England news July 5, 2014

The answer is in the outgrounds

The revival of some of county cricket's outgrounds can give groundstaff at county headquarters time to improve pitches in the NatWest Blast

County cricket has a lot of challenges to stare down if England's professional circuit is to regain its relevance of old. Because that it was it is - not just an anachronistic collection of counties with no link to the modern world, but a professional circuit that deserves to be the envy of the cricketing world.

Greed means that some of the challenges are virtually impossible to meet. Only in cricket could a new T20 format designed to thrust professional clubs into the limelight be undermined by the unavailability of the very players spectators most want to see.

An overcrowded England schedule makes their absence generally unavoidable, but there have been two occasions already this season when England's players - or the batsmen at least - could have been released without a detrimental effect, only for England to opt not just for rest but for sponsors' days, golf tournaments, talk shops and celebrity appearances at the Derby and Wimbledon.

But there is a way that the NatWest Blast can make progress - and that is in the quality of the pitches. Gordon Hollins, the ECB's chief operating officer, is right to applaud the sterling work of county groundsmen in onerous circumstances, his suggestion that scores in this season's NatWest Blast are on average 11 runs higher is also a cause for optimism, but there is a simple way to ease their plight.

It may sound counterintuitive, but the easiest way in which county cricket can modernise is to make a nod to the past. By staging a fortnight of Championship fixtures on outgrounds in the last two weeks of June, they can make life easier for their groundstaff when decent T20 surfaces are becoming difficult to find at headquarters.

The use of outgrounds has vastly diminished over the years not just because of changing circumstances but because counties have deemed many of them financially unviable. After investing heavily in their major grounds, they are determined to use them whenever they can. Until now, as much as the failure to spread county cricket around the county is regrettable, there has been a financial logic to it all.

Not now. Bad T20 pitches will cause a gradual slippage in attendances. If only 2,000 spectators in total are lost over the course of a T20 season, add in food and drink profits as well and that is a loss of at least £30,000. It sounds more than enough, with goodwill on all sides, to revive an outground for a single Championship fixture.

The problem for long-suffering groundstaff is not just a lack of unused pitches, it is a lack of opportunity to work on the squares where so much cricket is played. Remove Championship cricket from the grounds for a fortnight at the midway stage of the NatWest Blast and so much more remedial work can be done.

There are many issues with outgrounds of old. Many have disappeared for good, others can no longer afford to maintain the standards of old. There will be a few two-day finishes about, but it will benefit cossetted, modern-day batsmen to experience a slightly less reliable pitch or two and reacquaint themselves with the club grounds which are a vital component of English cricket.

There is a charm, now unknown to many, of playing Championship cricket on outgrounds. The smaller size of Championship crowds make it the perfect companion. It would not temporarily degrade the game; it would return to at least once a year to its roots and champion its part in English culture by doing so.

Not just the players, but the media, too, expect higher standards these days. Wifi remains desperately poor at several headquarters and the story at outgrounds tends to be even bleaker. But if the outcome is a more successful professional game, the suffering will be worthwhile.

There has not been a better reason for years for county cricket to go on holiday for a fortnight. Spread Championship cricket back into the forgotten communities and let the NatWest Blast benefit into the bargain. It is a virtuous circle.

If the ECB - and the counties themselves - are really serious about a proper transformation of county cricket, it is an ambition that should be seriously considered. It is no longer a matter that they can't afford to do it. It is a matter that they can't afford not to.

David Hopps is the UK editor of ESPNcricinfo

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