Mutiny at Grace Road
Civil wars are never civil. The battle of Grace Road - or perhaps that should read 'for' Grace Road - continues to wage. Indeed, some might suggest that Leicestershire show a good deal more fight off the field than on it.
I can think of no precedent for the events of recent days. While many clubs have experienced infighting before - it was the normal state at Yorkshire for many years - it's hard to think of a situation where an entire playing staff has demanded the resignation of their club's chairman.
Some will suggest it is an example of player power running rampant. Maybe. But it's not just the players demanding change at Leicestershire. It's the coaches, the groundstaff and the club's administration staff. Can they really all be wrong?
The members seem determined, too. They've already presented one petition calling for a Special General Meeting (and a vote of no confidence in the chairman and the board) only to see it denied - shamefully, in my opinion - on a couple of technicalities. They'll present another in the next few days. If Neil Davidson, the under-fire chairman, is serious about Leicestershire being a democratic organisation, he should be helping, not hindering, the members' attempts to hear all the facts from all sides.
I've spent the last couple of days at Grace Road. In that time, I've not met one member who didn't want such a meeting. They didn't all necessarily want Davidson to go (though the majority did); they just wanted to understand why their club is so divided. It seems a reasonable request.
In some ways, Davidson is an admirable fellow. Since he became chairman of Leicestershire, in 2003, he's put £60,000 of his own money into the club. He also co-owns the excellent cricket website, Test Match Extra, and is involved with a group negotiating the purchase of the magazine, The Wisden Cricketer. His passion for cricket is real.
There's not much doubting his determination, either. His role at Leicestershire is unpaid and, in the last few months, he admits it has brought him little other than pain. So his desire to cling on speaks volumes.
But it doesn't really matter who is right and wrong anymore. Like an ugly divorce, the best thing now is simply for the parties to go their separate ways. If the club's staff and a significant number of active members want him to go, then it's surely time for Davidson to do the only thing that will allow the club to move forward: step down with a bit of dignity and allow Leicestershire to focus on the cricket.
Some will dismiss events at Grace Road as little more than a sideshow. They'll suggest that these are the painful spasms of a terminally ill club.
But that's not right. Events at Leicestershire matter. The club actually has a pretty decent record of producing players - Stuart Broad and Luke Wright both started at the club, while the likes of James Taylor and Nathan Buck could well go on to represent England - and a healthy Leicestershire can play a part in creating a healthy England side.
The most disappointing aspect of all this, is that the club actually seemed to be on the cusp of better times. Not only did they buck the trend and declare a modest financial profit for last year, but they seemed to have a group of players capable of dragging the club up the tables.
All that could be squandered, now. Several players are considering leaving while the director of cricket, Tim Boon, is attracting interest from other employers. He is sure to be linked to the England U19 coaching role - and there is a real possibility that a club that appeared to be rebuilding nicely will be torn apart.
Less is more?
How much of a good thing is too much? That's the question that continues to exercise chief executives around the country as they consider the structure of the domestic season.
The future of the domestic T20 competition is causing particular consternation. While several counties feel there were too many games this season - each county hosted eight T20 games in the group stages; three more than last year - others feel the balance is about right.
The statistics do not present a clear picture. While a majority of the counties seem to have taken a fraction more money this season, they have incurred significant extra costs due to staging the extra matches. As a result, most will have made smaller profits from this year's competition.
But it's not a uniform picture. At Chelmsford and Taunton, for example, attendances have been up sharply. As a result, the chief executives of those clubs feel strongly that the 2010 model should be retained.
As Richard Gould, the Somerset chief executive, puts it: "I'm unequivocally in favour of retaining a minimum of eight home games and I'm certain that is what will happen. Despite the World Cup - which is a really significant factor - our income grew considerably. We had full houses [around 8,000] twice.
"Why? Well, having a successful side doesn't do any harm. Nor does having a nice, intimate ground with good facilities. One of the interesting factors about this season is that Taunton and Chelmsford managed bigger gates than Edgbaston and Old Trafford.
"I'd agree we can improve the scheduling. At one stage, we hosted three games in six days, which demands too much from players and spectators. I wouldn't mind seeing the games staged on Friday nights throughout the season. But we don't want to cut the number."
Jim Cumbes, the chief executive of Lancashire, disagrees, however. "Sixteen games was too many," he says. "We've really taken no more money than we did when we hosted five games a season. It's been too much for the players, too. They were very weary by the end.
"T20 worked at its best when it was short and sweet. It worked when it was a three-week window in mid-summer and it was the sporting event people felt they had to be at. We're in danger of killing the golden goose."
On one thing they do agree, however: it is far from ideal to be considering changes to next season's domestic structure this late in the day.
