June 10, 2008

From hit and giggle to do or die

Why the increased focus on Twenty20 just may be good for English cricket

More explosive players like Luke Wright may come to the fore via Twenty20 © Getty Images

Rare is the time when there isn't talk of upheaval and reform in the English domestic game. But the current atmosphere has been made all the more febrile by noises off: the coveting of the Indian Premier League, and Saturday's confirmation that a Champions League will take place later in the year.

No prizes for predicting the content of every English county's Twenty20 team talk this week as the domestic 20-over competition kicks off: "Come on lads, there's 2.5 million quid on this."

How quickly Twenty20 has metamorphosed from hit and giggle to do or die. Somewhere in an office at the Rose Bowl stadium in Hampshire, a marketing man is musing on his creation. Stuart Robertson, Hampshire's commercial director, is cricket's Dr Frankenstein - it was he, while working for the ECB, who commissioned the market research that led to the creation of the Twenty20 monster.

Michael Vaughan has raised the concern that Twenty20 now becomes the priority for counties, "the ultimate importance, rather than developing the four-day team", as he put it. I think Vaughan's concerns are misplaced. Anything that sharpens the mind of county cricketers has to be a good thing, as long as counties don't lose sight of the long-term objective of producing England players for all forms of the game.

It's not really about which competition a county focuses on. It's the fact that they don't really have time to prepare properly for any of the four main tournaments they play. Once the season starts, it's a five-day-a-week job with little time for rest, reflection or preparation. The problem remains in the county game of the amount of cricket that is played. It is a vicious circle: counties want to fill every nook and cranny of their summer to bring in revenue to pay for their sizeable fully professional staffs (and to give Sky TV something other than England matches to fill their schedules with); and they need these large squads in order to get through the workload of the summer.

England lack explosive players and that surely is because the nature of county cricket mitigates against it. More focus on Twenty20 might just help England produce some more Luke Wrights and Dimitri Mascarenhases. Domestic players in England play more limited-overs cricket than in any other country yet does that quantity lead to greater quality and high achievement at international level? No.

Vaughan has mooted cutting down the number of county championship matches and this seems to be a no-brainer. There is an argument that the British weather is too unpredictable to make, say, a ten-match championship season credible. But this is the bullet that must be bitten.

The two-division championship is a competitive competition, far tougher and more rigorous than it was a decade or so ago. But there is still too much of it: Wednesday to Saturday every week, with a one-day game to top it off on Sunday. Talent could be distilled further by a split into three divisions of six, which would lend itself neatly to a 10-game, home-and-away programme. If you couple that reform with the disbanding of the 40-over league, you have a radical change in the structure of the English game with the emphasis on quality not quantity.

John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer