Ireland, Scotland would snap up County Championship spots
Ireland and Scotland have said they would welcome the chance to field teams in the County Championship. As revealed by ESPNcricinfo last week, the ECB is considering, among many options, a proposal to expand the competition to 21 teams and three divisions of seven.
No decision on the future format of county cricket is expected until after the season. But the ECB are open to European Associates providing some of the extra three teams in a 21-team Championship, and it is understood they have already informally contacted Cricket Ireland, who are very keen on the idea, about the possibility. While Scotland have yet to be contacted, they are also eager to explore the concept. It is unlikely that Netherlands, the third strongest European Associate, could commit to playing 12 Championship games a season.
"We'd be very interested because our ambition and goal is to play Test cricket," says Richard Holdsworth, the performance director of Cricket Ireland. "To play in a first-class structure with the English counties would help our players develop and would allow them the match time that they need in order to develop as international cricketers and ultimately play Test cricket."
"We don't get much opportunity to play first-class games so this would create an opportunity to help fill that gap and help develop our next bunch of players who may be the bunch to play Test cricket come 2018 and 2019." But, even if invited to do so by the ECB, Ireland would not intend to participate in county T20 and 50-over competitions.
While Ireland have an existing multi-day competition - which they would retain even if they were included in the County Championship - at this stage it is probably unsatisfactory preparation for playing Test matches against Zimbabwe, let alone stronger opponents. Three sides play each other twice each in three-day games home-and-away every year - a total of four games each a season.
The lack of variety in opposition is far from ideal while conditions tend to favour medium-pace seam bowlers who, as was painfully exposed in the World Cup, struggle against Full Members on flat wickets.
So for an estimated cost of around €350,000 (£250,000), the benefits for Irish cricket of playing 12 four-day fixtures in the Championship a year would be great. These could extend not just to those based in Ireland - including young hopes Craig Young, Andy McBrine and Stuart Thompson - but also many of the 11 Irishmen currently on the books of county sides. Andy Balbirnie, George Dockrell and Paul Stirling, three important members of Ireland's side in red-ball cricket, have played just one Championship match between them this season.
Ireland's prospects in the Intercontinental Cup, and ultimately Test cricket, would be far better served by such players playing in the County Championship rather than 2nd XI cricket. As the ECB now allow players to go on loan in certain competitions, Middlesex could continue to use Stirling in white-ball cricket while allowing him to play for an Irish team in the Championship.
A side in the County Championship could also make Ireland more attractive to Irish-qualified players from overseas. Nick Larkin, an Australian with an Irish passport who scored 78 and 130 for New South Wales against South Australia in November, spent the last two seasons in Irish domestic cricket - but Ireland is a long way to go for only four multi-day matches, and he is not due to return in 2015. "Playing regular first class cricket would be more likely to entice players like Nick to want to come and play in Ireland and try and make the national team," Holdsworth said.
Although Cricket Ireland expect to receive more from the ICC when the new rights cycle kicks in later this year, they would still not be able to match what counties could pay men like Ed Joyce, Will Porterfield, Gary Wilson and Niall O'Brien. So Ireland would field something equivalent to an A-team side in the Championship and brand the side as such. This would allow them to develop depth in red-ball cricket beyond their first choice eleven.
Another attraction for Ireland would be the predictability of the fixture list: at the moment, Ireland's only guaranteed game against Full Members is a one-off ODI against England every two years. Six Championship games in Ireland every year would, the board believes, make it easier to attract sponsorship and government investment to upgrade cricket facilities. It could also make Cricket Ireland membership more attractive.
For Cricket Scotland, the notion of participating in the County Championship is also very attractive. "If people wanted to talk about it with us, I'm certain we would want to talk," said Willie Donald, the acting chief executive.
In the context of the introduction of a pathway to Test cricket, he sees the idea as "very pertinent for our thinking right now." Donald believes that inclusion in the Championship "could broaden and deepen our developmental base of players in Scotland."
Preston Mommsen, Scotland's captain, agreed. "It's a brilliant idea - it would grow the game massively in the country. It would be a huge step in the right direction. Personally I learned my cricket playing in the CB40 competition between 2010 and 2013 and I think it's made a huge difference for us not playing in that competition. For us to be exposed to that level of cricket that can only be a good thing."
After the excitement of the World Cup, Mommsen has found the paucity of high-quality cricket since the World Cup a "mental challenge"; the most competitive game he has played since was against Durham 2nd XI. He believes that 12 first-class games a year would be crucial in helping Scottish players develop. "The standard would be very challenging for us - but at the same time you're going to find a way to adapt and raise your game to meet those standards."
But inclusion in the Championship would also bring significant challenges for Scotland. They would seek reassurance that inclusion would not compromise their integrity as an international nation, although there are numerous examples - like Namibia playing in South African domestic cricket, England Lions and Ireland playing in the Caribbean, and countries playing in England in the past - to suggest that it would not.
Hosting six Championship games a year would also require significant improvement in Scotland's facilities. "We'd have to be absolutely sure that we could afford the infrastructure and meet the commitment from a financial perspective," Donald said. "We wouldn't shy away from that."
Participation in the Championship would further stretch Scotland's financial resources at a time when, together with Ireland, they are developing plans to build a new cricket-playing facility in Spain, where matches could be played in September and October from as early as 2016.
Scotland would also need to expand their number of full-time contracted players from 11 (with a further eight contracted to counties) if they played 12 Championship games a year. "We don't have a big enough pool of professional players right now to meet that workload," Donald said. Existing full-time contracted players would also need to be paid more.
Unlike Ireland, Scotland would also ideally like to be included in the one-day and T20 formats too. "I could imagine in Edinburgh on a Friday night against Surrey or Middlesex that would be a whizz-bang up here. That would be fantastic - we would definitely get big crowds. It would be very exciting if that were part of the package," Donald said. "From an income stream perspective I could guess that it would give that business model a substantial boost."
Netherlands could hardly contain their excitement about the prospect of returning to limited-overs county cricket. "We're queuing up - we can't wait, it's as simple as that," said Alex de la Mar, the cricket operations and finance manager. "If that happened it would be absolutely super for Dutch cricket because we need good opposition." He also believes that it would make it "far easier to sell the game to sponsors".
Like Scotland, Netherlands did not want to leave county cricket when the ECB restructured the one-day competition before 2014. But inclusion in the Championship would be altogether more complex. "It would need quite a lot of discussion and sorting out as to whether we could even afford that," de la Mar said. "It's a lot of travelling, it's a lot of games, and can you do that with half the team amateurs?"
Shorn of ODI status, Netherlands' funding from the ICC is less generous than that enjoyed by Ireland or Scotland. They only have five full-time contracted players, so there would be major issues with player availability for Championship matches; de la Mar also fears the prospect of tussles getting players released from their clubs for games.
There is also an even deeper issue: the complete lack of culture of multi-day cricket in the country. While Ireland have long made their ambitions to play Test cricket palpable, and Scotland are now doing the same, Netherlands does not regard it as realistic. Spending huge swathes of a very finite budget on first-class cricket would be difficult to justify, so an elusive 21st team in the Championship might have to come from within England.
Still, those who think some altruism from the ECB is overdue should be very encouraged by the prospect of Ireland and Scotland joining the Championship. "Full Members should take more responsibility in helping associates," Mommsen said. "There's a huge untapped market here and this would be huge in terms of helping us out."
Tim Wigmore is a freelance journalist and author of Second XI: Cricket in its Outposts