June 24, 2008

Two into three won't go

Having three parallel leagues will not benefit English cricket

Justin Langer believes Division One of the County Championship is as competitive as the Pura Cup in Australia © PA Photos

English cricket is a world leader in compromise. The latest ideas for revamping the domestic game, according to the Daily Telegraph last week, would seem to be the descendants of a long tradition of half-baked theories.

The nuts and bolts of the proposals - for those who don't read the Telegraph or whose eyes tend to glaze over at the word "administration": the County Championship might be restructured into three parallel leagues of six teams, along the lines of American football.

Interestingly, Giles Clarke, the chairman of the ECB, distanced himself from the plans in the Sunday Telegraph saying he was neither for nor against, in favour only "of the best formula for the England side".

That is a very telling comment. Only in England is there any debate about what domestic cricket is actually for. Everywhere else in the world it is acknowledged that its sole purpose is to provide players for the national side. In England county cricket's history - and it is relatively substantial - support makes for a club v country tension that bubbles away relentlessly below the surface and every now again boils over.

In terms of the County Championship alone, many people thought England had finally cracked it, or at least made the best of a bad job, with the establishment in 2000 of a four-day two-division league with promotion and relegation. Justin Langer reckons that Division One is as competitive as the Pura Cup in Australia, which - even allowing for a degree of self-justification - is a compliment indeed from a tough-nut cricketer.

So if it is considered then that by and large two divisions have been beneficial to the England team, to do away with it and replace it with three theoretically equal divisions is an illogically regressive step.

Gloucestershire (Division Two) thought it was a great idea, Durham (Division One) didn't. All very predictable: counties in the lower tier, especially the smaller ones without Test venues, feel they are at a fundamental disadvantage, that they can't compete with the big boys for overseas players and wages.

They probably are but frankly that isn't the point. The point is not that Gloucestershire should have a better chance of winning the County Championship, which would please a few thousand loyal supporters, but that England have the best possible cricket team, which, as we have seen, has the potential to captivate and inspire a decent chunk of a nation of 60 million people.

Elite sport isn't fair by its very nature and professional, elite sport even less so. Is it worth compromising the quality of the County Championship in order to appease some counties who struggle to compete?

The American football model, on which this three-conference proposal is loosely based, is a red herring. The NFL, like all American team sports, is a self-contained entity, exists solely as a vehicle of entertainment for the people of the United States. There is not national side to consider. There is no benchmark against which to measure the overall standard of competition. The game's governing body pursues a policy of "parity" in order to keep the competition (and there is only one, unlike in county cricket) interesting. There are salary caps and a college draft system that gives the worst teams the best young players. It's a remarkably socialist principle in the home of capitalism, and to most expert eyes, it works.

But it doesn't matter if the overall standard of competition drops because the best teams essentially get penalised for their success since there is no USA national gridiron team.

If county cricket was self-sufficient like the football Premier League, then the counties could do largely as they pleased (much like the Premier League does) but it isn't, so they can't.

This three-conference idea may never get off the ground. It is only a proposal to be debated by the ECB next month and that's where it should end. I can't see how it will help England, which is precisely what the County Championship is there for.

John Stern is editor of The Wisden Cricketer

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Maneesh on June 28, 2008, 1:57 GMT

    The English Premier League does have relegation and promotion. So only the best teams play in the premier league. And obviously 2nd fiddle teams play in division 2. Which creates strong competition in the top division and that creates competitive players.

    India also has 2 divisions in their domestic cricket competition.

    If the ECB abolish their relegation and promotion system. That would make the next generation of players, quite uncompetitive. Thus making the national team a bunch of loosers again.

    Its a no brainer! Dont abolish relegation and promotion.

  • Alex on June 26, 2008, 16:49 GMT

    By your analogy then the English football team should be be amongst the best in the world. Yet it is not. The three leagues system proposed by both Lord McLaurin and Duncan Fletcher in the past has other merits, notably increasing the number of competitive matches whilst decreasing the number of overall matches, making more room for international cricket in the calendar, and making more games more competitive and therefore increasing the pressure experienced by counties and their players. Given the longstanding feedback from Aus cricket regarding the lack of competitive hardness of county players, this can only be a good thing, no?

  • Neil on June 25, 2008, 7:34 GMT

    Okay. Here's my 2 cents.

    If England were to replicate Australia / NZ / West Indies and pick their squad from 6 teams rather than 18, that would obviously increase the standard of play.

