County shake-up on course - Hollins
Gordon Hollins, the man charged with leading a "transformation" of county cricket, has insisted that the relaunched NatWest Blast is showing signs of success as he continues his nationwide analysis of the state of Twenty20 cricket in England.
Worcester on a rainy night hardly presented the most flattering vision of the future, but Hollins, the ECB chief operating officer, remains confident that the changes made to the structure of the domestic season are starting to bear fruit as he oversees the drive to increase the relevance and financial viability of the 18 county sides.
A key part of that strategy involves the domestic T20 competition. The ECB hope that, over the next four years, the NatWest Blast will double attendances and, as a consequence, boost county finances and inspire new a new generation of supporters and players.
Hollins must feel he is herding cats at times. Required to juggle the needs of spectators, sponsors, players, groundsmen and many more 'stakeholders, he is hampered by a schedule bursting at the seams, the lack of availability of cricket's biggest draw cards and a television deal that renders it hard for the game to reach a new audience.
New Road is the 15th stop on Hollins' tour of the county grounds; trips that help him gauge opinions on how the new schedule is working - the competition is now played across much of the season with the bulk of matches on Friday evenings - and listen to feedback on any problems. And, at this relatively early stage, he remains encouraged that, despite competition from the football World Cup, the tournament is more than holding its own.
"I'm comfortable with the direction we're heading," Hollins told ESPNcricinfo. "We were always realistic about the expectations in the first year and it is important to remember this is a four-year plan. We didn't expect miracles in year one. But I am encouraged."
Hollins was reluctant to discuss attendances figures at this stage. He argued, reasonably enough, that such analysis should be left until the end of the season, when a like-for-like comparison will be possible. Anecdotal evidence would suggest, however, that attendances are marginally improved.
He was also keen to defend the quality of pitches on offer in the T20 competition. Condemnation of some county pitches on ESPNcricinfo a week ago, amid a period where several games were characterised by modest first innings scores, caused consternation among groundsmen and Hollins was keen to defend them.
"There are 127 T20 matches a season," Hollins said, "and we have to be realistic and understand there will not be 127 great pitches. Groundsmen face many challenges, not least with the weather and the quantity of cricket demanded of their squares.
"But I went to their conference before the season and what came across more than anything is the passion they have for the game and their work. The groundsmen work very hard and they really are doing their best for the game.
"The quality of pitches is an important factor in ensuring the success of the T20 competition and I am satisfied that the direction in which they are going is the right one and that pitches, generally, have improved. Average first-innings scores this season are up by 11 runs."
Hollins also defended the England management despite the fact that early promises about the availability of England players for the competition have only been partially kept.
"Paul Downton and Peter Moores are trying to support the domestic game," Hollins said. "They have a difficult balance to strike between doing the right thing for the players, for the England team and for spectators. They have to look at the schedule not just for the next few weeks, but for the next 18 months. It's very demanding. But they are trying to do the right thing and we have seen a bit more availability from England players this year."
Sunday starts for Championship games also appears to have proved a success, with gate numbers up - albeit from a relatively low base - and Warwickshire, at least, reporting their two highest Championship attendances in a decade.
"We are encouraged by Championship attendances," Hollins said. "We know it is unlikely to become a driver commercially, but it is encouraging that more people are witnessing the good quality cricket the competition offers."
With demands on groundsmen and pitches increasing, it may well be that the ECB consider more radical methods to ease the burden for future seasons. One possibility, mooted in 2013, was to play the first round of Championship cricket abroad. A more realistic one might be to take at least one round of Championship games a season to county out grounds.
Such discussions will have to wait until the end of the season. These are early days in the four-year plan. But it does seem safe to conclude that there will be no miracle cure. A more predictable schedule and improved pitches will help, but the absence of any free-to-air television coverage and problems with the availability of best players continues to hamper cricket's ability to reach a larger market.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo