Twenty20 expansion on the cards
No sooner has Giles Clarke arrived back from draining discussions about Zimbabwe with the ICC in Dubai than he is having to revert to dealing with all issues Twenty20 this week, as well as the little matter of a Lord's Test match. As if the fiasco at Durham is not enough for one week, the ECB chairman and David Collier, his chief executive, are meeting the county chief executives at Edgbaston to appraise them of their thoughts on an English Premier League. The discussions will also focus on whether the format of the domestic Twenty20 group matches can be expanded from two-and-a-half weeks to five weeks.
The ECB is receiving any number of proposals and ideas about restructuring the county programme - from the suggestion by Essex that the championship be split into three conferences, to the desire of Jack Simmons, the chairman of the Board's cricket committee, that three-day matches of 120 overs a day would enable a window to be found for an expansion of the Twenty20 game. The simplest answer to finding more space in a cluttered English summer might well be to extend the season into October, which conceivably has been made possible through the effects of global warming, but the chief executives discounted this at their initial meeting last week.
Ironically, given the unwitting status of Yorkshire's man of the moment, Azeem Rafiq, there was general agreement on the introduction of more overseas players into Twenty20 cricket and ensuring that when the competition is expanded, the counties themselves receive a fair chunk of the proceeds. That would appear an axiomatic ambition, except that the expectations in terms of salaries of cricketers from overseas have risen dramatically with the advent of the IPL and the sums of monies involved.
"IPL has changed the landscape," Mark Newton, the chief executive of Worcestershire, said, "and it has become extremely difficult to bring in players because of that. We can't do this unless the income of county clubs improves and television coverage will play a major part from 2010. There is more and more airtime during June and July when there is no football on. I have never been to a meeting of chief executives at which there has been such consensus."
Agreement in particular was reached over expanding the Twenty20 group matches programme from its present two-and-a-half weeks to five weeks' duration. If this means lopping two championship fixtures off the 16 that each county plays, then so be it, although there is no imminent plan to do so. Five home matches in the space of eight days, which was the lot of Warwickshire, were considered too many, not least at a time of so-called credit crunch. Fridays and Sundays proved to be the most popular days for spectators, for obvious reasons, and there was a natural concern that, although gate receipts were higher this year for five home matches than for four in 2007, the formula should not be over-egged.
It is conceivable that fixtures against the university centres of excellence in the early part of the season will be squeezed, so as to bring other competitions forward. The ECB is already sufficiently concerned about the coverage of championship cricket in national newspapers to be contemplating writing to sports editors. This has fallen away considerably in recent years, particularly this season, although that, of course, has in part resulted from the best, centrally contracted, players not taking part, as well as an increasing trend by papers to indulge in watching briefs on the likes of Andrew Flintoff and Kevin Pietersen. There is an increasing desire for news and exclusive stories. The football agenda has caught up with cricket. University matches are hardly reported at all, even though centres of excellence, financially supported by MCC, are thriving.
Even in the recent past, the Cambridge Evening News, the Oxford Mail, the Daily Telegraph and the Press Association would all have covered the Varsity match, not least because it was staged at Lord's. This was held in the Parks last week and I was the only journalist in attendance. Then again, not all the cricket played in the fixture these days is deserving of first-class status and sports editors could understandably point to the fact that the crowd on each day amounted to around 80, including a fair number of bankers on a jolly in the one marquee, with, insofar as one could tell, old Blues represented only by the two Smiths, M.J.K. and A.C., those ever-loyal supporters of Oxford University. Just as well E.W. Swanton is not still alive.
A reduction in one-day competitions and the championship programme was not specifically discussed last week, although no doubt both topics will be aired this week at Edgbaston, informally or otherwise. The ECB's research into what the general public desires to watch is on-going, but Richard Gould, the chief executive of Somerset, reckons it will be able to give the counties notice of how 75-80% of the future domestic programme is to be structured.