T20 debate swirls despite Blast success
There is a line in the film Death of a Gentleman where Gideon Haigh asks the question: "Does cricket make money to exist or does it exist to make money?"
It is a question that ECB executives should consider over the next few weeks as they seek to persuade the counties of their plans for a new-look domestic T20 competition.
Make no mistake: this debate is about money. If it was about reaching out to a new generation of supporters, there would be more emphasis on free-to-air broadcasting and less on the size of a potential broadcasting deal.
If it was about the quality of cricket, there would be recognition of the success of England and the relative failure of Australia and India in recent World T20 tournaments.
It's all about money.
While the ECB executive will claim they have no preferred option among the five proposals suggested to the counties for the future of domestic T20 in recent weeks, it has become clear - it has been clear for months - that they want a city-based T20 competition involving eight freshly branded teams starting as soon as possible (realistically in 2018). This, they believe, will bring in substantial new revenue in broadcast deals - up to £50m is claimed - and a new audience to the game.
Sounds good, doesn't it? But there is a downside. To maximise revenue, the competition would be sold to a subscription broadcaster - with a perfunctory amount of action shown free over other platforms - and it would be played only in a few larger cities.
So, no place for Northants (who have reached Finals Day three times in the last four years), no place for Leicestershire (who have won the competition more than anyone else) and no place for Somerset (who sell out just about every game they host). Worcestershire and Gloucestershire, who have seen ticket sales improve markedly in recent times, would also be among the excluded, as would Sussex and Essex, who have been selling out T20 games for almost as long as the competition has been played.
Not just that, but to appease broadcasters - Sky's current deal for live English cricket runs until 2019 - the competition would be played in a block that would see games scheduled just about every day of the week in a July window.
If that sounds familiar, it is because it was tried as recently as 2012. It left the competition dangerously at risk of a bad spell of weather - gate figures dropped by more than 50% (from 633,957 to 313,215, though there were also 54 fewer games) that year - and asked too much of spectators. Instead of inviting them to attend a home game every second Friday, there might be two or three in a week (Surrey hosted four home games in five days in 2012), with no predictability of schedule, no pattern and no time to budget. There are good reasons it was discontinued.
The smaller counties are rightly worried that they will be marginalised by this new competition. They point out not just that it is contrary to the ECB's constitution to stage a competition involving only eight sides - the constitution states explicitly that all competitions must involve all 18 counties (though the definition of the word "involve" may be open to some debate) - but that if they are seen to play in a lesser competition (the "LDV Vans Trophy of cricket", as one CEO puts it), it will impact on their ability to attract players, spectators and, in time, their viability.
Those clubs would either surrender their best players to the city-based team for the duration of the tournament - not ideal as one of the options sees the County Championship season continuing at the same time - or lose them entirely.
Yes, they would share in some of the revenues - it looks as if they will be offered £1m each if they sanction the new tournament - to alleviate some of their short-term financial pressures but, long term, they risk sinking into irrelevance.
Because if there is no cricket broadcast free to air, if there is little cricket in state schools, if the mainstream media stop reporting on domestic cricket (the fact that the Telegraph no longer provides independent coverage of county cricket should send warning bells around the game) and the most attractive competition is removed from the market towns and smaller cities where it thrives, how can the game in those areas sustain itself? How will a new generation stumble upon its charms? How can any decision to embrace a city-based T20 competition be anything but short term?
While the ECB points to the Big Bash as the template for a new-look competition, there are important differences. The Big Bash sets ticket prices far lower than we do in England in the knowledge that it is crucial to attract families. It provides better match-day entertainment off the pitch and, crucially, it is played (in part) over the Christmas holiday period.
But, most importantly, it has been, in recent years, shown on free-to-air TV. Cricket Australia, realising it had an opportunity to win over a new audience, took the sort of long-term view that is both so rare and so admirable in sports administration. Viewing figures trebled. The ECB appears less keen to adopt those characteristics of success.
We have not even scratched the surface of the practical issues. What evidence is there that English and Welsh sports fans will support newly branded teams? It certainly didn't work in Welsh rugby. Could an eight-team competition make room for unproven youngsters? How will young players - the likes of Ben Duckett or, before him, James Taylor and Jos Buttler - gain experience without the 'smaller club' development period? Wouldn't taking so many players out of county cricket threaten the integrity and strength of the Championship and, as a consequence, dilute the strength of the Test team? How would a club sell tickets for two T20 competitions at the same venue within the same week?
