County preview April 9, 2013

A county game to savour

Critics of county cricket ignore its importance to the England team and its relevance throughout the country - there is much to celebrate and admire

Like your parents, your health and a car that starts in cold weather, it is all too easy to take for granted the things we find most familiar.

So it often seems with county cricket. It has been with us since at least 1890. It has survived wars, recessions and the fluctuations in fashion and demand that have seen the decline of the British coal and car industries as well as various banks that were thought to be bullet proof.

While it is often portrayed as reactionary (or "archaic" as one critic put it recently), the county game was the birthplace of one-day cricket in 1963 and T20 cricket in 2003. It has, in recent years, helped to develop an England team that went to No. 1 in the world in all three formats and produced some of the most attractive, entertaining cricket in its history.

If anyone doubts the developmental powers of the county cricket, they should remember that the team that represented England in the final Test of the 2012 summer contained four men who had made centuries and one man who had taken a five-wicket haul on Test debut. All learned their trade in the county game.

Despite all that, it has survived some of its toughest challenges in recent times. This time last year, the board of the ECB had accepted in principle the findings of the Morgan Review that would have threatened the integrity of the County Championship and many who should have known better - including a former head of the Professional Cricketers' Association, a former Wisden editor and the man recently installed as the ECB's deputy chairman - in suggesting there may be too many first-class counties.

Yet its resilience is remarkable. In the last few years, it has survived a plethora of over-regulation, a fixture list so unpredictable that you wonder if it has been designed by someone trying to bring down the game from within (there were 19 different start times in the qualifying stages of the FLt20 in 2011) and some appallingly ignorant media coverage. Having been encouraged to pick teams without foreign players, without mature players and without players in the England system, the counties have then been castigated for failing to flourish commercially. It is like robbing a shop of its contents and then opening for business.

Most of all, county cricket has to contend with two persistent myths. The first is that talent is a finite commodity and the second that it exists only through subsidies.

The first theory suggests that, were there fewer counties, the talent pool would be concentrated and the standard would rise. It is an argument which, at first glance, might seem logical. But what it fails to acknowledge is the role of counties in inspiring, identifying and developing talent. It fails to acknowledge that, in an era of very little free to air cricket on television, the counties are entrusted with keeping the game alive across much of the country. It fails to acknowledge that several of England's leading players were developed from the very clubs that the doubters say should be amalgamated: World T20 winners Stuart Broad and Luke Wright from Leicestershire; the destroyers of India, Graeme Swann and Monty Panesar from Northants.

Without the 18 counties, talent would not be concentrated, the game would simply contract. The occasionally touted city franchises would actually disenfranchise vast portions of the country.

"Just as the counties could not prosper without a successful England side, so the England side could not prosper without a performing county system"

The second myth suggests that counties are reliant on a "handout" from the ECB. This is a misunderstanding. While broadcast fees based around a successful national side account for around 75% of the ECB's income - expected to be around £140 million this year - that same national side draws upon talents developed in the county game. Just as the counties could not prosper without a successful England side, so the England side could not prosper without a performing county system. It is a symbiotic relationship.

Besides, ever more of the counties' finances are provided on a performance-related basis. They are rewarded for providing England players, selecting young players and the provision of facilities expected to attract more spectators. In 2013, the 18 counties are expected to receive somewhere around £40 million between them from the ECB's distribution programme. That leaves £100m for grassroots projects and investment into the England teams. The game has never possessed such wealth, though how long it can be sustained remains to be seen.

It is vital, however, that every first-class county club redoubles its efforts to be relevant to the community it represents. That means, ideally, supplying players for England, or at least providing strong enough competition so that developing national players experience the toughest possible preparation for the international game. It means developing players from within to ensure there are local heroes to inspire the local community. It means reaching into schools and clubs to attract and develop the next generation of players and supporters. It means lower ticket prices, more appealing customer service and better facilities. It means every first-class county in every town pulling its weight and justifying its part in the system. If that means reminding people of the ground's existence through pop concerts, banqueting, hotels or comedy nights so be it. The cricket ground, like the pub or the post office or the church or the coffee house, has to become visible again.

T20 remains key to this. In recent years, the domestic T20 competition has suffered through poor scheduling, greed and muddled thinking. The format that could have provided the basis of a domestic resurgence has instead, like flat champagne or a deflated balloon, become a symbol of decay.

Its potential remains immense. With a sensible schedule - and a regular Friday night spot is eminently sensible - decent pitches, enthusiastic marketing and a long-term vision towards ticket prices, the domestic T20 competition can flourish. Sadly, we must wait until 2014 for the schedule to change.

In due course, the attraction of an FA Cup-style T20 knockout competition - a competition that would be relevant across the land as it would incorporate the minor counties and even clubs - broadcast on free-to-air TV will become obvious to the ECB. It could revolutionise the game in a single summer. Instead, a committee selected by the ECB to discuss the format are entirely wasting their time talking of formats involving 12 players a side and substitutions. It is almost as if those entrusted with running the domestic game are the ones who have most lost faith in it.

There remains so much to celebrate and admire. Last year, spectators at Surrey's Guildford outground were treated to an innings of rare genius by Kevin Pietersen; followers of the club that finished bottom of the second division of the Championship were treated to the sight of the man with 800 Test wickets representing them in T20. Elsewhere, spectators were treated to a man coming within an ace of scoring 1,000 runs before the end of May for the just the third time since 1938; the emergence of a fast-bowling attack at Warwickshire that would do several Test nations proud and, at Surrey and Essex respectively, the departure of the greatest run-scorer of his age and appearances by the man who will break every English Test batting record in existence.

The season that begins in earnest on Wednesday will bring as many surprises and delights. Despite reports to the contrary, it will still contain notable overseas players - including a record-breaking Test captain and one of the fastest bowlers in the history of the game - it will still be followed by millions (online if not in person) and it will still produce another generation of local heroes.

The county game, despite the obstacles and impediments, is producing as many talented cricketers as it ever has. It has played an enormous part in creating, after years of mediocrity, a golden age in English cricket. Those too cynical, too disappointed or too partisan to appreciate it may reflect that it is not county cricket they now find dull, but cricket itself.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • dummy4fb on April 10, 2013, 12:46 GMT

    Some years ago I suggested to Tim Lamb an administratively cost-free way of increasing attendances at County Championship matches. It was beautifully simple: give free entry to a day's play at a CC match to any adult who produced the stub of a ticket from an England Test, ODI or 20/twenty game played in the UK. An adult admitted on this basis could also take one child under the age of 16 in free.

    The scheme would involve no cost. There would be no new tickets printed, no extra paperwork, no extra staff.

    Attendances at England matches in the UK run into many hundreds of thousands. Even the people using the scheme did not produce repeat paying visits, hundreds of thousands of extra CC spectators would both improve the atmosphere at games and spend a fair amount on food and drink.

    The likelihood would be that many of those who went, especially the young, would come back as paying spectators at other CC games.

  • py0alb on April 10, 2013, 9:29 GMT

    bestbuddy: T20 cricket has been played in England for decades, no-one can really claim to have invented it, its probably as old as cricket itself. My dad remembers playing evening T20 games back in the 60s.

    What the ECB did was take an old amateur evening league format and get professionals playing it to see if it proved popular with spectators. It did. That was the innovative step, not the invention of the format itself.

    blink182alex: professional cricket in this country is a good standard and a Friday evening T20 league is a good format for showcasing that. Lots of people go to watch it live, and if you put it on free to air tv and people would watch as well. No-one cares about "the big stars" we just want to see an exciting and hard fought game of cricket with a few beers. No-one wants franchises, and having a set 4 week window has been shown to be a bad idea.

  • bestbuddy on April 10, 2013, 9:07 GMT

    Feel out I should point out an inaccuracy in your article. T20 cricket was played in South Africa unofficially (as part of a fund raising competition) as early as 2000, more than 3 years before England started their T20 competition, so clearly England were not the inventors of this form of the game.

  • dummy4fb on April 10, 2013, 8:36 GMT

    We can't reduce the number of counties - how are the young players of the future (Alex Lees of Yorkshire) as an example, meant to come through the ranks if there are no spaces for them. I agree with a 'knock-out' style one-day competition, but it's debatable whether it would work best with T20 or 40-over. T20 would give the little sides a good chance if they play well on the day, which is surely what we want to see. Having said that, shocks still happen in longer formats (Ireland v England - World Cup 2011)

  • peter56 on April 10, 2013, 8:22 GMT

    County previews

    A county game to savour

    Dobell: Continues to defy critics after more than a century | Division One previews | Switch Hit: Here come the counties |

    Congratulations George and heres to your second century.I had no idea that you have been around for so long, any truth in the rumour that you gave Neville cardus his first big break !!

    Seriously though good article

  • dummy4fb on April 10, 2013, 1:08 GMT

    Life is not controlled by a tv remote control and this is the beauty of County Cricket, the supported get off their bottoms and go to the county grounds because thats what they like to do. Thats their tv, their tv dinner, their sudoku, their raison d'etre, their everything. George thats why the CC will live on while the IPL will die a damp squib in 5 years or so, the tv remotes will switch off. simple as that.

  • 2.14istherunrate on April 9, 2013, 23:18 GMT

    The cricket is the sine qua non of summer-even if the weather continues to ridicule it. The county scores are usually the only news worth following and apart from decent novels the only thing worth reading are the reports. Thank God we are there however improbable it seems.

  • blink182alex on April 9, 2013, 21:53 GMT

    I still believe that the format of the county season needs to change. Div2 has some pretty poor teams that don't have any England prospects playing for them. Making it a 3 tier system, 6 teams in each would then that way have the best players playing against each other.

    As for the T20, i think the 2012 T20 comp was the worst standard that I've seen, it has become outdated and doesn't attract the big stars. Even people like Eoin Morgan agree that it would be better to use a franchise system, have 4 weeks in June-July when tests are not being played, have the England players all playing if no odi games. Have at the most 10 sides, 2 overseas and that will attract the public. I watched the Big Bash this year and it was excellent, the only problem being it was scheduled during the Sri Lanka test series.

  • glance_to_leg on April 9, 2013, 21:38 GMT

    Great observation, py0alb. There is a real mistake to think that the punters will only watch the abbreviated version of the game. I'd much rather watch a session of the County Championship than a whole T20 game, still less 40 over drivel.