As Gould puts it: "Our new financial year begins as soon as the season has finished. That means that we've allocated contracts and budgeted already. If someone turns around now and tells us we've three fewer games, it's going to take £250,000 out of our budget. Where am I meant to find that? It could mean staff will have to take pay cuts or that we have to make redundancies."
There is some middle ground. While it seems that a majority of clubs feel there may have been too many games this year, some of those feel that there has simply been too much change in recent years and that the game could do with a period of stability. They also point out that it is already very late in the day to be considering changes to the 2011 domestic programme.
"A decision has to be made before November," says Mark Newton, the outgoing chief executive at Worcestershire. "That's when the new fixture list is published.
"My position is that we've had too much change. I hope we stay with the current structure so that we can all - and spectators in particular - have a little bit of stability. As far as I'm concerned, any changes should be made at the time the new TV deal is negotiated."
Too much too young
The ECB will also review the practise of incentivising counties to field more young players. While the intentions of the scheme are clearly laudable - to reward and encourage counties that produce England-qualified cricketers - there is a concern over some of the repercussions.
As things stand, counties can receive around £80,000 if they field two players under 22 and three more under 26. Those payments were originally intended to rise year-by-year and could be worth £200,000 per county, per year by 2013.
On the face of things, that may seem like a good idea. But, in the current economic climate, the fear is that several counties are maximising the money they gain from the incentives not for cricketing reasons, but for economic ones. As a result, there is a fear that inferior young English players are taking the place of experienced professionals who should be enjoying the best years of their careers. Merit is no longer the chief component in selection.
At the same time, there has been a tightening of the work permit criteria. This has made it much harder for some foreign-born players - and, most of all, 'Kolpak' registrations - to play county cricket. Again, on the face of things, this may seem like a good idea.
But, the combination of these factors and the surfeit of international cricket that denies even the best English players to the counties, has created an undesirable outcome. The standard of county cricket may well have been compromised.
Does that matter? If there are more young, England-qualified players in county cricket, won't the national selectors have more depth of choice?
Well, they might. But it's debatable whether they'll have quality in depth, or mediocrity in depth. For if young players learn their game in an artificial environment, where they are prematurely promoted and play against other prematurely promoted cricketers, they will surely be less well prepared for the rigours of Test cricket. Professional sport is not meant to be easy. We shouldn't be making progress too easy for our young players.
So the ECB will look at the issue again. While they are unlikely to radically change the incentive scheme, it might well be that the scale back the intended rise in payments. In time, however, they may well conclude that it is best not to try and regulate matters of selection at all. Merit should be the only criteria.
Going to the dogs?
News that a professional player has celebrated a championship century with a crude gesture is as wearying as it is regrettable.
Perhaps it's just a sign of my own descent into grumpy middle-age, but it does seem as if standards of on-field behaviour are waning. Certainly it's hard to imagine Peter May or Len Hutton celebrating a century by simulating a sex act.
While there remains a great deal admirable about the values inherent in county cricket, there is strong anecdotal evidence from umpires, my colleagues in the press box and other long-term observers, that there has been a worrying rise in displays of dissent.
Perhaps dissent is too strong a word. It's more that the standard of what is tolerated has changed. Players expressing exaggerated disappointment or mocked horror at decisions has certainly increased. Where that crosses into dissent is a moot point.
Generally these incidents are handled expertly by the umpires. Very rarely does an incident escalate or last more than a few seconds. And, if you ignore the contribution of Andre Nel - who pretty much represents a one-man 'crime' wave - and there are no obvious trends that prove any significant worsening of behaviour.
So, I called the ECB's umpires' manager, Chris Kelly, for his views. They were admirably sensible and realistic, but also just a little bit sad.
"The game on TV is very different to the game that many of us grew up watching on TV," Kelly said. "If you look at the generation of cricketers playing now, they will not have - they cannot have - the same values as the generations that preceded them. Times have changed. Society has changed. Not all change is bad, of course, but we do have to accept that there has been a change.
"Umpires have to manage it accordingly. They have to be empathetic and sympathetic. They have to know how to diffuse situation and when to reports players for their actions. The number of players being reported has remained pretty constant.
"We have to remember that the players are young men. Competitive young men who are trying to win. We don't want to take that competitive edge away from them. Captains tend to know where the line is and players tend to know there is a threshold over which they should not cross. An apology doesn't exempt them from a report."
All that makes sense, doesn't it? But implied within Kelly's words is an acceptance that things as not as they were. Shame.
Kelly has, however, helped oversee an increasing professionalism in the standards of umpiring. Standards are, arguably, better than they've ever been.
"Umpires are now fortunate to benefit from full time employment," Kelly explains. "The salary starts at £35,000 and we regularly stage discussions in small groups so that umpires can share experiences and benefit from one another's knowledge. 20 of the 24 umpires on the first-class list have experience as first-class players, so there's a great deal of knowledge of the demands on the players."