Oh, and good luck getting all Lancashire and Yorkshire supporters to cheer on a side with "Manchester" or "Leeds" in the name.
There's actually rather a lot to celebrate in the current NatWest Blast competition. Attendances are up for the third year in succession. Despite rival events (football's European Championship and the Olympics) and a prolonged period of poor weather which dragged numbers back sharply, final average attendance figures for this season will be about 5% up on the record achieved last year. Anyone who says it doesn't attract quality overseas players simply hasn't been paying attention.
And it should improve markedly next year. In 2017, the competition will start later in the season (meaning most of it will be played in the school holidays, rather than finishing just as they start), be played in something approaching a block and without any major rival sporting attractions. It is entirely possible that attendances will pass a million for the first time.
As a result, some of the counties feel the ECB should take the domestic competition to the market after next year's competition. And they feel it should be taken to the open market; something that you could argue has not happened since 2004.
Why, they argue, is the ECB so keen to do a deal with Sky now? Before the market is tested? Before the current TV deal expires at the end of 2019? Before the current format is given the ideal schedule in 2017? Why the hurry?
The ECB executive stance is not without support. Generally, those clubs deep in debt - Durham, Hampshire and Warwickshire spring to mind - are for the city-based competition, while players and coaches make persuasive arguments about the benefits of playing each format in a block.
While some, such as Hampshire, have a long and sincere commitment to city-based cricket, others are simply desperate for a cash injection to help them survive. Durham know they may well be excluded in a city-based competition, but a starving man probably doesn't think about the consequences when they're offered a meal. The same might be said about several of the smaller clubs.
You might ask why some counties are so impoverished, though. Why, when the ECB has reserves of more than £70m, are some counties so desperate that their survival is in doubt. Might it be that the ECB has kept them poor in order to keep them amenable? You would hope not. But it is convenient, just as it tries to push this plan through, it has the carrot to dangle in front of the counties: £1m is a colossal sum for some of these counties.
The smaller clubs (and for those who claim there are too many clubs, look at the excellent record the likes of Essex, Northants, Leicestershire and Somerset have in producing players compared to some of their big-budget rivals) also have the support of Surrey, probably the MCC (who are mindful not to be seen to push Middlesex into oblivion) and perhaps Yorkshire, who insist they will not change their name but owe trusts formed by the ECB's chairman, Colin Graves, around £24m.
Many of the clubs will feel the need to consult with their members - again, it is their duty as part of the constitution - over decisions of such magnitude. The ECB's desire to operate in secrecy and without consultation with spectators seems oddly high-handed. As ever, the wishes of the spectators are way, way down the list of priorities. The sooner a supporters' group is formed, with a seat on the ECB board, the better.
All this means that, if the ECB tries to force the issue through in the coming weeks - and it appears it might despite failing in attempts to alter the make-up of the ECB board - the outcome is too close to call. And if it fails, the position of both Graves (who you may recall called this competition "mediocre" at the start of the season; a Gerald Ratner moment if ever there was one) and the chief executive, Tom Harrison, will be compromised. They have, since their first days in office, tried to push this idea through.
If they fail - and they may well - the ECB could well be looking for a new chairman and chief executive before Christmas.
The perception is that Graves and Harrison have stopped listening to the counties. And, judging by the way they have suggested marginalising the County Championship - one of the recent proposals suggests playing the new city-based T20 competition at the same time as the Championship, meaning the best 80 or so players would be withdrawn from first-class cricket - they seems to have diminishing faith in Test cricket, too.
By chipping away at the foundations of the Championship, the ECB isn't protecting Test cricket, it is in the vanguard of the attack upon it. England's results in Test cricket have improved largely - not entirely, the introduction of central contracts was among the many other measures to contribute -because of the improvement of the County Championship since the introduction of promotion and relegation in 2000. Meddle with that and you meddle with everything good in the county game. You compromise its essence.
There is another option. The compromise solution remains available: two T20 divisions with promotion and relegation. Broadcasters could focus primarily on the top division but all teams would retain the potential to win the competition. Add on an FA Cup style knock-out involving the minor counties and given to free-to-air broadcasters, provide the marketing budget the new-look competition would be given and you have the recipe for growing the game, reaching new areas of the country and, yes sustaining all 18-counties and the futures of Harrison and Graves. Any other outcome will see either counties fail or individuals leave.
That option will not bring in the same short-term revenue, but it may well best provide for the long-term health of the game. All of which takes us back to Gideon Haigh's original question: does the ECB exist to make money or propagate cricket? The answer should be obvious.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo