Devon, Cornwall excited by Championship debate
ECB discussions about whether the County Championship could be extended to include 21 teams in three divisions of seven have stirred the interest of Ireland and Scotland, who are eager to consider any opportunities to join England and Wales' professional system. But even if agreements could be reached with both countries the ECB would still need to find a 21st Championship team - and that would mean persuading a Minor County to put their suspicions behind them and take the plunge.
Twenty-three years after Durham became the 18th first-class county there might now be an opportunity for another minor county - or even two or three - to be elevated. The ECB's chairman Colin Graves is known to be intrigued about whether a national pyramid is possible of the sort that broke down football's closed shop when the re-election system that largely protected the status quo was finally abandoned in 1986.
The mood in cricket is much more conservative, with a number of leading minor counties doubting their potential to join the County Championship, but if the ECB take that route they could find salvation in the furthest south-west of the country where Cornwall and Devon officials believe they could potentially combine to field a joint side.
"It's a brilliant idea. That could work for Devon and Cornwall - we would both be able to support that," Sean Hooper, the chief executive of the Cornwall Cricket Board, says. To Jim Wood, the chairman of the Devon Cricket Board, the concept is "delightful". "It's a great idea but would need a lot of careful planning."
Hooper has long been motivated by the idea of Cornwall having a first-class side; as an undergraduate at Loughborough in the early 1990s, Hooper wrote his thesis on whether the county could emulate Durham in having a first-class county. "If Durham can do it why can't Cornwall? What's stopping us?"
Population is perhaps the simplest answer - while Durham has a population of 902,500, Cornwall's is only 536,000. But a combined team with Devon would cover a combined population of over 1.6 million. And, at a time when English cricket is trying to reconnect, Hooper believes that it would make cricket far more accessible to those in the West Country: it is 143 miles from Penzance to Taunton.
"There's nothing for our children to see in terms of first-class cricket. We've got to go two or three hours to Taunton to see a first-class cricketer. Anything that could bring that closer to Cornwall would be fantastic," Hooper says.
Worryingly for cricket, rugby has made big strides in Cornwall, benefiting from the success of the Cornish Pirates professional rugby side, who play in the second tier. "12-year-old children are training like professionals because they can see that they can realistically play rugby. They can see it as a real job opportunity," Hooper says. "Because they don't see any first-class cricket they don't see it as a real aspiration.
"Rugby as a profession is a real choice whereas cricket is still a far-fetched choice," he says. "Some aspiring cricketers see professional rugby in Cornwall and they can see that as a real career and job route whereas they can't see that with cricket. Anything that enabled us to have that would be great." This is the most compelling argument in favour of extending, rather than reducing, the number of county sides: it could help discover more talent, and ultimately make cricket a more attractive option to talented young sportsmen. Indeed, it has been suggested that, by increasing the number of professional contracts on offer in Australia, the Big Bash League has made cricket a more enticing prospect to those who might otherwise have chosen Aussie Rules.
Cornwall can already claim to boasting a strong cricket infrastructure. Ten of 11 in the side who won the Minor Counties Championship in 2012 played local schools cricket in the county.
Since Durham's elevation to first-class cricket, Devon have been the most successful minor county, winning seven of the last 21 Championships. They have also produced a notable series of players for Somerset, including the Overton twins and Lewis Gregory. But Guy Lavender, the chief executive of Somerset, said that the county is "not protectionist at all" over the rest of the Southwest and that it could even benefit from a rivalry with a Devon-Cornwall side. "We used to play Devon regularly and it was an incredibly popular fixture," he says. "It would be very healthy to have opportunities for new counties to come into county cricket."
Still, a new team would face significant obstacles. The most obvious would be financial, and the challenge of fielding a team for 12 first-class fixtures. Perhaps the most realistic way to manage the challenge would be, as Hooper suggests, beginning life as semi-professional, with only a few of the most talented players awarded professional contracts. Splitting the costs between two counties, could also make the notion more feasible.
