Surrey lead pursuit of IPL riches
Hampshire's groundbreaking deal with the Rajasthan Royals, which was announced at Lord's on Monday, could have changed at a stroke the dynamics and priorities of the remaining 17 first-class counties, as the scramble intensifies to reposition English cricket in the midst of the IPL revolution.
As many as six county chief executives are currently believed to be in India, sounding out investment opportunities for the future of their clubs, and one of those, Surrey's CEO Paul Sheldon, envisages a future in which The Oval, soon to be regenerated as a 25,000-seater stadium, can be at the forefront of any further drive to globalise the game.
"I have been having various discussions with various people to investigate possible links that can be made in a country that's full of opportunities," Sheldon told Cricinfo. "Business-wise and stadium-wise, and international cricket-wise, we like to think of ourselves as a global leader, and we believe it's vital that Surrey is at the forefront of such discussions, given that we've had many, many, more people through our gates for Twenty20 cricket than any other ground."
Despite enduring three of the leanest on-field years in the county's long and illustrious history, the sheer value of Surrey's bricks and mortar - crucially situated in the heart of London - give them the right, in Sheldon's opinion, to drive a hard bargain, and he confirmed that, as a potential senior partner in any future alignment, the business model adopted by Hampshire is not a direction that they would contemplate following.
"We are well situated in London, and we have a very, very strong Indian and Asian following," he added, highlighting Surrey's success in marketing previous matches with a subcontinental slant, in particular the 2005 Tsunami relief match featuring Shane Warne and Muttiah Muralitharan, and the World Twenty20 warm-up fixture between India and Pakistan last summer, both of which were sell-outs.
"Without jeopardising anything in terms of our agreements with the ECB, it is clearly my responsibility to use the ground as much as we can," said Sheldon, who reiterated his belief in the sanctity of Test cricket, but acknowledged that the days of relying on the England team as the sport's principal source of income could be drawing rapidly to a close.
"We all acknowledge that we need to broaden our revenue streams, particularly if there is a reduction of TV revenue due to the potential delisting of Ashes cricket," he said. "If that occurs, we may have to take individual initiatives, and here at Surrey, we're in a very strong position to capitalise on that."
If Surrey and the Lord's-based MCC are the two clubs best placed to thrive in the changing landscape, then there are still opportunities to be had for the next tier in the county game. Durham's chief executive, David Harker, sees clear parallels between themselves and Hampshire - two of the most ambitious counties in the land, with modern green-field venues to attract investors, and uncomplicated business models which, as Hampshire have already shown, allow for a quick decision in the event of a opportunity arising.
"Test match grounds are looking for ways of making returns from their investments," Harker told Cricinfo. "Organisations that are in the business of cricket will look at ways they can sustain their ventures. Whether what has happened at Hampshire is right for other counties, I really don't know. but it is certainly intriguing and something we are all keeping a close eye on - and perhaps even informally beginning to explore opportunities with other franchises."
Other counties are not so fortunate. Leicestershire had harboured hopes of securing a deal with Rajasthan through their longstanding links with the franchise chairman and former Investors in Cricket partner, Manoj Badale, but they were beaten to the punch despite their strong links with the Midlands Asian community. "We had negotiations with Badele, but we always knew a deal would be unlikely," Neil Davidson, Leicestershire's chairman, told Cricinfo. "The key will be when we have Indian players in the first team, when we can boast an iconic, home-grown figure."
Meanwhile, Somerset enjoyed an eye-opening foray into the Champions League in India last October, and in a bid to bludgeon themselves a second bite of the cherry, they have assembled a formidable team of power-hitters including Marcus Trescothick, Craig Kieswetter and Kieron Pollard for this season's Twenty20 Cup. But in terms of long-term viability, the bucolic charms of Taunton have little to offer any potential franchise tie-up, and on Friday last week, their chief executive, Richard Gould, issued a bleak warning that county cricket could cease to exist beyond 2013.
"The one thing we want to make sure of is that if we join anything it isn't a bandwagon," Gould told Cricinfo. "The Champions League was a great adventure and something we would love to return to on a regular basis, but our club has been going since 1875 and we've got a great deal of equity and tradition in the brand and the name of Somerset. The one thing you can risk by creating a franchise is that you disenfranchise all the supporters you have built up.
"With regards to franchise and branding, would we be prepared to wear another team's colours, and would we be prepared to put another team's suffix onto the end of Somerset? I think that's a more difficult point. Hampshire are a well-run club and I'm sure they will have identified that they will need to put a lot of investing into making sure the brand and the franchise does have meaning to existing supporters."
Gould acknowledged that, in the iconic figure of Shane Warne, the Royals franchise possess a priceless figurehead with personal links to three of the five key clubs involved, as well as a global appeal that few cricketers - with the possible exception of Sachin Tendulkar - can ever hope to match. Without the cachet of big-name players or the security of a world-class venue, the future for several counties has rarely looked bleaker.
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo