Blast key to reigniting county scene
"It's the economy, stupid." Bill Clinton was almost certainly not thinking about the re-launch of the English domestic T20 tournament when he adopted that slogan for the 1992 US presidential elections but it remains pertinent, nevertheless.
The launch of the NatWest T20 Blast on Friday provides counties with an opportunity not just to boost their finances in the short-term, but reassert their relevance to communities in the long. Which county wins is largely irrelevant. It is about the county game winning as a whole.
For many years the counties have been accused - unfairly, given the development role they fulfil - of surviving on hand-outs earned by the England side. While the launch of the original one-day competition, the Gillette Cup, in 1963 and the T20 Cup in 2003 provided welcome revenue, the value of such events has been diluted over the years. There have been times in the last few seasons when some of the T20 cricket seen in England - attritional, percentage cricket featuring flat spinners and begrudging medium-pacers on damp Tuesday afternoons in largely deserted stadiums - has been almost everything it was set-up to avoid.
Now, with a regular, predictable place in the schedule, the casual cricket watcher - and that is exactly the sort this competition is designed to attract - can attend games without needing to check and double-check fixture lists. They can budget their finances and their time so they can attend a game every couple of weeks across the summer, rather than face a glut of three games in six days as has, at times, been the case in recent years.
It is essential the counties buy into the re-launch. It is essential that they understand the primary aim of the competition is to attract a new generation of supporters. So it is essential that tickets prices remain accessible to a mass-market audience that is just finding its feet after recession and that the visitor experience is, in every way, welcoming.
Players must sign autographs until their arms ache, the grim-faced stewards who have presided in some grounds for far too long must be banished. Members, too, must appreciate the requirement for some of the more populist marketing ploys - the cheerleaders, the music, the talk of Andrew Flintoff's return - that they might find trying. Cricket in England has to realise that it cannot afford to be exclusive.
And, crucially, it is vital the counties provide the appropriate pitches. Seasoned cricket lovers may celebrate the absorbing battle of low-scoring games; the uninitiated will not. This tournament requires good-paced pitches that encourage free hitting and fast bowling. Those counties that prepare slow, low surfaces they think will benefit their slow bowlers have to understand the long-term damage they will inflict on the game. This has been spelt out to them by the ECB.
Warwickshire's decision to rebrand themselves 'Birmingham Bears' has proved one of the more controversial marketing initiatives of the re-launch. But there is nothing to be feared by such an experiment. The club reasoned that its somewhat austere image - again, a largely outdated image - had failed to engage the inner-city spectators that live within easy reach of Edgbaston. Specifically, the club has failed to attract the Asian spectators that attend in such numbers when their favoured international teams play at the ground. Warwickshire's attempt to reach out to this audience is laudable and should not be mistaken for a move towards a city-based mentality.
A city-based franchise league in England would be a mistake. While such leagues may work in Australia or India, the landscape in the UK is vastly different. Cricket, in England, is a niche sport. It cannot rely on the passionate support that exists in India to draw people from the shires to the cities. It will always live in the shadow of football. If cricket does not go to the people, the people in market towns around the nation, it will be in danger of becoming irrelevant to vast swathes of the country.
The counties, especially in an era when cricket is so rarely seen on free-to-air television, do not exist simply to entertain their members or produce England cricketers - worthy aims though they are. They also exist to keep the game alive by inspiring, identifying and developing players. They offer, for many people, the only realistic chance to witness professional cricket and have a role to play in inspiring young people and then going into clubs and schools in their local community to develop their skills. The Blast is their shop window and their opportunity to earn the resources required to afford the development schemes and the wages demanded of the best players.
And that must be the longer-term aim of this re-launch. It must engage and inspire a new generation of players. For as the identity of the next generation of England's Test team has taken shape over recent weeks, it has become apparent that, once again, a disproportionate number of the new members - the likes of Sam Robson, Chris Jordan and Gary Ballance - will have been, to a greater or lesser extent, products of foreign systems.
To a large extent, that is to be celebrated. Not only does it reaffirm the attraction of county cricket to aspiring young players across the world, but it helps England field a team that reflects the mobile, multicultural society that it represents; a team that reflects a nation with a unique history of commonwealth and empire.
But it does beg the question: how good could England be if they utilised the hugely untapped pool of talent that must exist in their own backyard? With competitive cricket now hardly played in state schools, England is obliged to draw its side largely from those who attended private school and those who were given their first exposure to the sport abroad. Those breeding grounds will always be valuable, but it makes sense to also try to utilise the vast, underdeveloped resources of the state system. T20 offers a chance to reach that resource.
In the long-term, the ECB may well decide that the benefit of returning some cricket to free-to-air TV outweighs any relatively short-term financial gain. Just as the Sunday League proved the 'gateway drug' to several generations of cricket lovers, so could a knockout T20 event incorporating, perhaps, the minor counties. With a little imagination, this free-to-air coverage could be provided by Sky. No amount of coaching clinics, Chance to Shine visits, inner city facilities or autograph sessions - excellent though all those things may be - can replace the simple thrill of stumbling upon the sport on TV and falling in love with it.
There will always be challenges. Not least, there is the suspicion that the competition's success hinges to a large extent on a factor beyond the control of governing bodies or marketing companies: the weather. Several counties are concerned that the tournament begins a week or two early and that a later start might provide a better chance of good weather and increase the chances of the event building early momentum.
The Caribbean Premier League offers further competition for players and attention from the cricket-watching public. While the county game has long since grown resigned to losing players to the IPL, the likes of Shahid Afridi (who declined an approach from Warwickshire in the hope of securing a deal in the Caribbean) and Kevin Pietersen plans to commute between Blast and CPL commitments. Various football tournaments and the Olympics will compete for attention, too.
So it is into a crowded marketplace that the NatWest Blast must venture. But with a sensible schedule, a few more appearances from the England players and some good weather, it has at least given itself a chance to prosper. County cricket is always involved in a fight for its survival; the T20 Blast represents a significant battleground.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo