June 4, 2008

Spread it over the summer

The ECB and the counties may be keen on a midsummer Twenty20 competition, but there's merit in having one that runs across the season instead

Twenty20 has potential to provide cricket with the equivalent of weekend football excitement © Getty Images

The counties are contemplating what would be a seriously mistaken course in their confusion over how best to develop their own creation: the sporting phenomenon of the moment, professional Twenty20 cricket.

To me there are two clear choices. The first is to play a league in midsummer, as they have in the last few seasons with great success. Naturally, in the post-IPL world, the present competition would be augmented in future by further importation of many of the world's best players. No doubt they would be, generally speaking, just as happy to come over to England and Wales for large sums of money as they have been to go to India when their country's fixtures have allowed. Nor would they mind too much if they were playing for Lancashire Lightning or Manchester Reds. Did not Kerry Packer once memorably observe, rightly or wrongly, that there is something of the whore in all of us?

The alternative is to try to build a culture of watching Twenty20 cricket throughout the season, one that would spill over into longer forms of the game and which might genuinely become a summer version of the football fan's passion for watching matches every weekend. Of course the seasons would coincide for all but the mid-summer peak but if the cricket competition could build up a head of steam at that time many would no doubt want to see it through to the close before resuming their winter loyalty. It is a question of whether cricket administrators have the faith to give an extended EPL a chance.

It would be possible for the 18 first-class counties to play eight home matches and eight away in two geographically split groups (North League and South League) over 16 weeks between May and the first three weeks of August. That would mean one match every Friday or Saturday evening for the players and one every fortnight for spectators, who would be able to buy season tickets to encourage regular attendance if they were not members of the club. After ten days to allow the successful clubs to market and plan for the climax of the competition there might then be an intensive finals week at the start of September, with four qualifying counties, two from each league, each playing the other three once before a final. Two clubs would get two home games, the other two one, with the final either at Lord's or at the home ground of the side coming top.

The top two teams from the finals would then compete in the IPL's Champions Trophy, against the top qualifiers from other countries. These already seem likely to include India, Australia, Pakistan and South Africa, and might in time include all the Test nations: perhaps, who knows, a few more.

There is a logic and balance to such a programme that would not apply to the intensive mid-season splurge of one-day cricket that is favoured by some players, among them two of England's most forthright one-day batsmen, Nick Knight and Chris Adams. Of course there are good cricketing, not to say very good commercial reasons, for doing that.

Adams, captain of Sussex but probably in his last year as a player, recommends Championship cricket in April, May and from the end of July to September. In between he would have a Friday-night league of Twenty20 cricket running beside the 50-over competition, culminating in its customary final at Lord's at the end of August.

Speaking personally rather than necessarily voicing his county's opinion, Paul Sheldon of Surrey, who presides at the Brit Oval over the biggest turnover in English cricket other than MCC, agrees. He thinks it would be hard to attract the best overseas talent for a competition lasting almost four months, as it increasingly is for county cricket generally. He should know because, despite a modest season last year, Surrey had an annual turnover of £23,407,000 with pre-tax profits exceeding £721,000, the highest in the club's 164-year history. That represented a growth in turnover of 29.7% and a significant increase in pre-tax profits of 108.4% from 2006.

The evidence from the performances of those players who have bridged the gap between county and Test cricket more easily than they used to do is that the present format of the County Championship works better than it did, encouraging cricket of a competitiveness and intensity that produces players of the necessary discipline and character, as well as talent

At Lord's last week the ECB board discussed a variety of proposals, including three-day championship cricket with more overs each day, regional "conferences" after the fashion of the Raising The Standards document, published more than ten years ago now by the old TCCB, and two-innings one-day matches. The latter is, in itself, rather a good idea but the sum of the whole is confusion so it is hardly surprising that no decisions will be taken until market research has been carried out during the Twenty20 Cup.

