope this is the beginning of a campaign. It is time for the County Championship to fight back. I do not mourn the loss of Andrew Miller who I thought was a lightweight writer. I am just about to cancel my sub of the Cricketer. It has been dumbing down and this is the final act in its demise appointing Miller Editor. Watch it fall now. As for Treidy! I assume he's young so I forgive him. But the idea that cricket will become the new football on the back of T20 is not born out by facts. The more they increase the T20 competition the lower the gate. Or does he not attend actual grounds to see cricket? It is easy to fantasize in front of a screen. The County season has been so good it has been attracting more and more crowds. Certainly true up here in Durham. I hope the coaches will fight. Forget the Chief Execs.

Posted by CricketingStargazer on (January 13, 2012, 9:43 GMT)

Wallster, just out of curiousity, do you follow the County Championsho? Gloucestershire have been challenging for promotion the last two seasons!! rather than being irrelevant, having two divisons has ensured that most matches are meaningful now almost to the final rounds. Last season no less than four sides went into their final game with a realistic chance of promotion to CC1. In CC1, a side can slip in two or three games from chasing the Championship to facing relegation. It means that cricket is intense. In the bad old days, few sides had any great interest in the Championship after June and could sleepwalk their way through most of the season! You only have to look at the tremndous finish in both Divisions in the last few seasons to see what two division cricekt has done. And, if you attended a bit more, you would see that spectators are flocking in. Crowds haven't been as big in decades for the County Championship, however they are falling for limited overs games.

Posted by AJ_Tiger86 on (January 13, 2012, 6:34 GMT)

@FreddyForPrimeMinister: Unfortunately yes, Miller has left Cricinfo and joined the Cricketer Mag as the editor. He was one of the finest cricket writers in the world. But, George Dobell has done some excellent work at the county level, and I'm sure he will continue to produce good articles in the future.

Posted by GeorgeWBush on (January 13, 2012, 6:13 GMT)

I share the view that their are too many county teams. I think the best solution would be for the teams to merge to create a small number of much stronger teams, each with a test match venue that could host one test and one ODI/T20 international every summer.

e.g. Sussex+Hampshire+Surrey (Oval), Essex+Middlesex (Lords), Derbyshire+Nottinghamshire (Trent Bridge), Warwickshire+Leicestershire+Northants (Edgbaston), Gloucestershire+Somerset+Worcestershire (New test ground developed in Bristol), Glamorgan (Sophia Gardens), Yorkshire+Durham (Headingley),

You'd then have 7 strong teams that would be more financially secure. Each team would play 12 4 day matches a year, 12 50 over games and 12 T20 games. Then the top 4 from the 50 over and T20 competitions play semis and final in those competitions.

Posted by Treidy on (January 13, 2012, 0:05 GMT)

Interesting article. But really when will cricket administrators, players and fans realise the world is speeding up not slowing down. The future of cricket is shorter cricket. It is 20/20 and 50 over. But it is also in England county cricket. The irony though is that we need to take a step back to go forward. There needs to be a return to one county championship (not 2 meaningless divisions) 3 day matches and uncovered pitches and a return to unlimited overseas players. We would all then see the county championship as it should be - equivalent to the premiers ship in English football. Fans would flock in and the future would be secure. But no everyone has to fiddle while Rome burns!

Posted by the_wallster on (January 12, 2012, 22:33 GMT)

Northants, Gloucs, Leics, Worcs, Glam, Derbys and Kent need to be disbanded. They're underperforming, underproducing counties who take up valuable resting time for the larger counties. How there are 6 midland counties is beyond me. Notts and Wawrickshire is enough. And abolish the 50/40- over competition. nobody wants it, and nobody cares about it. And the ECB should have prevented Cardiff and Southampton from building Test Match grounds. They are killing the game.

Posted by Nutcutlet on (January 12, 2012, 22:26 GMT)

This sort of tinkering with the County Championship makes me think of those two old cliches: what's a horse designed by a committee? A camel (for those who didn't know); and the other one: if it ain't broke, why mend it? It was bound to happen, wasn't it? Here another cliche trots to the cause; it's a case of understanding the price of everything and the value of nothing. And there is a reason why they are cliches, because they state the bleedin' obvious, as they always have. I thought England was proud to have achieved #1 in the test rankings, and that didn't happen by some kind of fluke. It says, in so many words,'Your domestic system has worked so well that it has produced a SQUAD - not just a team, please note - that is better than any other comparable system round the world.' I knew it was too good to last - so English to develop the best and then strangle the golden goose, because it's too good for us! We aren't comfortable with excellence. It's not English, don't you know?

Posted by FreddyForPrimeMinister on (January 12, 2012, 21:21 GMT)

@bestbuddy - yet again the drivel comes out about England's "imports" not being homegrown. Get a life - or at least check your facts. Strauss and Prior were kids when they came to England. Pietersen came to the UK as a 19 year old off-spinner who developed his batting prowess here in England. Trott certainly had his early grounding in SA but rather than criticizing England's ability to attract cricketing talent, shouldn't you be looking inwards at why these people are so keen to leave South Africa - because it's certainly not our glorious sunny weather! Oh, and just in case you weren't aware, for all your fine players and results around the world, I think you'll find England is currently the number one Test team, not South Africa - so maybe our system is not quite as bad as you'd have us believe... Jem.

Posted by FreddyForPrimeMinister on (January 12, 2012, 19:17 GMT)

@Sir_Freddie_Flintoff - has Andrew Miller really left cricinfo? When?? That's a massive disappointment if true... Aside from his somewhat bizarre and unfair rants against Freddie, he was the best sports journalist I've ever read - and will be a huge loss to this site.

Posted by gallarate on (January 12, 2012, 19:12 GMT)

Fantastic article. Are these people on the Morgan report paid to come up with these rubbish proposals? Pleased the ECB want more time - hopefully they will throw it out!!!!!

Posted by CricketingStargazer on (January 12, 2012, 17:42 GMT)

The Champions League could play one of two ways: it could become a lock-out for the richer counties or, just possibly, it will lead to an increasing number of second tier counties pouring all their resources into trying to buy T20 success and qualification for the Champions League. What is not clear to me though is how much a county can expect to be in profit from a trip to qualifying where they may not win a game. I think that the prize structure is set up in such a way that unless you get into the main competition you gain little. Certainly, for all its faults (the rules are set up to favour IPL sides to a ridiculous degree), sides like Trinidad, Leicestershire and Somerset have shown that the competition can be fun and a big reward for players.

Posted by FreddyForPrimeMinister on (January 12, 2012, 17:08 GMT)

Excellent article George - and with the obvious exception of RandyOz, excellent comments all round. Why David Morgan is ever allowed near a cricket committee is beyond me. It was he who engineered the total loss of all live cricket to terrestial TV channels at the very time (after the 2005 Ashes) that the English public were craving more cricket - especially the potential for new followers of the game as "cricket became the new football". As a club chairman and junior coach, I believe the damage that did to the encouragement of youngsters into the game is incalculable. 20/20 is a bit of light hearted fun and the saturation of it (along with excessively long and meaningless ODI series) on our tv screens is already becoming tiresome. The Champions League only interests those clubs participating in it and is yet another source of income for the BCCI. The County Championship (so exciting in recent years) is the breeding ground for new English Test players - diminish it at your peril. Jem.

Posted by choo_for_twenty_choo on (January 12, 2012, 15:38 GMT)

Nice articele, George. Two observations: "...designed to provide the 'stakeholder counties' (India, Australia and India) with an advantage" - is India so important that it has TWO stakes?! And your Custer comment - sublimely brilliant!!

Posted by CricketingStargazer on (January 12, 2012, 15:36 GMT)

The decision to reduce to 14 games is just plain daft. As is the decision to stage more T20 when (and I kid you not) attendances have reduced so much that some counties have got BETTER crowds for Championship matches. Go to a few Championship matches and you will see quite decent crowds - the sort that many lower division football teams would be happy with - at least when there is some point to the day's action (last season I did attend a final day when, with the action likely to last only a few minutes, there really were just a handful of people in the ground, but it was that freak Middlesex v Kent game! The first two days had a healthy crowd). I attended both CC1 and CC2 matches at three different grounds and only a a dead last morning did I see other than a good attendance. At 10 Pounds for up to 8 hours of entertainment it is unbeatable value. Despite ever less publicity County Championship crowds have increased steadily in recent years. Leave it be!

Posted by o-bomb on (January 12, 2012, 12:57 GMT)

Good article! I can't see how we can benefit from this move. Why should we change our first class competition because of a non-sensical T20 competition that is grossly unfair for most of the sides in it? Hopefully the powers that be will see the folly of their ways and revesre it as soon as it's obvious it doesn't work. There is precedence (albeit a long time ago); in 1919 the MCC changed the county championship to 2 day games, which proved a disaster as most of them ended in draws. In 1920 they changed back at their first opportunity. I dare say there is more recent precedence of immediate reversals in decisions too. Somehow I doubt it'll change back that quickly in this case though. Of course, maybe we're just uncomfortable being the best team in the world.

Posted by   on (January 12, 2012, 12:53 GMT)

Excellent piece. I wholeheartedly endorse George Dobell's views.

Posted by bestbuddy on (January 12, 2012, 12:19 GMT)

@MikeMcCallan, the English test team features several players who were developed elsewhere, and 4-5 in the lions setup recently who were also developed elsewhere. English cricket is not actually producing enough local talent by itself, for a whole host of reasons

Posted by bestbuddy on (January 12, 2012, 12:07 GMT)

South African cricket has just 6 franchises, made up of 2 to 3 smaller unions. In total they play just 10 first class games per season, as well as having a lower tier of 3 day first class cricket, which only became semi-professional this year. Since the franchise system was introduced South Africa have won test series in England, Australia, Pakistan, West Indies and New Zealand, as well as drawing their last 2 away series against India. Their A team regularly beats their equivalent teams, while their emerging side usually wins or reaches the final of the emerging players tournament against Aus, NZ and India. The SA u19 team has beaten England u19 home and away in the past year, despite having far less equivalent first class experience. My point is that less cricket DOES NOT weaken it, as long as you then reduce the number of teams. 18 county teams is FAR too much, more teams than India has with 900mill. more people, and I have my doubts about their depth given how new players struggle

Posted by RandyOZ on (January 12, 2012, 11:53 GMT)

@Sir_Freddie_Flintoff, Miller is gone? Maybe we will get a non-biased article regarding England for once.

Posted by py0alb on (January 12, 2012, 10:44 GMT)

The Morgan Proposal: the counties are dismayed by it, the players are furious about it, the spectators hate it with a passion. The traditionalists despise it, the progressives are disgusted by it. Literally NO-ONE likes this proposal or wants to see it implemented.

So lets scrap it, agreed? OK agreed. Good.

Posted by StoneRose on (January 12, 2012, 10:29 GMT)

Agree with hhillbumper and the point George made about T20: why have a review proposing to increase T20 before the last review - proposing a DECREASE in T20 - has been implemented? Crazy. Reduce T20: you might even be able to fit in the CL though. No matter if you can't though - the CL is a Mickey Mouse competition at present, for the reasons George gives above (3 Indian teams is not a CL. Would be better to have top 8 teams across the world in Qf/Sf/Final stage rather than a drawn out tournament with Qualification stage. Could CL ever be viable anyway as players could be signed up to play for 3 or more teams like Kieron Pollard for example?).

Posted by shillingsworth on (January 12, 2012, 0:07 GMT)

Good article. The anxiety of the ECB to accommodate the CL is embarrassing. What if the BCCI and their 'stakeholder' friends decide on a whim to move the CL to mid August? @Tim Mansfield - excellent comment, your analogy with 5 a side football is very apt.

Posted by HughL on (January 11, 2012, 20:38 GMT)

All these changes are to one end- elite players believe that they should make enough money fropm the game to be set up for life- to acheive this we have CL Endless one dayers and 20/20 etc etc . Argue agaists this and we are told that its all about quality- it matters littel what the quality is to a fan who has lost the game they want to watch. The game is now marketed at non-cricket fans to the detriment of the committed fan

Posted by   on (January 11, 2012, 19:40 GMT)

Brilliantly argued George. You could add that the cash from the IPL will not be shared around exacerbating income inequality between the counties and could mean that some counties (you could argue that Leicestershire are already there) disproportionately focus their resources and energy on 20/20 which will be to the detriment of the English game, unless, which is the nightmare scenario, 20/20 becomes the main form of the game. A bit like indoor 5 a side football taking over from the traditional game. I hope Mr Morgan and the rest of the ECB read your piece.

Posted by AJ_Tiger86 on (January 11, 2012, 19:39 GMT)

Wonderful article, George. I was worried whether anyone would be able to replace Andrew Miller at Cricinfo. Now, George Dobell seems to be a more than capable replacement.

Posted by MikeMcCallan on (January 11, 2012, 19:05 GMT)

There seems to be a correlation here. As the county championship does its job better (produce more England players, more exciting matches etc), the more the ECB want to tinker with it. Why?

Posted by hhillbumper on (January 11, 2012, 18:44 GMT)

The Champions Lesague is a farce that is set up for Indian teams.Why should we change our system to suit financial deals which mainly go overseas.We should have stuck with 16 games with promotion and relegation.The 20-20 should be cut back as not as many fans are attending so what she would do just add some more. Seems like the ECG is getting as crass as the BCCI

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