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