There has been plenty of market research already, however. I am not sure why it should be confined to Twenty20 crowds, or what has been done with last year's gauge of opinion, expensively gathered by a professional research group. Yorkshire's chief executive Stewart Regan said pertinently last week: "Let's not fiddle at the edges. Let's develop what we know well."

The essential point, always avoided if it possibly can be by all the ECB's chiefs, is the one made forcibly - on behalf of all who give the question of England's domestic structure proper thought - by the still, small voice of Ken Schofield. His report into England's disastrous series in Australia last year insisted that both the national team and the counties had to play less cricket. Recover, practise and prepare was the mantra that he reiterated on behalf of almost all the players and coaches to whom he spoke.

The evidence from the performances of those players who have bridged the gap between county and Test cricket more easily than they used to do is that the present format of the County Championship works better than it did. That is not to deny the general superiority of the Australian system, as demonstrated by William Buckland in his book Pommies: England Cricket Through an Australian Lens, but it is to suggest that the four-day Championship with two divisions has encouraged cricket of a competitiveness and intensity that produces players of the necessary discipline and character, as well as talent. In the end, as the recent round of Championship games has shown once more, players of true quality, such as Steve Harmison, Simon Jones and Matt Prior, will stand out.

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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • hermithead on June 5, 2008, 9:53 GMT

    I think a 4 month tournament is a very positive step for cricket. Look how successful the EPL, NFL, NBA and Major League Baseball have become. One gripe about the recent IPL is that it was too intense. Too many games over a short period of time - no one had the time to discuss, watch, criticise ie digest the games. International Players will not be available for the whole 4 months but as we have seen in the IPL (and other sports) as top-class players become unavailable new top-class (or developing ie Shaun Marsh) players come into the side. A minimum 4 month tournament also makes a statement to the sporting world, one that says cricket now has a product they are proud to showcase non-stop for a whole season - rather than a tour here or a series there.

  • B_Grade_Superstar on June 5, 2008, 3:32 GMT

    I am slightly confused as to how the proposed Champions Trophy tournament could work. What would happen should a player be in two or even three teams that qualify for the Champions League? Andrew Symonds for example plays for Queensland Bulls, Deccan Chargers and Gloucestershire (I think), what happens if two or all of his teams qualify? Does money win out?

  • NindianZ on June 5, 2008, 2:56 GMT

    It's not about racism and all that nonsense people - its about the arrogance of CMJ to assume that the players would automatically go to whoever pays the most. It's like saying Ryan Giggs would go play for Liverpool because they offered him a few thousand quid more. Or asking John Terry/Patrick Vieira to play for Man U. I'm not saying that it may be the case, but try and consider that some sort of loyalty may exist.

    Another example is when Wasim and Waqar were reverse swinging the ball - every single Charles, William and Harry said it was because of ball tampering. Once Simon Jones and Andrew Flintoff learnt how to do it, it suddenly became this "wonder ball" - no mention of ball tampering there.

    So typical, if the English can't do it, then its wrong.

  • SummerofGeorge on June 4, 2008, 21:41 GMT

    Poor old KP cant go and earn a million for six weeks work...oh boo hoo, he can however make a more than acceptable living, and by acceptable we mean way beyond the dreams of almost anyone who watches him and his millionaire partner, with his watch sponsorship, his jewellery adverts and ham fisted references to Dubai getaways in interviews.

    If he is so desperate to "earn another million" then let him go, ban him and move on.Playing for your country is an honour, some seem to grasp that, some, let's use them and let the whining cash seekers go their way.

    I'd happily step in at number four, i can't play for hell, but I'd be free.

    A short career they cry, all these sports people do, well here's a challenge, i am happy to take a million pounds and try to live the rest of my life on it.

    It's a short career because you spend money like a petulant brat and lose touch with reality and become a tiresome grasping bag of toss who thinks purchasing Fabergé eggs and sports cars is a g

  • SummerofGeorge on June 4, 2008, 21:40 GMT

    To lurch around and panic about the future of the game is playing into their hands. If some insufferable corporate cretin needs to be catered to in order to make ends meet, while he brings his guests to a late night T20 game, then i suggest we all take a shower and investigate curling or rounders.

    As far as England is concerned, after the Ashes win, if it was money you wanted, the ECB were on a wave of popularity and attention i have never seen in my life, so what did they do?..short term gambit for the dough and take the coverage off Terrestrial TV.

    That was akin to taking a blunderbuss and aiming at your right boot and saying yes....i fancy a hop.

    As for the players, these people are not low paid cocklers struggling on beaches in Morecambe.

  • SummerofGeorge on June 4, 2008, 21:38 GMT

    Nice, so what...the entire endeavour is based around grubbing into spindly hands more and more cash. None of which we will be liberally dispersed amongst the seers in the crowd who were first to spot the fact that some bowler getting repeatedly hammered out of a miniature ground by a bloke with a bat like a plank, whilst Oasis play, is quality entertainment.

    Frankly, i have watched it and it's not, it's dull and essentially pointless.

    Yes, it's Entertainment, for a few, but it's got precious little to do with a game we all thought was perfectly enthralling in 2005 when the Aussies called, or whenever the last captivating test series for you was.

    Tip by the way, can't remember the last test series you got engrossed in?..I'd suggest you aren't in a position to comment about the sport.

    Let's not be fooled, this is ceaseless "blue sky" knackers and "envelope pushing" rubbish by business men who are out of the blocks and looking for a fast buck.


  • SummerofGeorge on June 4, 2008, 21:36 GMT

    Let's be honest and say this entire debate regarding T20has just become an insufferable bore.

    Of course one quakes and trembles at the prospect of being labelled "old fashioned", or " a traditionalist", or some other sneered put down in the face of jack booted cash reaping commerce robot, which is all these things are.

    Now before some vacuous tiresome clown leaps about screaming about "market share", i am neither particularly old or indeed even a fan of the already existing limited overs formats.

    For me, it's all practically Beach Cricket anyway, yes some innovations have arrived from it, some batting changes, the ability of bowlers to bowl at "the death".

  • jalps on June 4, 2008, 18:56 GMT

    From a cricket fans point of view, making the season more regular makes a lot of sense. As it stands if I miss a couple of matches in any competition I completely lose track of where things stand. For me the obvious layout would be to have a 20 over match on the Friday or Saturday, a 50 over match on the Sunday and four day Championship matches during the week (it seems a waste to have the grounds empty on a Saturday). Having a regular Twenty20 slot in your week will help to build a more sustained fan base and, therefore, greater financial stability.

  • crikketfan on June 4, 2008, 16:10 GMT

    Playing 2020 cricket is seriously detrimental to batting performance in 4 day cricket. (Hell going from ODI cricket to first class causes enough problems at the top level). Much better to keep the two separate.

  • danue on June 4, 2008, 13:24 GMT

    Retain 4-day championship, but intensify competition. Dump all 40/50-over games. Expand 20/20 format.

    1st half of season: 3 regional conferences of 6 (or 7, if the ECB helps Ireland, Scotland & another Associate). 4-day matches, maybe spare 5th day in case of bad weather. Pura Cup-like points structure. Intensity from day one!

    Top 2 counties in each conference form Division 1 for season's 2nd half. Six 3rd- & 4th-placed counties form Div 2 and the six finishing 5th or 6th form Div 3. Only points from game between each pair carry forward.

    2nd half: 4 (or 9) more 4-day matches for each county. (Poss. semi-finals 1st v 4th & 2nd v 3rd.) Top 2 teams contest respective divisional 5-day grand finals.

    Two Twenty/20 competitions: 1) League running throughout the season, starting with 'regional' games before or after each 4-day conference game. 2) Current Twenty20 Cup, but fully extended - 4 regional leagues, incl. Associates, home & away matches, last 16, QFs, SFs and Finals (best-of-3?).

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