Franchises are not the answer
Twelve years after a launch so spectacular that it was dubbed "The summer of love," English cricket is suffering from existential angst about its Twenty20 competition. Envy of the IPL is one thing but jealously of the Big Bash League is quite another.
How can it be that a country with less than half the size of England can put on such an attractive T20 competition even while Australia's stars are detained by Test duty?
To many the solution for English T20 begins and ends with the f-word: franchises. To suggest that these might not represent a panacea for England's T20 competition is to be labelled a Neanderthal.
There are, broadly speaking, two franchise models. The first is the Indian model: franchises being leased from the BCCI on a ten-year period, giving the BCCI a short-term financial boost but franchise profits going to private investors. The second, more plausible in England, is the Australian model.
Here, franchises are owned by Cricket Australia (who offered a 33% stake to private investors, though no one has taken up the offer) with all profits pumped money back into the sport. The Australian model would certainly be more palatable to English traditions.
But neither model would increase the reach of domestic T20 cricket in England. While there is much that England can learn from the success of the Big Bash - the importance of cheap ticket prices, free-to-air television coverage and games coinciding with the school holidays - the notion that the appeal of domestic T20 can be transformed by slashing the number of teams is fool's gold.
England needs to ensure that it learns the right lessons from the Big Bash. It should not forget that, far from halving the number of teams, as supporters of a franchise system advocate, Cricket Australia increased the number of teams playing in its T20 competition.
Under the old Big Bash, run on traditional state lines, Victoria and New South Wales played just three home games a season each. The success of the revamped tournament has been to recognise that allowing Sydney and Melbourne so few matches when both have populations of over four million, was a mistake.
The Big Bash's solution was the antithesis of that argued for English T20: not reducing the number of teams but instead expanding them. By having two teams in each of Melbourne and Sydney, the Big Bash guarantees Australia's two biggest cities eight matches each.
For all the romance of Australia as the nation from the outback, it is one of the most urbanised countries in the Western world. The six cities that host Big Bash teams have a total population of 14 million - 61% of the total Australian population. If demographics are destiny, the demographics of Australia are ideal for a city-based T20 competition. England's, sadly, are not.
While the Australian franchise model extended the reach of cricket to more people, an English model would, perversely, have the opposite effect. The most likely franchise system would have ten sides covering nine cities, with London having two.
Let us assume that the eight other cities would be Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham, Southampton, Birmingham, Bristol, Cardiff and Durham (and even include Newcastle's population for good measure, on account of its proximity to Durham). These ten teams would be based in cities that accounted for only 22% per cent of the population in England and Wales - a third the figure of the Australian franchises.
So this is the problem that the ECB is confronted with. It has to design a T20 competition for the population it serves - not the urbanised Australian population that it would be much easier to please.
It would be a perverse approach to extend cricket's appeal by making it harder to watch domestic T20. A franchise system played in a block, as many favour, would only be a success if those who do not currently attend matches would be prepared to travel further to watch teams in midweek.
That seems a fantastical assumption, especially as the struggles of the previous T20 structure in England showed that teams cannot attract fans to return for several games a week.
A franchise system would reduce the supply of match tickets to below the level of proven demand for them, which is hardly a sane recipe for success.
Consider Essex fans. They would be expected to travel to the Oval or Lord's, but these grounds already sell-out regularly for domestic T20 - so, within the area that Essex, Surrey and Middlesex currently represent, fewer people would easily be able to see games than now.
For all the difficulties facing English domestic cricket, it is too readily forgotten that support for first-class cricket in England is the envy of the rest of the cricketing world - Australia included.
While English cricket needs to search for new supporters, it cannot afford to be contemptuous of its existing ones. A warning of the dangers of doing so comes from the Conservative Party and Labour, who have long ignored the wishes of their core voters in search of trendier ones. They have lost the former without gaining many of the latter; their combined support is now down to as low as 60%. English cricket cannot afford to deprive those fans who sell-out T20 games at Hove and Taunton of a team to support.
If the rationale is to entice fresh supporters, we already know a guaranteed way of doing so: traditional county rivalries. Think not just of Middlesex-Surrey but the Roses game, which has sold-out Headingley for the last two years, albeit that one of the matches was abandoned without a ball being bowled . In 2014, the attendance at Edgbaston was 6,000 higher when Warwickshire (albeit playing under the moniker of the Birmingham Bears) played Worcestershire than that achieved against any other team.
Two years ago, Bristol sold-out its ticket allocation against Somerset six weeks early. Had it not been for ground redevelopment limiting the capacity, Gloucestershire could have sold far more than 7,500 tickets. Yet there was little of the same buzz ahead of the fixture at Bristol in 2014, which was played in front of only 6,500. The difference? Last year the game was played on May 16, but in 2013 it had been played on July 26.
When this year's T20 competition begins in chilly weather in front of middling crowds, we can expect another bout of hankering for the Australian model. But making it harder for people to watch domestic T20 cricket - the opposite of Australia's approach - would not solve anything.
The shame of England's T20 competition is not the number of teams that compete in it - indeed, even with 18 teams, it is lamentably difficult for fans in Dorset, Cornwall and Norfolk to see live cricket. The problem is that the T20 competition is lumbered with a schedule that doesn't give it a chance to engage new fans, and is hidden behind pay TV.
Rather than try and create a phoney imitation of the Australian model, the ECB would be better off giving the Blast in its current guise a proper chance.
Tim Wigmore is the joint author of a collaborative book on Associate cricket, out in January 2015