County news March 14, 2016

ESPNcricinfo panel positive about professional revamp

With another English season approaching, George Dobell sat down with five stalwarts of the professional scene to chat about the latest changes in the county game

The ESPNcricinfo panel:
Will Smith: Hampshire and previously Nottinghamshire and captain of Durham.
Jack Shantry: Worcestershire.
Steven Crook: Northamptonshire and previously Lancashire and Middlesex.
Steven Croft: Lancashire captain.
Ian Bell: Warwickshire captain.

Do you feel you're asked to play too much cricket at present?
WS: Yes. The season becomes a war of attrition rather than a test of skill. I do think that cutting things down a bit will help.
JS: Most would agree there is too much, yes. And most would agree that the quality suffers as a result. Personally I quite enjoy the attritional aspect of it. It becomes a marathon and it tests more than cricket skills. But I'm a medium-pacer and if we're trying to produce Test-quality fast bowlers, there is too much. You can see a gradual decline in quality over the course of the season. There are ways of dealing with that: you can have a strong group of seven or eight seamers on a staff, as they do at some big clubs. But at smaller clubs like ours, three or four seamers are expected to bowl all season and we did become very, very tired.
SC: Yes, it dilutes the quality of the cricket. You do learn a lot about the character of your teammates during the course of a long season - who is up for the fight, who only fancies it on good days - but in terms of producing international players, it isn't ideal.
Croft: Yes. And I'm pretty sure the quality will improve with the new structure. Taking eight days out of the fixture list by reducing the Championship schedule by two games is pretty significant. When you add in the travel time - which is particularly difficult for clubs based in the north or south - it is at least 10 days. I love the county championship, but I do think this will make it even better.
IB: I'm always a bit uneasy about complaining because we should never forget how lucky we are to play cricket for a living. And it is quite a long time since I've played a full county season. But I think it is fair to say that the current schedule is very difficult for fast bowlers in particular. You see people operating at something like 70% because there's no way you will get through if you try to bowl every spell at 100%. I do think the quality of the cricket will improve with a bit more recovery time and that may help narrow the gap between the county and international games.

Is it tough to go between formats?
WS: Yes. Ideally, you would like two or three days ahead of each game to work on specific skills. Having said that, the way the season is constructed at present does develop your mental capacity to cope with change. You have to be mentally prepared all the time and the teams that manage that tend to be the teams that enjoy success.
JS: Yes, it can be. I recall Alex Hales saying he only had time for one or two white-ball practice sessions during the domestic T20 season last year and that can't be right. It's not just the games; it's the time spent travelling. You might well play on a Wednesday, travel on a Thursday and play another format on Friday. But it's got to be about what's best for fans as much as it has players.
SC: Yes. It becomes very hard to practice skills. As an allrounder, I want to work on my yorkers and power-hitting before going into a limited-overs game, but there often just isn't any time to do it. I'm sure the standard will improve for playing in blocks. The crowds will see that improvement and enjoy it more.
Croft: It's not easy. We're all in the same boat, so there's no point complaining. Ideally, though, you'd like to have two days practice and then a rest day ahead of a game to work on skills and then play while feeling fresh. At times this year, we're going to play a T20 on Saturday afternoon and then go into a Championship match on Sunday. We might not have the ideal climate for a block of T20 games, but I do feel the changes are a step in the right direction. It's got to be good that we're playing in the school holidays.
IB: Yes, but it's always been that way. We're lucky at Warwickshire in that we have a large squad and several players who only play white ball cricket. But it is difficult for young players to get used to changing formats so often and, as a young player, I often found I was in good form in one format and really struggling in another. Playing in blocks will make life a little easier for us.

Are you concerned about the quality of pitches for 50-over cricket if the competition is played in April and May? WS: Yes. But something has to give, doesn't it? Whenever we do a survey with the PCA, it seems the 50-over competition runs third in terms of priority of players. The T20 is the high-profile competition and the Championship the real test of a player. There are 18 counties and three competitions: something has to make way and, unfortunately, it's the 50-over competition. I played at Durham at a time when a score of 150 could win you a List A game. I do worry we may go back that way and that won't necessarily replicate international conditions.
JS: Well, we're coming off the back of an horrendous World Cup, aren't we? And we've punched well under our weight for years in ODI cricket. So they are keen to help us go into the 2019 World Cup in the best possible state. Personally I think 40-over cricket is a better game than 50-over cricket, but we're trying to help guys prepare for the World Cup and this will hopefully be played in similar conditions. I think it's a pretty good idea.
SC: Not at all. Pitches at that stage of the season will be fresher. They'll be far better than the surfaces we played on in 2015: really tired, slow wickets that turned miles. It's nobody's fault, but there is just too much cricket and the pitches become as weary as the players.
Croft: It's tricky, isn't it? We had a pretty wet summer during that part of the season last year and that can make life very difficult. The 10.30am starts weren't ideal, either, though I believe we're going back to 11am. Maybe we might want to look at whether we should still be playing with two new, white balls, too? At that time of year, one might be a better bet. That competition has lost a bit of its edge in recent times: T20 has taken over as the money-spinning, glamorous tournament and the championship will always be the true test of a side and a player. But to play in a Lord's final is still special and making that a showcase event in mid-summer is another step in the right direction.
IB: You would hope that the ECB have communicated how important it is we have good pitches for that competition and that the counties respond. I agree with the logic of the decision: we have a World Cup in England in 2019 and it's a huge opportunity for us to do well and attract more spectators to the sport. I agree with giving 50-over cricket more priority. This is a huge opportunity and I hope everyone gets on board with the idea.

Does it bother you that Division Two will have an asymmetrical fixture list? WS: No. But I do think we'll see the gap between the divisions widen. It's already huge and I'm not convinced that is a bad thing. Division One is a very high standard of cricket. International players will tell you that. But the gulf to division two... it's become massive.
JS: It's not ideal. And, having been relegated from Division One at the end of 2015, learning that only one team will be promoted in 2016 is a real kick in the teeth. But it's probably a necessary evil. I still prefer two divisions with promotion and relegation to a conference system and I think we all understand that there has to be some compromise along the way.
SC: Not at all. I fear there will be a hell of a lot of dead games this year and that will be unattractive for players and spectators. But I'm not bothered about playing some teams twice and some once. It's a long season and if you want to earn promotion, you have to play the best. I think we just have to accept that and remember there is a long-term aim here to improve the overall game. It's for the long-term good. We all understand that. People just have to get over any problems they have on that.
Croft: I don't think that's a major issue, no. I don't mean to be disrespectful towards sides in Division Two - I know there are some good ones - but I do think that we have to see it as an area where we can experiment at times. The same sides tend to go up and down, anyway, and towards the end of the season with some clubs having little to play for, the standard tends to drop off. The introduction of two divisions has played a huge role in improving the Test team and this decision will probably improve Division One. That's important in helping prepare young players for Test cricket and if it creates a wider divide then maybe that's not such a bad thing? The bigger grounds tend to have better pitches, too. Nobody minds a side utilising home advantage, but it has to remain within reason. It's important that the top division is as high quality as possible.
IB: I think it's a price worth paying. Division One, this year, looks as strong as it has ever been and the standard will only improve with the extra time to rest and practice. I think the change is for the best. It might not be ideal, but you can see why it's happened and I think it's fair enough.

Is it inevitable that we will have a city-based T20 competition within five years? WS: Yes, probably. And it probably has to happen to ensure we can keep up. In some ways, I'm surprised it hasn't happened already. There have been calls for it for a few years. Having said that, we seem to have a young England side who have a good method so I'm not 100% sure we need it in terms of producing players. It may be more about producing a new audience and more money, though.
JS: Probably. Many people within the game are adamant that's what we need. My concern is that there is a huge majority of silent supporters - the Mr and Mrs Smith who come to New Road - whose views are not being consulted. The Australian model might not fit in England. We don't have the same climate; we don't have the same cities or stadiums. I don't think there are too many counties and I do worry that we sometimes do what covers our own backs rather than acts in the long-term best interests of the game. In the long-term, I fear that the big clubs will just get bigger and the smaller clubs become even smaller. I'd be interested to see how the revenue share would look if we were combined with Warwickshire and played at Edgbaston.
SC: I'd like to think there was something like that on the horizon. We have to do something to reach a new audience. The Big Bash package is very good and obviously free to air television makes a difference. I think what we've seen with these changes is a small step towards a significant change. We have to get more people playing the game more often and a city-based event played in a three to four week window may well have a big part to play in that. Personally I'd like us to play at least one home game at a football ground. Imagine we took the game to MK Dons and tried to appeal to their fans? The game needs a new audience and I think we'd reach it more successfully that way than simply merging with Notts and playing a few games at Trent Bridge.
Croft: Yes, I think so. I think most players and fans would want it, too. 18 teams probably is too many for a really successful T20 competition and if a franchise system was introduced and halved that number, I think it would be great for the game. Some players may well be disappointed to miss out, but if we want England to do well, we need a really top-class domestic competition. I can see that it could lead to a situation where one or two counties could disappear in time and, as a traditionalist, I would be sorry if that happened. But maybe the system does need trimming down a bit?
IB: It's not inevitable but I do think there is a lot to be said for it. The Big Bash looks like a great competition and I think if you asked the players, the vast majority would say it was something they would like to see over here. I'd love to be part of something like that. I do think it's inevitable we'll see change over the next few years, but whether it is two divisions or a city-based competition, I just don't know.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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