City or county?
A heavy shadow hangs across the county season that starts this week with the traditional encounter between the reigning champions, Sussex, and an MCC side that is virtually an England second XI. The political cartoonists would no doubt draw it with a depiction of an Indian businessman, Lalit Modi perhaps, with the letters IPL emblazoned on his cloak. But they might just as well be EPL because a revamped Twenty20 league in England is coming for sure. It is just a question of how, when and how much.
You may view the black clouds that are gathering over Lord's, where a momentous meeting of the governing body, the ECB, takes place today, either as deeply menacing or as an opportunity to move decisively further into the brave, uncertain world of Twenty20.
It could be argued that the county game was never going to be the same anyway, once the ECB had embraced Stuart Robertson's marketing plan and started the first Twenty20 competition five seasons ago. But it was too successful to remain an English novelty, and once Mr Modi had persuaded enough of his colleagues at the BCCI that his vision of reproducing American-style franchises could work in India, it was bound to have a ripple effect on professional cricket everywhere else, county cricket most certainly not excluded.
The board has to decide this week how soon it makes changes and how drastic they will be. Taken in isolation, of course, there is a feasible case for making no significant alterations at all to a formula that has worked very well in a domestic context, boosting the finances of the 18 first-class counties by filling grounds on midsummer evenings with the sort of "new" cricket spectators who were first attracted to 40-over cricket when England pioneered that variation, too, as long ago as 1969. But there are powerful men in English cricket, among them the two London chief executives, Paul Sheldon of Surrey and Keith Bradshaw of MCC, who seem to believe that a city-based franchise system is the way forward here too.
Sheldon has already said publicly that The Oval might be the base for future matches in an extended IPL format, but he would much prefer to see a separate England-based league. Impressed by IMG's glossy franchise prospectus, the document that convinced Indian businessmen to back the IPL, he has been prepared to raise the possibility that franchises would work here too, and undoubtedly there are sufficient entrepreneurs based in Britain to take the idea forward. But that would mean disenfranchising the 18 first-class counties and that may be a leap far too precipitous for the ECB.
Giles Clarke, the still quite new chairman, may be a highly successful businessman himself, but he comes from Somerset, who until things fell into place for them last season, have been perennial bridesmaids. His instincts are to keep the county game together and he will surely be against any plan to beef up the Twenty20 competition here that does not involve all the clubs. Clarke reiterated only yesterday that no England-contracted players will be released to play in the IPL this time next year, when a tour of the West Indies will just have been completed and the emphasis will be on trying to regain the Ashes later in the 2009 season.
|Impressed by IMG's glossy franchise prospectus, the document that convinced Indian businessmen to back the IPL, Surrey's Paul Sheldon has been prepared to raise the possibility that franchises would work here too, and undoubtedly there are sufficient entrepreneurs based in Britain to take the idea forward. But that would mean disenfranchising the 18 first-class counties|
David Collier, the ECB's chief executive, has, like Modi, had some experience of the way sport works in America, and he has, like everyone else, seen how effectively the Premier League has been grafted onto the structure of professional soccer in England. Earlier this week he seemed not to be ruling out the idea of an English Premier League in cricket as early as this season. The questions to be decided immediately are whether it would involve county clubs as opposed to new city franchises, and if so how many?
Football has always been city-based. County cricket's charm lies in its rural variety. To persuade the counties to embrace a competition starting either this June or next, involving six or eight new franchised teams, one from North London (Lord's based), one from south of the river (The Oval), plus, perhaps, Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds, Durham, Southampton and Cardiff (I am surmising here) would require guarantees of substantial compensation for county clubs not involved if they were even to countenance the idea.
No one could be certain that franchised cricket would work here, however, and as Collier pointed out, even the investors in the IPL are going to have to wait several years before they start seeing a return on their investment.
A county chief executive spent much of his working day last week at Heathrow airport. He was not looking for his bags in Terminal Five, nor was he awaiting the arrival of a new overseas player in the hope of persuading him to play for his county this season. He was, it has been strongly suspected, talking to Indian businessmen about setting up a Twenty20 league here.
It may yet come down to an attempt to set up an unofficial league in England in opposition to the ECB, but finding suitable grounds would be their greatest problem. Far better, the board may conclude, to keep any changes in house.
Already the IPL has had its knock-on effect. Last week Somerset tried to re-sign their prolific young Australian, Cameron White. "Thanks, but no thanks, mate" was the gist of the response to the overtures of Somerset's director of cricket, Brian Rose. "The money's too good in the IPL."
Christopher Martin-Jenkins has been a leading cricket broadcaster, journalist and author for almost four decades, during which time he has served as a cricket correspondent for the BBC, the Daily Telegraph and the Times