Getting grounds ready to host six first-class games a season would also be a challenge. While Wood says there is "good infrastructure already" at the grounds, he says there would need to be "considerable" investment at them for the benefit of players and spectators. The grounds at Truro and Exmouth often hosted first-class opposition in county one-day competitions in the past, while Truro has also hosted women's international cricket. And there certainly appears to be an audience who would embrace first-class cricket: attendances for minor counties games on Sundays in Cornwall and Devon can approach four figures. "For big games we'd get several thousand spectators," Hooper believes. "We'd be able to be competitive very, very rapidly."
Among other minor counties, there is recognition of the flaws of the existing structure. "Half the counties in the UK are operating in a completely different way to the other two and there's no interchange between the two," Kieron Tuck, the Norfolk Cricket Development Manager, says. The County Championship is even more of a closed shop than the old Football League. Until 1986, the side that finished bottom had to apply for re-election to the league, and was almost invariably allowed to stay in: Hartlepool United were re-elected 14 times between 1924 and 1984.
Besides a new team in the West Country, a Norfolk team (possibly a joint outfit with Suffolk) would seem the most realistic addition to the Championship; apart from Cornwall, Norfolk is the only other minor county not to border a first-class team. But Tuck is not optimistic about the idea.
"I don't think I've ever heard anyone say Norfolk should be a first-class county - it's just not on the radar because the differences are so enormous between what you'd need and what we'd have. It's just not possible realistically," Tuck says. "You're talking about a fundamental shift - from amateur cricket, which is what minor counties cricket basically is, to a professional format. It is a massive jump."
Based on playing strength - they are the current minor counties champions, and no side has won more titles than their 11 - Staffordshire certainly has a claim to join a 21-team structure. "If we had first-class status it would be a massive boost for the county," Jason Britton, the Development Director of Staffordshire, says. But the financial and logistical hurdles are such they he "couldn't put any timescale" on when the minor county could be elevated. "It would need significant investment and probably some sort of benefactor to move us into the situation we'd need to be in," he says. "It's a surprise that people are talking about it."
Although Staffordshire has a population of over one million, it is still served well by first-class counties, bordering Warwickshire, Worcestershire, Leicestershire and Derbyshire. Staffordshire have what Britton calls a "very strong relationship" with Derbyshire (six members of Derbyshire's squad have strong links to Staffordshire), which it would be reluctant to jeopardise. Other minor counties also have similarly strong links: Chris Clements, the chairman of Oxfordshire Cricket, says there is a "pretty hot" pathway into the county game from the county, as Jack Brooks has proved, while Oxfordshire also benefit from Sussex providing coaching. "We wouldn't want to put anything like that at risk," he says.
If minor counties are unable, even by merging, to form first-class sides, an alternative is to resurrect the Unicorns, an outfit made up of the best players outside the 18 counties who played in the 40-over competition from 2010 to 2013. "I'd love to see it as a Unicorns team - it would be an excellent thing," Kevin Beaumont, the secretary of Buckinghamshire, says. "A representative team from the 20 minor counties would have a real chance of competing." He also believes it could help players get contracts at the current 18 first-class counties. But, as the experience in the 40-over competition showed, a nomadic team suffers from a lack of identity. There is no precedent for a team without any geographical base thriving in a professional sports league.
So, should the County Championship need a 21st team alongside the existing 18 first-class counties and sides from Ireland and Scotland, a combined Cornwall and Devon team is shaping up as the best option. It could tap into the deep love for the sport in the West Country and make cricket seem like a more viable career choice for talented children.
Simultaneously, more could be done to cultivate cricket lovers in counties lacking professional teams. "One of the big shames is we lost the involvement in the one-day cup against the first-class counties," Beaumont laments. "That was exposure for the players and brought cricket into some of the shires where it doesn't exist. I'd love to see a competition like that resurrected."
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts