July 16, 2008

The rich get richer

Why the new proposal for an English Premier League will benefit the big counties and grounds and leave the rest vulnerable

Keith Bradshaw can't really be accused of betrayal but the fact is, his plan won't do half the counties good © MCC

The batsman's paradise at Lord's and Andrew Flintoff's imminent return for England at Headingley left plenty of room for debate about the way forward for the county game that has eased Flintoff back into the national side. It was grossly unfair to accuse Keith Bradshaw of the MCC and David Stewart of Surrey of "betrayal" for producing their avant-garde formula for an English Premier League from 2010, but however genuine their protestations, the would-be entrepreneurs of New Twenty20 Ltd are deceiving themselves if they really believe that the acceptance of their masterplan would not further push the humbler first-class counties towards permanent second-grade status.

Like Paul Sheldon, Surrey's chief executive and the man with the business contacts in India that gave the two ECB directors belief that they could replicate the IPL on British grounds in midsummer, they have a right to try to push the counties into maximising the commercial potential of Twenty20. If, however, the consequence is that counties with histories as rich as, for example, those of Kent, Sussex, Somerset and Derbyshire become, in effect, Minor Counties, they will be doing the wider game in England no favours in the long run.

The middle of a Test match at Lord's was a bad time for someone to leak the blueprint for a revolution, but whether the details were in the public domain or confined to the MCC committee room made little difference. The plan could not have been expected to be given a green light by those county clubs whose grounds were deemed too small for so ambitious a project. Hampshire and Lancashire are the other participants in what should properly be called the Spring Revolution because Sheldon, Bradshaw, Rod Bransgrove and Jim Cumbes have been talking about this in general terms since the start of the season.

Cumbes has always talked sound cricket sense but he is no less prone to parochialism than all his counterparts, and the trouble with any of the plans for the domestic structure from 2010 onwards is that each county club (or business) sees the future from a subtly different standpoint. Trying to manage the faded splendour of Old Trafford has given Cumbes a sense of realism but he has been obliged to resign his chairmanship of the alliance of first-class county executives, having been accused of keeping most of the rest of them in the dark.

Bransgrove, who moves in the same sophisticated business circles as the grandees of Lord's and The Oval, considers his cricketing role to be that of chief shareholder of the Rose Bowl first, chairman of Hampshire second. He knows perfectly well that the size and modernity of your ground is the new way to cricketing wealth just as the size of your bicep determines who wins the macho tennis matches at Wimbledon. It is Lord's and The Oval that are the real equivalents of Nadal and Federer. London is where the money is. Like Mumbai, it is a city where the cosmopolitan elite smell profit out of cricket even in a recession.

The two London grounds are laws unto themselves even when it comes to Test matches. They charge more for tickets and they make more profit than anywhere else. Perhaps, since Tests that last five days bring more spectators than those that finish earlier, it is no coincidence that of the last six Tests at Lord's and the last six at The Oval, only two have not resulted in draws.

The more dependent on money from "grander" sources some counties become, the less self-sufficient they will be, and more reliant on gimmicks or overseas players, and ultimately lazier about feeding their professional teams with locally unearthed and nurtured cricketers

New Twenty20 (the other one is hardly old) would make a lot of money for a few people, no doubt. It might even do so for the junior partners of the proposed new partnerships - Essex, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and the rest. But the more big events you have, the more marginalised smaller clubs become. It becomes harder and harder for them to draw crowds, members, sponsors and television coverage. Theirs are not the grounds attracting the cameras, or even the reporters and the newspaper editors who are led to believe that domestic competitions with a shortage of big money prizes or "star" players are not worth following.

It comes down simply to this: the players who are already wealthy, and the rich cricket grounds, would be the prime beneficiaries of New Twenty20. Whatever their bank balances might say from 2010, if they do indeed buy into the scheme and become partners in one of nine new businesses, the nine first-class counties whose grounds do not measure up to the ECB's "Category A" status are going to be poorer and more vulnerable.

The increase in international cricket in recent years has set the trend. We live in the age of the Big Event and, because of television, all professional sport over-indulges. The more high-profile, highly hyped cricket there is played in England and Wales, the harder it is for domestic clubs left out of the mainstream to survive as viable businesses in their own right. They become increasingly dependent on money from "grander" sources, a situation that is bound to make them less self-sufficient, more reliant on gimmicks or overseas players, and ultimately lazier about feeding their professional teams with locally unearthed and nurtured cricketers.

It follows inevitably that their main raison d'etre, to generate young cricketers capable of playing for England, becomes increasingly less defensible. That may not be the reason for proposing New Twenty20, but it would be its effect.

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