    However, if those 6 teams could also compete against 12 others that select their players from all over the world, that would increase the standard even more.

    So why not allow each County team to select 2/3 of its players from overseas, and 1/3 from England? It's essentially the same thing.

    It would be even easier if an entirely free market system was set up whereby Counties could hire players from anywhere in the world. England Cricket isn't so bad that England qualified players get ignored.

    Then go back to one division of 18 teams. Get them to play each other once in 4-day matches. Then break them into two arbitrary divisions to play half a season of 50-over matches and half a season of 20-20 matches and the top teams from each division play each other in a final for each limited over competition.

  • John on June 24, 2008, 20:27 GMT

    As a Gloucestershire member, may I say that I agree with the article. If we want to play with the big boys, we must improve our performance sufficiently to gain promotion. That is the whole point of the two-division system.

    When Bristol City FC were in the Third Division (or whatever silly name it currently had), no one at Ashton Gate demanded a conference structure for football. Last season the club was ninety minutes from the top level, by its own efforts, not by charity from the organisers.

    That is the challenge facing Glos CCC and all the other 'smaller' counties.

  • Ashwin on June 24, 2008, 17:03 GMT

    steve noted that there are too many county teams however i find it perfectly alright, if properly marketed and broadcasted around the world the current county t20 could be as big as the ipl and cricket is really viewed as an elitist sport in england and (excluding the subcontinent) all its former colonies. the idea is wrong i think there should be divisions - it creates more competition, winner from div 2 goes to div 1 and losers are relegated, it creates very healthy competition! and its useful, it is the same in international cricket and the world cricket league, anyways i probably was completely off topic! the league works the way it is, market it more and get bigger crowds, its poorly marketed unlike football so it wins all the time...

  • Chris on June 24, 2008, 13:43 GMT

    If they want three divisions / groups / leagues then so be it, but why would those differences be random??? the promotion / relegation worked fine, so surely it could work in three divisions and not just two? Whilst there was a notion of locality in the divisions, south, north and mid/west/wales then there was a glimmer of logic, but if it was random then it's just laughable.

    Matching up with what drummo said above, this approach would be a way to streamline it by letting the top division get more funding and to allow a subset of first class teams to excel more than others *IF* that's what's best, which I think it might be. Make promotion and relegation a priveledge not a right (play offs between the sides who may swap divisions etc... at the start of the season, filling other teams times with the UCCE matches)

  • Stephen on June 24, 2008, 13:24 GMT

    The issue is that there are too many county cricket teams, which means that there are too many county cricket players. This means that by definition there are worse players playing in county cricket than in other countries. The problem that this causes comes from the nature of cricket. If a batsman has one international standard bowler to face at one end, and one lucky-to-get-a-game medium pacer at the other, he can choose to block against the good bowler while scoring against the poor bowler. This is no preparation for test cricket, where he is likely to have to score against good bowlers. The whole point of the division system is to try to get round this problem without actually eliminating nine counties. The better players are free to move counties, and they will want to play at the top level. This concentrates them in the top division, giving better preparation for the test arena. The proposal does away with this entirely, allowing again a too-wide spreading of talent.

  • Kevin on June 24, 2008, 12:01 GMT

    The NFL has 2 conferences each with 4 divisions. However the NBA and MLB both have 2 confernences with 3 divisions if this is what you meant. The USA compete in both these sports at international lvl, so national sides are picked.

  • Philip on June 24, 2008, 11:50 GMT

    I would assume that drummo's line of thought is that England should be producing top class cricketers in the same ratio to population as Australia. If this happened England's population advantage would make it much better than Australia, and therefore dominant in world cricket for the timebeing. India should dominate in the long run, but at present its production of top cricketers per capita is among the worst of the test countries - only Bangladesh and Zimbabwe make less effective use of their pool of natural talent.

  • Graham on June 24, 2008, 9:08 GMT

    I agree with drummo - there are far too many county cricketers, most of which wouldn't have a hope in hell of playing first-class cricket in Australia. We need to streamline, as long as the ECB are able to impose a limit on overseas players. The signs are there that they might be able to ban the Kolpaks which will be a great start. Cutting the number of games will allow a reduced number of counties to hold a smaller fully professional squad and allow them to reward the best players better, giving a real incentive to work on your game and become an elite player. We would then have a group of 9 or 10 sides with 9 or 10 English qualified players in the side and these players would be the elite, playing highly competitive cricket and providing the England selectors with a large pool of prospective international players. Simple plan really...

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