County cricket November 24, 2011

Morgan's four-day plans flawed

George Dobell
David Morgan's proposals for one-day cricket are sound but his County Championship plan tries to fix something that isn't broken

It says much for the lack of confidence pervading English domestic cricket that, even before the changes for the 2012 season have been implemented, the ECB are considering further alterations for future years. That David Morgan's report is the sixth major review of English cricket in little more than a decade speaks volumes. Like a hypochondriac who has taken to self-medicating, their tinkering will, eventually, turn a healthy body into a corpse.

There is logic and labour apparent in Morgan's new report. It is not the work of an opinionated autocrat but the considered conclusions of a well-meaning man who has consulted widely and taken on a near-impossible task. If anyone doubted the extent of the confusion engulfing the English game at present then consider this: a few days ago, Yorkshire's chairman suggested there should be fewer first-class counties. That's the same Yorkshire that, barely 18 months ago, were suggesting there should be three more first-class counties. The road to disaster is paved by those looking for quick fixes; English cricket is bursting with such people.

Morgan's report was always going to divide opinions. He could never satisfy every agenda. Yet while Morgan knew he wouldn't please everyone, it may well be that he has done exactly the opposite: unite all in displeasure. Dripping in compromise, his report will not be radical enough for some - there is almost nothing new in it; they are simply old ideas in new packaging - while others will be alienated by the possible loss of 40-over cricket and cuts to the first-class program. Most of all, however, on-lookers might be forgiven for thinking: what was the point? To cut eight days from the Championship, the one competition that most feel works, and then fill four of them with T20, a competition that was recently cut as the counties concluded they were playing too much of it, seems perverse.

Still, it would be wrong to dismiss his report without reflection. There is some merit in it and there is a good chance it will be adopted. Before its unveiling, the ECB board were heavily inclined to accept it. It will take some persuasion to change their mind.

The proposal to bring back 50-over cricket is rational. While many county supporters enjoy the 40-over game, there is a strong argument that domestic cricket should mirror the international game. It makes little sense to talk about 'attention to detail' and then play a different format. The return of knock-out cricket from the quarter-final stages is also welcome.

The suggested expansion of T20 cricket also has some attraction. The problem in recent seasons was not so much the number of games, but the way they were shoe-horned into a short space of time. Like cramming a year's worth of alcohol into a single week (Hogmanay as they call it in Scotland), it was more an issue of scheduling rather than quantity. It remains to be seen whether Morgan is suggesting a league spread over a couple of months or a few weeks, but his ideas will, at least, help spectators predict when matches will be held.

Indeed, Morgan's proposals for a more predictable fixture list, incorporating weekend Championship cricket at the start of the season, is admirable.

It is the proposals to alter the Championship that will prove most divisive. While the England team management will delight in the lighter schedule - and the success of the England team is the key to domestic cricket's viability - Morgan's Championship suggestions are fatally flawed. They are overly complex, lack integrity and it will, as a consequence, diminish the status and the attraction of the county championship.

Why? Well, it seems that Morgan is suggesting retaining two divisions with nine teams in each. His solution to the perceived problem of fixture congestion is to return to a situation where teams in the same division do not all play each other home and away. Instead they will play some twice and some just once. So Warwickshire, runners-up last year, might have been asked to play struggling Yorkshire twice and strong Durham once. Lancashire, who won the title, might have faced the opposite scenario. It is, quite simply, unfair.

At present the Championship works well. Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Matt Prior and Jonathan Trott all made centuries on Test debut. England are No. 1 in the Test rankings

The County Championship provides the foundations of the Test side. A strong competition, taken seriously by players and spectators, is key to developing the next generation of England players and any dilution of the standards threatens to weaken those foundations. It has to matter. If it doesn't, the intensity of the competition will ebb and the gap between the Test and county game will grow. That will, in time, lead to a less competitive England side and less interest from broadcasters and sponsors. Weaken the foundations and the whole structure will, eventually, topple.

At present the Championship works well. Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook, Matt Prior and Jonathan Trott all made centuries on Test debut. England are No. 1 in the Test rankings. The last two seasons have seen wonderfully tight finishes to the Championship campaign that have generated great interest: the Championship is thriving. It's surely a mistake to weaken the great strength of the English game.

It is true that the spectator numbers are not all they might be. But nor as they as bad as some - usually those who never attend - might have you believe. Worcestershire, for example, attracted more spectators for Championship cricket than for most of their T20 games. Besides, it would be foolish to judge the Championship purely by the direct income it generates. Such logic would see the NHS closed tomorrow.

There are more errors in Morgan's report. His proposal to reduce the level of the salary cap and increase the performance related fee payments, would see the county game embrace mediocrity as never before. The decision to artificially encourage clubs to select younger players (there are incentive payments made to counties fielding young players), has seen a generation of experienced cricketers squeezed out of the game.

Meanwhile the ECB, with government assistance, has tightened the work-permit criteria to make it harder for non-England qualified cricketers (including overseas players, Kolpaks et al.) to gain work permits. The motivation - to encourage young, England-qualified players - was excellent; the result - a dropping in standards that will, in time, feed through to the national side - will be damaging.

There is a solution. The Champions League, a competition so lacking in integrity that the rules are different for each side, has won a place in the Future Tours Program. And, with the exception of 2012 (when it will be held in October), that place is mid-September. That means the English season is curtailed. Until the ECB either decline the invite to the Champions League or persuade the BCCI to re-schedule it, the counties should not participate. They weaken the county game by doing so. If Morgan had suggested that solution - and there were those that advised him to do so - then he would have had no need to tamper with the Championship. As a result, his proposed changes to List A and T20 cricket are acceptable; his proposed changes to the Championship are not.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Harvey on November 26, 2011, 20:50 GMT

    The problem with the one day competition is not the 40 over format but the structure of the competition itself. It would be better with four groups of 5 with the top 2 from each group going into quarter finals. The current set-up has too many meaningless games, and anyone who loses their first couple of games might as well put their 2nd XI out for the rest. Whether it's 40 or 50 overs is not the main issue in my opinion. The format as it stands is so bad that attendances are sometimes worse than for individual days of County Championship matches. I agree that English clubs should not be taking part in the Champions League as it stands. If it was a proper Champions League then it would be something worth watching, but the current set-up is merely a showcase for the IPL franchises, and is so loaded in their favour that it would actually be funny if it wasn't for the fact that we lose 2 valuable weeks out of our already short season to accommodate this farce.

  • Daniel on November 26, 2011, 18:33 GMT

    All county cricket really needs is for matches to start at consistent times and on consistent days and for there to be marginally less T20 (say 10 games). Other than that it is fine. It is the premier, and most followed, domestic competition in the world and I, for one, prefer is to international cricket. County Cricket is king. Please don't tinker with something that works.

  • Nicholas on November 26, 2011, 15:13 GMT

    Last year, Lancashire played Hampshire at Liverpool over 4 days. Lancs. won off the 5th ball of the final over at 6.00 pm on a Friday evening. There were about 1,500 - 2,000 people in the ground to witness it. Jimmy Adams (england hopeful) got runs; Briggs (likewise) got wickets. Maharoof (our overseas player) got 100; Ervine (Zimbabwe) got runs and wickets. Paul Horton & Tom Smith (both scousers) played. So, you had intense, exciting cricket, featuring England possibles; good overseas players and local lads. Will someone tell me, why on earth that needs changing!

  • David on November 26, 2011, 9:50 GMT

    The 16-game County Championship is the jewel of every English season. Better than most Test series, and better than the old 28-match 3-day competition. Despite being marginalised, with midweek games in early April and late September, crowds remain satisfactory - in fact, they seem to have increased in recent seasons. I am appalled that the Chairman of my own County Club should have suggested a reduction in teams. What we've got is good, civilised, happy, competitive. Don't let the soulless accountants ruin it.

  • Daniel on November 25, 2011, 20:51 GMT

    George is absolutely right. It's worth looking at the last four seasons of Championship cricket, all have gone down to the last game. Players have described the intensity of the some of the matches as being on a par with Test cricket. Surely, that is to be encouraged.

    The only suggestion I could make, would be not to have t20 dumped in the middle. Have t20 matches on Fridays nights or Sunday day-times to maximise revenue and make it an event for the family. And make the most of the weather in September, which usually compensates for the wet Augusts we seem to have.

  • Jeff on November 25, 2011, 16:55 GMT

    Why should the Champions League affect the CC fixture list? It only ever affects 2 out of the 18 counties! Simply rule that all games that are unplayable due to one of the teams being in India count as rained off draws. Or let the county field their reserves and non-T20 senior players. Its not devaluing the county championship - if 10 counties were going to India fair enough, but its only 2 teams, and if one of them teams were up there and serious about winning the CC, they might keep thier best players at home and send the stiffs to India, knowing they dont stand a chance against the multi million dollar salary IPL mercenery teams anyway!

  • Dummy4 on November 25, 2011, 13:55 GMT

    The two division, 16 games each, County Championship has to stay. If anything needs cutting back it should be the Twenty20 Cup or the 40/50 over competition. And how about actually seeing how the 2012 season pans out before deciding on the structure for 2014 onwards?!

  • Paul on November 25, 2011, 12:10 GMT

    I agree Maximum - George as ever gets it right. English fans love and care about the County Championship: low spectator numbers simply reflect the fact that it's not easy for many of us to go as often as we'd like (it sort of clashes with work...) When will administrators start looking at ways to make it easier for these fans to get to games? For example, change playing times in midsummer to start at 1.30 and play till 8.30... and we only need to take half a day off work!

    One change I would like to have seen would be to ensure that rules are the same between the divisions - including the balls used. It was a nonsense that last year Div 2 used a ball that favoured seamers... but Div 1 didn't.

  • James on November 25, 2011, 11:47 GMT

    Brilliant, brilliant article. So much so it has compelled me to register on this site after 2 years of watching others post their comments. George Dobell for Prime Minister please.

  • Humair on November 25, 2011, 9:59 GMT

    The county championship should be kept as it is, bringing back the 50-over competition is a good idea, but increasing the t20 is a terrible thing.

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