'English cricket missed its chance'
David Stewart, the Surrey chairman, and Keith Bradshaw, the chief executive of MCC, believe that the franchise-based Twenty20 tournament that they proposed, in controversial circumstances, back in 2008 could well have been English cricket's final opportunity for a sympathetic reform of its ancient county structure.
Instead, two years on from a proposal that could have safeguarded the future of all 18 first-class counties, both men feel that the English game will now be forced to evolve to survive the IPL revolution. Hampshire's alliance with the inaugural IPL champions, Rajasthan Royals, is the first hint as to the future direction of the game, and as the scramble intensifies to claim a share of the game's new revenue streams, the prospect of all parties securing an equal say in their destiny is fast receding.
"Our franchise proposal was devised with the future in mind, and unfortunately the future is hurtling towards us on an early train," Bradshaw told Cricinfo. "The only place you could have realistically established a rival to the IPL was in the UK, because of timezones and marketability, but to a certain extent the timing and the opportunity has been lost. Right now the IPL is getting stronger and stronger, and there are already fewer and fewer opportunities for other competitions to establish themselves."
The Bradshaw-Stewart plan was drawn up as a discussion document in the months that followed the IPL's successful first season in 2008. With support from Lancashire and Hampshire, the two men envisaged a nine-team English Premier League, comprising 57 matches over 25 days, the majority of which would have been staged at the nine Test-match grounds to maximise revenues, and contested at the height of the summer to avoid any clash with overseas schedules.
It was a radical proposal but, because of the complex nature of the ECB constitution, it could not have gone ahead without the backing of at least 30 members of the board, including the Minor Counties. Therefore, a cut of the profits could have been secured at every professional level of the game. Nevertheless, the proposal was leaked to the press before it could even be looked at by the board, and was subsequently crushed, with Glamorgan's chairman, Paul Russell, leading the attacks by deriding it as "bootleg and divisive".
"I think it scared people that it was representatives from Lord's and The Oval who came up with a plan," Stewart told Cricinfo. "They are the two strongest clubs in the country, because they have the London base. But we always saw our proposal as a partnership of the 18 counties. We didn't see it as the nine big grounds going it alone and leaving the others deserted. But it was, let's say, ahead of its time."
More to the point, England's approach to Twenty20 cricket remains decidedly behind the times and, despite attracting some big-name players, this season's new Friends Provident t20 is little more than an elongated version of the original Twenty20 Cup. By failing to mark their territory in the sort of no-nonsense terms proposed back in 2008, the counties left themselves open to the situation that arose this week, whereby the IPL commissioner, Lalit Modi, was able to park his tanks on their lawns, and demand an adjustment to the English season to accommodate the lucrative Champions League.
Modi's move followed hot on the heels of Hampshire's decision to align itself to the new "Royals" franchise, and as the balance of power shifts from countries to clubs, there is a growing sense that the end-game will be the establishment of a global city-cricket tournament, with the biggest and best stadia across the world playing host to a range of super-franchises or major clubs. The gulf between the haves and the have-nots of county cricket is yawning wider than at any time in the game's history.
To that end, Surrey's chief executive, Paul Sheldon, has been touting for business in India, while MCC is known to be mulling over proposals from the two new franchises that are being introduced to the IPL next season. "It has to be accepted that India is the powerhouse," said Stewart. "It is the dominant country in cricket for financial reasons, and therefore any strategy that excludes them is doomed to failure."
Ironically, having failed to discuss the Bradshaw-Stewart proposal and hence passed up the chance to pool the profits from such a competition, the counties have still spent large chunks of their budgets attracting players of the highest calibre. But whereas 28,500 spectators will be able to watch Adam Gilchrist playing for Middlesex at Lord's, less than a third of that number will be able to witness Kieron Pollard playing down at Somerset, or Brad Hodge at Leicestershire. "The big grounds are best placed to capitalise on this new system," said Stewart. "But they will do so without having to pass any of the money over.
"The financial situation of the 18 counties in 2010 is significantly worse than it was in 2008," he added. "So significantly, in some cases, that you wonder if some might have a different view [of the proposal] now. But for others, they might well feel that the time has passed. It might be the case that we're all on our own now - we'll do what we can for our counties, and some will succeed and some won't. I'm not sure we'll see a genuine joint venture of that nature appearing now."
"It's true that counties without the same ground capacity were concerned by the proposal, but it should perhaps have been looked at more closely, and shown more respect," said Kent's acting chief executive, Jamie Clifford, who has been standing in since the resignation of Paul Millman last year. "But our membership is a traditional county club membership, and their primary interest is, of course, four-day cricket. If the members like a certain form of the game, but the game is moving in a different direction, the inevitable consequence is you are moving away from your market."
For the time being, that market remains the source of almost 90% of the ECB profits, and both Stewart and Bradshaw (who will be organising three Tests this summer) remain determined to support the traditional game as best they can. But ultimately they are businessmen in a rapidly changing world, and with rapidly expanding stadia to maintain, they recognise that there's not much more money that can be squeezed out of an already over-stretched England team. The clamour, as it is, is already for less international cricket, not more, and that's before the added threat of the delisting of the Ashes is taken into account.
"The bulk of Surrey's profits still come from our annual Test match, so the long form of the game - and that starts with the County Championship - is still hugely important to us and our members," said Stewart. "But it could be that we have too many eggs in one basket. If, over a period of time, Test cricket struggles to maintain its success in this country, and follows the situation we've seen in other countries, we've got to find ways to diversify. If there is a development of international club cricket around the IPL-type model, as seems possible, we're going to be interested. We have to be interested."
Andrew Miller is UK editor of Cricinfo