March 31, 2010

Reconstitutional crisis

There is merit in converting the County Championship into conferences, like in the NBA; the ECB must consider it along with a compromise with the Champions League over scheduling

Last week a friend and vastly superior journalist, like me a cricket tragic since boyhood, made a depressing confession. County cricket had never interested him less, had never held such a tenuous grip on his heartstrings. I found it sobering and sad, and horribly hard to dispute.

The conversation came back to me on Monday, the day the English county season began, unthinkably, in March. True, it was a surreal overture: the stage was Abu Dhabi rather than Abergavenny, the ball less a new cherry than a slab of bubblegum, the floodlights a gleaming symbol of the future. But still. Normal(ish) service had resumed. Yes, the sense of distance, of dislocation, felt considerably more than the 3400 miles separating Lord's from the Sheikh Zayed Stadium. Yet somehow, in bringing a symbolic end to a winter of deep national discontent and far too much snow, in filling the mind's eye with green-tinted images of men seeking runs and wickets and everyday glory, of moist mornings at Worcester, cider-tinted afternoons at Taunton, fish-and-chippy evenings at Scarborough and sea-misted nights at Hove, it was hard not to convince oneself that here, at last, was a small reason to be cheerful.

The heart, though, does not leap as once it did. For all the rich promise of youth, most readily apparent in Middlesex's cloud-bumping Steven Finn and Leicestershire's diminutive Jimmy Taylor, the future is cloudy at best. Several clubs are deep in the red, yet they are far from alone in dreading the prospect of losing a projected £135m should Ashes Tests return to terrestrial transmission - to whatever extent that loss might be absorbed by returning the well-meaning but bloated ranks employed by the England and Wales Cricket Board to the confines of appropriateness.

For newspaper readers whose first port of call each morning is the county reports, our fix has been doubly blighted, by declining editorial budgets and the tyranny of football, especially in a World Cup year. With editors paring coverage of non-international matches back to minimalist proportions, the slack is being picked up by websites, but only to a small, tantalising and ultimately unsatisfactory extent. English summers, whose pulse once beat to the gently seductive rhythm of those episodic match bulletins, will never be quite the same again.

Continuity, moreover, is a distant memory, sacrificed on the altar of progress. Every year brings change, much of it innovative and sound, too much a waste of time, money and/or thought. To go with bonuses for supplying players to the national team, there are now incentives for counties to field younger homegrown players, the clear intention to dilute the influence of South Africa's economic migrants but a decision with which the Professional Cricketers Association took vehement issue because of its inherent ageism. Appreciably more welcome is the two-innings, 40-overs-per-side experiment to be conducted among county 2nd XIs. Here lies the link between Twenty20 and Tests; here lies the future.

More troubling is the latest blue-sky thinking by the ECB. Moves are afoot to reconstitute the County Championship, to dismantle the two-tier format introduced in 2000 and introduce conferences a la Major League Baseball, the NBA and the NFL. This was first proposed, to widespread ridicule, by Lord MacLaurin's radical 1997 blueprint, "Raising the Standard" - the same document that recommended a 20-over competition to similar derision.

In theory this is to be applauded, especially if, supplemented by playoffs, this results in every side once again having the chance to win the Championship. However, the apparent means by which this is to be organised inspires scant faith that those responsible have their sights trained far beyond their own heavy-breathing nostrils. The proposal reportedly on the table is that the three six-county zones be rearranged every season, by random draw, tossed into the air like so much confetti. One could mount a more robust defence on behalf of Nike sweatshops.

But perhaps sympathy is in order, or at least compassion. Finances are straitened, prospects uncertain. Is the recession history or is it simply having forty winks before turning into a full-blown depression? Above all, what of the shadow cast by the breakneck pace of change in India? This is no time for the lily-livered, but nor is it a time for hotheads.

If players are fresher, benefits accrue to spectacle and spectators. Would a slimmer county itinerary enhance its scarcity value and box-office appeal? Quite possibly. Would a slimmer county itinerary contribute to a smaller carbon footprint and a greener and more realistic global programme? It couldn't hurt

TO THOSE RUNNING COUNTY CRICKET, Lalit Modi's latest gauntlet, the schedule for the 2010 Champions League, is the biggest, prickliest, most provocative this prolific flinger has yet flung down. By setting up a clash with the last fortnight of the county season, and the entire ODI series against Pakistan, he gave Giles Clarke and his flexible and pragmatic but increasingly irritated team two choices: make the necessary changes or confront the sobering reality that, quite frankly my dear, I don't give a damn about your players (and don't get me started on those pesky Pakistanis).

For Modi to chuck an as-yet unscheduled ODI series against Australia in early October into the mix, as justification for the September 10 kick-off, was either a slip of the tongue or - having wisely worked out that nobody can keep up with the Future Tours Program - the height of ingenuousness. Of course, it could all simply be another case of smirking brinkmanship, another chance to rub Pommy noses in the new world order. Clarke and company may not like the smell but deep down, in the heart of their wallets, they know this is a bullet that must be bitten.

Having already brought forward the start of the season, the ECB has thus far refused point-blank to make the additional "minor adjustments" Modi coyly called for. Michael Vaughan upbraided his former employers for being "arrogant and stubborn" towards Indian cricket in general, and Modi and the BCCI in particular. He is quite right, too, but this was not a case in point.

Where the ECB goes from here is anyone's guess. Stick to their guns, to refuse to be dictated to by outsiders who are at once rivals and colleagues (in strictly theoretical ICC terms that is)? That would be brave, divisive, and given those gusts of change, somewhat foolhardy. To deprive the counties of a chance to earn a share of that Champions League booty would verge on, if not plunge headlong into, the unconstitutional. This is not a straightforward dilemma by any means.

Yet for all Modi's insistence that second-string teams are unacceptable, the make-up of a Twenty20 XI often bears scant relation to a Championship XI, littered as the former tends to be with the young and the lithe. In any event, should either or both county qualifiers reach the last two Championship fixtures with nothing to play for, you can bet your life they'd field a batch of reserves and dispatch their limited-overs experts to the Champions League. Even if they are in the running for the Championship or promotion, the lure of the more lucrative event is unlikely to be resisted.

It is the broader canvas, though, that needs addressing. The ever-rising number of Twenty20 games has left the county fixture list dangerously overweight. Yet again. Simon Wilde calculated in the Sunday Times that this season's nipped-and-tucked schedule - now lacking the Friends Provident Trophy, the lone 50-over competition, and featuring a new 40-over league - amounts to a maximum of 96 days' play, just two fewer than in 1998, when the Benson & Hedges Cup was ditched to ease the workload. Given that the players now have to flit between three as opposed to merely two distinct formats, it does not seem unreasonable to suggest that their burden has never been heavier.

THERE WILL BE BLOOD. No less inevitably, the next target for cuts will be the four-day Championship, the least popular format and the only one that stands between county cricket and limited-overs hell. Cutting the number of counties, or merging them on a regional basis, remains both the most sensible and the most highly charged option, rendering it a non-starter (though for how long is anyone's guess). Tradition runs deep in these parts. County cricket draws bigger crowds, attracts hardier loyalties, than domestic competitions elsewhere. There is, moreover, an attractive compromise.

Converting the Championship into conferences is a bright idea whose time has come, but it should be regional, to save on motorway miles and stress. Deciding which club belongs where is not without its problems, which may explain why a constantly revolving distribution is attracting favour. The trick is not to be too specific.

A North and Midlands Division could comprise Derbyshire, Durham, Lancashire, Leicestershire, Northamptonshire and Yorkshire; a Mid-Western Division might logically consist of Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Nottinghamshire, Somerset, Warwickshire and Worcestershire, leaving Essex, Hampshire, Kent, Middlesex, Surrey and Sussex to form the London and South Division. Home-and-away fixtures against each conference rival, with semi-finals and final to follow, would trim the number of days' play from 64 to a maximum of 48 - leaner, fitter and less likely to sap energies and appetites. No domestic team elsewhere, no island, state, province or provincial franchise, plays more than 44. Besides, it's not as if having 50% more matches than the opposition has ever been a guarantee of Test prosperity.

Would this reformation help us greet future seasons with a greater sense of anticipation? Why not? If players are fresher, benefits accrue to spectacle and spectators. Would a slimmer county itinerary enhance its scarcity value and box-office appeal? Quite possibly. Would a slimmer county itinerary contribute to a smaller carbon footprint and a greener and more realistic global programme? It couldn't hurt.

There are some bitter pills out there. This is one that must be swallowed.

Rob Steen is a sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton