County cricket August 7, 2008

Rebooting the English game

Ivo Tennant on measures to reinvigorate the next tier of English cricket

Joe Denly: possibly closer to an England call-up under the new regime, but coverage of his exploits at county level has been poor this season © Getty Images
The ECB is planning to send an increased number of young cricketers on reciprocal exchanges to Australia each year. Discussions are underway between Board officials in both countries to enable promising English boys to play at grade level and, it is intended, not to be mollycoddled. Air tickets and clubs will be laid on; other aspects of living in a strange country, such as finding suitable accommodation and transport, will not be, This is all a part, it is reckoned, of bringing youngsters to sporting maturity, make them more hardened and enabling them to become the top-level players of the future.

Cricket Australia, after all, has benefited from the bounteous nature of clubs and first-class counties over the years. Would Greg Chappell have played so elegantly through mid-on off the front foot against the swinging ball without his experience with Somerset? And what about Mike Hussey's day-in day-out consistency that was honed when playing for Northamptonshire and Durham? Or Dennis Lillee being taught how to bowl an off cutter by John Snow?

Quite what the reciprocal arrangement for young Australians will be now has yet to be finalised, but no doubt they will learn as much as boys travelling in the opposite direction. The ECB, incidentally, is targeting cricketers who have come through the state system rather than those who have been at boarding school and who will have had ten years of fending for themselves. After that experience, barbs from Aussies should bounce off them.

Here, it is hoped, are the natural successors to Michael Vaughan, who grew to man's estate as a cricketer Down Under. Which is just as well, for the search is on for them in county cricket at the moment. If Rob Key, Ed Joyce and Owais Shah are to be overlooked, as is the case for the time being, the selectors will be looking at the next, untried grouping of Joe Denly, Dawid Malan and Eoin Morgan.

Another reasoning behind the ECB's plans for domestic cricket in the future is to stage as many cup finals as it can to give emerging players as much experience of playing at Lord's as possible. Best, then, to hold such matches in the summer months, to stage a proper climax to the domestic season before football takes its inexorable grip. This is one reason why the cricket season is unlikely to be extended into October, as has been mooted within the ECB in this era of global warming, although the finale is scheduled ever closer to the end of September.

All this would appear to be a laudable way of nurturing cricketers. Some publicity would help, not least to encourage sponsors of scholarships and, indeed, of the domestic game in general, not least in these recessional times. The ECB, concerned about the falling away in coverage of county cricket, the LV championship in particular, has already considered writing to national newspaper sports editors.

Twenty20 finals day at the Rose Bowl was well reported but the group matches were not. That there is still interest among their readers was emphasised recently when research undertaken by the Daily Telegraph showed that this was a core subject and in recent weeks its coverage has increased accordingly. There is, though, a worrying trend. The championship, FP Trophy and Pro40 generally have been downgraded, particularly in the Sunday newspaper broadsheets.

It is quite common now for the Sunday Telegraph, Sunday Times, Observer and Independent on Sunday not to cover one county match, especially when a Test is in progress and hence their correspondents do not monitor, for instance, the rehabilitation of Simon Jones, as Vic Marks of The Observer admitted was the case last week.

There was some hasty ringing around when Mark Ramprakash achieved his 100th hundred at Headingley last Saturday. Pat Gibson, the new chairman of the Cricket Writers Club, has written to its members to remind them of the debt that everyone owes to the county game. And publicity is an important element in making cricket appear attractive, glamorous even, to young people.

Sports editors will point to counties losing their identities through fielding so many overseas and Kolpak players and signings from other clubs, in addition to the implementation of central contracts which deprives, say, a boy growing up in Southampton of being able to watch the new England captain. County cricket was bound to have suffered when that implementation under Lord MacLaurin's regime came into effect; but in truth the often poor quality of domestic cricket in England in the 1990s, coupled with a lack of heroes, meant that the transmogrification of football from a hooligan-ridden, banned-from-Europe sport to the perceived glamorous Premiership faced no opposition.

This is not the least reason to wish Kevin Pietersen well in his new post and to do all that is possible to bring on the next generation.