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.