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

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Thomas on April 2, 2010, 22:13 GMT

    Steen must be mad. The introduction of the two merit based division championship cricket has been the sole reason for England's improved performance over the last few years.

  • David on April 2, 2010, 14:46 GMT

    Ah- the English county season is starting so we have the usual 'how to improve it' article.

    Why not just leave it the way it is? Usually any improvement muted by the authorities translates to 'how to make it more profitable'. I love county cricket- it does not get big crowds-so what?

    It's nice that there is a genuine sporting event with great tradition that is not dictated to by money

  • Martin on April 2, 2010, 10:10 GMT

    AkkithehardcoreRCBfan, England invented top-class one-day cricket with the Gillette Cup in 1963 and the Twenty20 Cup in 2003. Remind me, what form of cricket originated in India? What India has done brilliantly is to market the T20 game.

    A three-conference Championship (sic) is a rotten idea - even fewer people would watch it. We have to increase the attraction and competitiveness either by reducing the number of competitions or the number of teams - either would reduce the number of matches - and rationalise when they are played, in blocks with more intervening preparation time instead of mixing up the various formats so no-one has time to draw breath. To me (and I'm a traditionalist) the logical solution is to cut the number of teams to, say, 12, by amalgamation or from-scratch franchise formation. But vested interests on the ECB will prevent this until counties start going to the wall.

  • Adam on April 2, 2010, 9:37 GMT

    So 1) we want the CC to prepare players for 5 day cricket. 2) We know that the spectators enjoy and understand 5 day cricket more than any other format (except T20 possibly). So... you want to make the championship 3 day cricket but with extra complications?

  • Neil on April 2, 2010, 9:36 GMT

    By all means cut down on the number of four day county games, whether its by a conference or three divisions ( I think amalgamating counties would destroy any remaining interest in the 4 day format, though it could well work in 20/20 as it would bring in a new audience) BUT Can we have our England test players actually playing in the County Championship? It's crazy that only by attending a test match could youngsters be certain of seeing, for instance, Kevin Pietersen over the last few seasons. Also I'd hope for fewer games in windy cold April or late September - and can't we have some games that START at the weekend, rather than make do with the "fag end" of a match on Saturday.

  • bill on April 2, 2010, 8:54 GMT

    Why not return to three day cricket with a limit of eighty overs for the first innings? Make the points allocated encourage teams to go for a result rather than bonus points and remove penalties for so-called poor pitches. Only dangerous pitches would be penalised. Also extend the playing day to 120 overs in three sessions of forty.

  • R. on April 1, 2010, 16:23 GMT

    As much as I hate to say it, something - almost anything - needs to be done to spice up English domestic cricket. I know that if something radical is done a) I will be amazed and b) I won't like it - but it will probably be for the best.

  • Sanjeev on April 1, 2010, 13:42 GMT

    @ lodger67, @Rob and all others... Whatever may be the facts... The real thing is that ICC is just a Dummy and so as other Boards in front of INDIA! I'm not trying to show the power of BCCI.... It's Just that Other Boards are just incapable of creating Innovative things!!!! Poor People they don't have same MARKET which BCCI has got in INDIA. You guys must be thinking BCCI means Board for Cricket Control in India. Apart from this you just reverse (BCCI) it will be ICCB... that means INTERNATIONAL CRICKET COUNCIL operated out of BOMBAY (MUMBAI)

  • Adam on April 1, 2010, 10:59 GMT

    yorvik - just because this particular suggestion is about as useful as a chocolate teapot, doesn't mean that there aren't sensible improvements that could be made to make CC games better attended, higher intensity and higher quality (the three things go hand in hand). Look at the Test match crowds and you see that there is clearly an appetite for watching 1st class cricket in this country, it's just that the CC as it stands is so arcane, poorly run, and poorly promoted that it holds little interest even for the serious cricket fan. Clearly the CC games need to be held Thursday -Monday, every 2nd weekend so people can actually attend them, with 50 over matches on the weekends between, and the T20 games on weekday evenings.

  • kenneth on April 1, 2010, 0:50 GMT

    Might sound draconian to those who do not attend but, why not leave the amount of games and format as it is? Would those who do not attend be more likely to do so if we had three league's of six? What is needed is a day of the week when a first class match starts. There is no way to capture the potential occassional watcher if even the avid supporters are unsure as to when a game begins. 24 weeks to have a fixed game each week with a one day league running along side and a mid-summer break to play a tweny/20 league wouldn't be too much to ask. Put in a FA Cup style one day competition along the way as a high point season ending would be a grand finale.

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