County cricket 2016 May 2, 2016

Leicester City's triumph offers vital lessons in meritocracy

At a time when the stock of their neighbours at Grace Road has rarely been lower, Leicester City's glory is a reminder of why elitism in sport should be challenged

Leicester City fans celebrate a triumph even more unlikely than a Leicestershire County Championship win © Getty Images

There have been few football shocks more treasured across the UK than the crowning of Leicester City as Premier League champions. A title for Tottenham Hotspur, with young English players at their core, would have been a refreshing enough challenge to football's elite. But Leicester City? Here is a rare-in-a-lifetime proof that football's great, messy democracy can still occasionally rise up in glorious rebellion.

In an age when success has long seemed restricted to a predetermined few, Leicester's achievement can hardly be overstated. English football's hegemony has been successfully challenged, not just in a Cup competition where such exploits are more easily achieved, but pricked and poked consistently over the long grind of a league season and by a side that began the season as 5000-1 outsiders.

An unprepossessing East Midlands town is now the stuff of footballing legend. Thailand is flaunting its affection for the Foxes, with the club's owner, Vichai Srivaddhanaprabha, throwing extravagant parties in Bangkok. Leicester's Indian diaspora - more than 20% of the population and rising - is a fact now beginning to register from Mumbai to Bengaluru.

About half a mile down the road from the King Power Stadium, Leicestershire County Cricket Club are gulping in the optimistic air, comfortable with the very idea that, who knows, they could also one day threaten a cricketing miracle that would be equally unexpected. They are hoping to join a couple of Leicester City pre-season training sessions in July in the hope that a truth or two will reveal itself. "Now is probably not the right time," Wasim Khan, their chief executive, remarked knowingly. He has no wish to drown in champagne.

Leicestershire have finished at the foot of the Specsavers Championship second division for the past three seasons. Those who advocate a reduction in England's number of first-class clubs, or who wish to launch a premier T20 competition based only on the bigger Test grounds, present them as a county that England could well do without. If there is an elixir at the King Power Stadium, Leicestershire wish to drink it: perhaps their long-term survival even depends on it. They look down the road at Leicester City and, in the words of the Cure, sing: "Why can't I be you?" Leicester City have had some tough times - watched by two men and three cabbages at their lowest, according to a former manager, Dave Bassett, but nobody has ever suggested freezing them out.

That Leicestershire are edging forward is undeniable. They returned to profit last year after losing £500,000 in the previous four years, they have doubled membership (from an embarrassingly low base), and have sold all their hospitality boxes for the NatWest T20 Blast. They even lie second in an embryonic second-division table, a heady start for a county that went 33 months - and 37 matches - without a Championship victory until they secured one of two wins last season. Good judges who have seen them in the early weeks view them as a much-improved side.

But many will take convincing that their recovery can be anything other than token. It is a mark of county cricket's ingrained pessimism that the first media response towards Leicester City's anticipated success has been to propose that Leicestershire, "dear old Leicestershire", the ultimate insult, are incapable of repeating it.

The negative argument is essentially that county cricket's romantic days are long gone and that its finances are now stacked against the underdog. The fact that eight of the nine counties in Division One of the Championship are from Test grounds is presented as a virtually unshakeable vision of the future - and it will be eight counties next season. More negativity comes from the perception that the gap between the best and worst sides in Division Two seems to be growing.

Grace Road's ambition is to be the most successful non-Test match ground by 2019 © PA Photos

The appetite in some of the higher echelons of the ECB for a T20 tournament that excludes the smaller counties - by whatever means, fair or foul, that can be imagined - is another issue. That desire might not win the day but it amplifies the view that the future will only cast its eyes fondly upon the bigger clubs.

All this might well be the case but it is a conclusion seemingly oblivious to the irresistible irony that less than nine months ago everybody in football assumed that the same was true about Leicester City.

The salient fact about challenges to the game's elite, be it in football or any other sport, is that they look virtually impossible, but occasionally they happen. That is what makes them so special. Football's bottomless capacity to dream, from the manager down to the most reality-scarred fan, is a lesson that cricket would do well to learn. Of course Leicestershire can win the Championship. If you don't believe that, why bother?

The need for ambition is not lost upon the Leicestershire chief executive who has supervised the beginnings of a turnaround. "Leicester City's success can only be a good thing for us - I am sure we can fill a void for Leicester City fans after the euphoria of all they have achieved dies down," said Khan, aware that if just one in 20 football fans gives T20 a try this summer it will help him fill the ground to capacity.

"Isn't it ironic for Leicestershire CCC, who have been knocked for so long, and who have been long regarded as the first county that would disappear, that a quarter of a mile up the road there is a side who are proving that money doesn't buy you success, a side that last year were threatened by relegation and, hardened through their experiences, have proven what can be achieved. That is the beauty of sport.

"There are lots of parallels we can draw with Leicester City. There are a lot of things that we can gain inspiration from. People looked at Leicester City and thought they had an average number of footballers who will fight together: let's see if they can avoid relegation.

"These are guys who have come through a lot of negative experiences and have been hardened by that. Look where team spirit gets you. When you have a dressing room without too many egos and a coach who is a fantastic man manager."

Football's bottomless capacity to dream, from the manager down to the most reality-scarred fan, is a lesson that cricket would do well to learn. Of course Leicestershire can win the Championship. If you don't believe that, why bother?

The coach that Leicestershire are looking to is Andrew McDonald, who played four Tests for Australia in 2009. Perhaps here is Leicestershire's Claudio Ranieri. Suddenly everybody wants one, especially if you can hear the cheers from the King Power on match day. If things go well it will not be long before McDonald gets the nickname. In three new senior players - Paul Horton, Neil Dexter and Mark Pettini - he is supported by a lot of cricketers with captaincy experience. A recognition of team responsibility goes a long way.

"We wanted three leaders, guys who could bring a lot to young players and guys who had suffered a lot of losses over a short period of time," Khan said.

"The negative narrative about Leicestershire has been an easy one because of the lack of success on the field and our financial failures. It was easy to use us as an example of what was wrong with county cricket, but we needed to stand up to that, and I think we have shown this year that we are heading in the right direction. I haven't come here to stand still. I genuinely believe we can go on to great things."

A Championship is not yet a stated ambition, but the staging post is formidable enough. "Our ambition is to be the most successful non-Test match ground by 2019," said Khan. It would take promotion and a one-day trophy or two to achieve that.

Particularly tiresome when considering Leicestershire's place in the scheme of things is the refrain from former cricket executives that county cricket's split into two divisions in 2000, which has successfully closed the gap between Test cricket and the highest county standard, has somehow marginalised the second-division sides to the point where they simply cannot compete.

"There is no hope of winning the Championship," opined a former chairman, Neil Davidson, in the Times last week. Such defeatism from those who tried and failed can take its toll. It is fortunate that those now in charge of Leicestershire's affairs have sharper ambitions. It is also a reinvention of history to imagine that the old 18-team Championship was an even playing field, with the title always undecided until autumn began to bite: there were mismatches galore. For about 20 years, Yorkshire and Surrey used to win matches in their sleep.

If counties with Test grounds haven't qualified for T20 finals, do they have an automatic right to be in the top division? © Getty Images

"I don't accept that 'no hope' narrative," said Khan. "A two-division system forces counties to improve their own standards, which I don't think is a bad thing. Sustainability is always going to be a challenge but we are moving in the right direction."

It is not just football where Leicestershire now find themselves unfavourably compared. Leicester is also a major rugby union city: Leicester Tigers are renowned as one of the most powerful sides in Europe, symbolic of rugby union's move towards the dominant club structure long established in football. Cricket is edging that way - the process will only be quickened by the growth of T20 and the deep-seated problems faced by several international nations - but for the moment, professional cricket in England remains largely suffocated by the international schedule.

In Leicester, rugby offers a particularly cruel parallel. Leicester Tigers have five times the revenue of their cricketing cousins. But the story of supposed rugby union domination is not that simple. You could travel to many other England cities - Nottingham, an hour down the road, for example - and draw precisely the opposite conclusion.

"Leicester Tigers have been one of the most successful rugby sides in Europe for a long time," Khan said. "I am not too fussed about that. What I am concerned about is, are we moving forward at pace? We couldn't keep moving forward at a slow pace. We needed to get into the 21st century in terms of our aspirations."

If Thailand is offering its love to Leicester City, perhaps India's cricket fans - and, for that matter, investors - could do worse than forthwith develop a soft spot for Leicestershire. The city's Indian flavour has so far made little cricketing impact, with much of the population still mentally attuned to events abroad, with all the damage that does to their ability to create opportunities in the land in which they live, but it is a potential lifeblood that Khan is well placed to tap.

"It is an amazing story at Leicester City. Sports is about competition, it is not about elitism and about people thinking that the top six have a right to win everything"
Paul Haywood, Leicestershire chairman

A former professional with Warwickshire, he previously made a major impact as chief executive of the influential Chance to Shine charity, which seeks to reignite the cricketing flame in State schools. When clubs with an Indian heritage showed no interest in meeting him to discuss links with Leicestershire, he phoned representatives of nearly 30 clubs individually: most attended, old suspicions at least partly banished.

"We have introduced a programme called Search for a Star," Khan said. "It's not a gimmick just to get some publicity. It is based on the belief that there are a huge number of talented cricketers outside the formal club structure. That structure isn't going to be right for everybody.

"The best players will be offered a contract to come onto the staff if they are good enough. They don't have to be the finished article as long as they have got the potential.

"The Chance to Shine programme opened my eyes in terms of what you can do out there in providing opportunity and access to play cricket, and the natural talent that is out there in state schools. Our academy is already reflecting that. All we are doing is opening up the pool and creating opportunities."

But even if Leicestershire win over Leicester's South Asian community, they still have to win over the TV companies, the businessmen, the executives, and even the England players - Jos Buttler being the latest - who yearn in the vaguest terms for an IPL-style tournament in England. They want to play high-quality cricket in front of big, cheery crowds. It is a laudable ambition. The question is how.

That debate might properly start in whether England players should take part in their own T20 tournament, but it generally gets sidetracked into loose talk of "franchises" (allowing private companies to take profits from the game is not on the agenda) and the imagined imposition of 'big city' cricket, in which Leicester - even though it is the 11th biggest city in England - is presumed to have no part.

Khan is a polished performer, not given to emotion, but there is a sense of exasperation beneath the surface. "If one of the key points of cricket is to grow the game then why introduce a franchise system that would only provide cricket to certain pockets of the country?" he asked.

"What do you then use as a driver in the rest of the country? Sport in this country is pretty territorial. It is dangerous to make the assumption that franchises will work in cricket."

Wasim Khan: "We needed to get into the 21st century in terms of our aspirations" © Getty Images

Even if the likes of Leicestershire show ability in T20, it is immediately turned against them as proof that they are showing an over-emphasis on white-ball cricket and not giving serious enough attention to the production of Test cricketers. The big clubs want it all their own way. In football, Leicester City will know the feeling.

Khan appealed for a reality check. "Nowadays the catalyst to bring players into cricket is T20. Once they are in your system then you look at how to adapt them to the longer form of the game. It has been a complete reversal of how things used to be. But that's the way the world is moving. There is no shame in that. What is important is that you have a glut of talent coming through. But the health check for county cricket will always be four-day cricket."

As Leicestershire commit themselves to improvement, as their academy belatedly promises to draw players from a wider cross-section of the community, no longer so heavily reliant on well-tutored players from a limited number of public schools in the rural part of the county, their chairman, Paul Haywood, who once nicked the winning runs for Leicestershire against Yorkshire in the 1972 Benson & Hedges Cup final at Lord's, is preparing to fight the county's cause at the latest ECB chairman's meeting at Lord's next week. On the agenda as always: England: cricket: the future of.

"It is an amazing story at Leicester City and it will make a big difference to all sports," Haywood said. "It's come along at a perfect time. Sports is about competition, it is not about elitism and about people thinking that the 'top six' have a right to win everything.

"I have reminded the ECB at the last chairman's meeting that cricket's Premier League cannot just be people with the largest grounds. It has got to be on merit.

"There are some Test match grounds that struggle to fill themselves for Test matches so they are not going to be filled for T20. And some of the Test match sides are simply not strong enough to be in that division. There are four Test match grounds who have never played in T20 finals day and there are another couple who have been there once. How can you put them automatically into the top division?

"If we go down that route then the county championship will go down that route and counties will disappear. How can you talk about expanding interest in the game when you are shrinking it at the same time?

"I have been on the Leicestershire board since 1989 and the smaller counties have never been more united than they are now. We have to stand up and be counted. There needs to be 18 areas of the country where there is hope, where people can support their side in the hope that they can win things. You cannot narrow down hope. It is totally unacceptable. Leicester City have told us that."

David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps