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

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