April 12, 2010

Heading to the abyss?

George Dobell
Despite starting in fine weather and with a round of exciting matches change seems inevitable in English domestic cricket. But it won't be for the better

The tower of St James' church continues to overlook Taunton; the horse chestnut trees still flourish at Worcester: as a new county season begins in glorious sunshine at familiar venues around the country, one could be forgiven for concluding that all is well with English cricket.

But these are worrying times for those who value the county game. It is currently facing unprecedented challenges from all sides. We are, I fear, on the brink of an abyss.

For years it has been presumed that it would be one of the smaller clubs - the likes of Derbyshire and Worcestershire - that would fold first. But it's not necessarily so. It is the Test-hosting venues that are currently engaged in a new "arms race" from which not all can prosper.

There are now ten grounds competing to host international cricket in the UK. Lord's, The Oval, Cardiff, Chester-le-Street, Trent Bridge, Leeds, Edgbaston, Old Trafford and Hampshire will all regularly bid to host Tests. Bristol joins the mix when considering ODI venues.

The problem is that there is simply not enough appealing international cricket to go around. So while many of the grounds have borrowed heavily to fund extensive ground improvements, there is a real danger they may struggle to service their debts. Warwickshire, for example, need to host a Test every year if they are to meet their repayment plans. There will be casualties.

Meanwhile, the ECB are considering changes to the domestic structure that threaten to marginalise Championship cricket and accelerate the counties' descent into irrelevance. It currently looks probable that from next year the domestic programme will include just 12 Championship fixtures per county, possibly split into three, randomly drawn conferences. There would no longer be any promotion or relegation.

The other false premise - indeed the greatest myth of our time - is that today's cricketers play too much. While it's true that this year's fixture list is unhelpful, a quick comparison with the amount of overs bowled by the late, great Sir Alec Bedser each season and today's players, makes the point very clearly

The aim is to increase the time players have for "recovery and preparation" and free-up more of mid-summer for Twenty20 cricket.

But quite how it would help improve the standard is highly debatable. The random nature of the draw could see the best teams - the likes of Durham - playing against the weakest - the likes of Glamorgan - thereby failing to provide the tough preparation suitable for the international game.

The standard has already been compromised by too much interference. The ECB have recently introduced a salary cap, a penalty for fielding players aged more than 26 (to be fair, they would call that an "incentive" to encourage young players) and tougher work permit requirements that have made it much harder to sign Kolpak and overseas players. As a consequence, the counties find themselves trying to progress while tethered to an anvil.

The most frustrating thing about the move to a conference system is that it is based on a series of false premises. The first is that the county game is reliant on Twenty20 cricket for its financial success. It's not true. The county game is most reliant on the revenue gained from the broadcasting deal for Test cricket. By diminishing the amount - and arguably the quality - of the Championship, we would actually be tinkering with the foundations of the Test side.

Secondly, the schedule of the season has been altered largely to accommodate the Champions League. At the time of writing, however, it appears that no county teams will compete in the 2010 event as it coincides with the end of the English season. Recent meetings of the counties have drawn some sort of consensus (Leicestershire and Hampshire disagreed) that the primacy of English competitions should be preserved and that it would be inappropriate to field second XI sides in the Championship or the Clydesdale Bank 40. It is worth noting, however, that off the record, several counties are telling a different story.

The other false premise - indeed the greatest myth of our time - is that today's cricketers play too much. While it's true that this year's fixture list is unhelpful, a quick comparison with the amount of overs bowled by the late, great Sir Alec Bedser each season and today's players, makes the point very clearly. Indeed, it's not long ago that we could see 130 overs in a day's Championship cricket. Now they manage just 96. Today's cricketers play three-day matches; they just spread them over four days.

It's nothing less than an insult to the great players of the past - the likes of Bradman, Lillee, Hobbs, Miandad et al - to claim that today's cricket is "more intense". I once put that point to Garry Sobers. The look on his face - distilled contempt - answered it very eloquently.

Today's cricketers enjoy holidays the envy of teachers, salaries the envy of bankers and a team of support support staff the envy of a Roman emperor. Their demands for less cricket for no less money increasingly resemble those of union leader Bob Crow, a fellow who, it seems, will not rest until each of his members is kitted out with ermine and tiaras.

It is revealing that no one has consulted spectators over how they feel about the conference system, either. As ever, they are afforded no respect whatsoever.

Some would celebrate the demise of a few counties. They claim that there is insufficient talent to spread among 18 teams and argue that fewer counties would result in a rise in the standard of county cricket.

I don't agree. There's an abundance of talent out there and the benefits of staging professional cricket throughout the country should not be overlooked. Cut the counties and there will be fewer opportunities to expose young players and young spectators to the sport. It will merely shrink.

It still provides a decent learning environment for Test cricket, too. Four of England's top seven (Andrew Strauss, Matt Prior, Alastair Cook and Jonathan Trott) scored centuries on Test debut. Two others (Kevin Pietersen and Ian Bell) made half-centuries. If county cricket is such poor preparation, how did they manage that?

It's a lazy lie that :no one watches county cricket". Attendances are not wonderful, for sure, but, given the negative PR to which the game is subjected - often by people who hardly see a county match from one season to another - then it has proved remarkably durable. It needs to be nurtured and valued. It could thrive.

Alas, few of the game's administrators appear to have the inclination to fight for its survival. The result is that county cricket finds itself more precariously placed than at any time in its history. Relish it while you can.

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Victoria on April 15, 2010, 8:43 GMT

    I was greatly saddened looking at my team's 2010 fixture list for the County Championship, the ECB have outdone themselves, once again. Just TWO home games per side to be played over a weekend with the rest consigned to mid-week when most people are at work or school.

    Please help me in my campaign to stop this nonsense and join my petition to get the four day games played over a weekend so that the general public can enjoy them:


    Please also forward to as many people as possible.

    Thanks very much for all your help.

  • Dummy4 on April 14, 2010, 18:53 GMT

    An excellent and well-argued piece. Well done.

  • Patrick on April 14, 2010, 17:57 GMT

    At last, a well considered piece which tells the truth about County Cricket. I've followed it avidly since 1970 but fully expect this year to be my last. Just three seasons ago, Justin Langer said that the county cricket he was playing was the strongest domestic cricket he'd ever played. He also showed some loyalty that some English players would have done well to follow by turning his back on a lucrative IPL contract to honour his commitments with Somerset. I saw some magnificent days last year including Somerset's record breaking run chase against Yorkshire at Taunton and Matthew Hoggard's hat-trick to dramatically turn the Sussex-Yorkshire relegation tussle at Hove on its head. If any cricket should be jettisoned, it should be the pointless irrelevant 40 over league. Why expand it now? Its outdated and nobody seems to want it. I cringed at the number of Mon-Thur matches in this year's programme. Can anything be more designed to destroy anyone's will to follow county cricket?

  • Paul on April 14, 2010, 10:22 GMT

    Firstly, few people know the County Championship as well as George Dobell - long may his reports continue.

    Secondly, my view is that the problem with the county game is one of practicality and packaging. For most working people, it's simply not possible to attend county games regularly - they take place all day, midweek. And many of the most likely fans then play club cricket at the weekends. Take an average weekend in the Hampshire league and you'll find plenty of players discussing the first-class game, keeping an eye on scores etc... even if we're not there in person.

    The success of T20 is at least partly to do with the fact that it's something people can easily access around work - trip along at the end of the day, drag in some colleagues who will happily enjoy an hour or two with a beer in the sun regardless of their cricketing knowledge. What I don't understand is why the counties don't build on this, and change playing hours for CC games into the summer evenings.

  • Dummy4 on April 14, 2010, 8:45 GMT

    County championship cricket is a haven of sanity that should be cherished and appreciated. I regularly attend days during the summer all over the country and have found excellent attendences especially at out-ground and a convivial atmosphere. The cricket is highly competitive, the best I have experienced since watching as a lad since 1973, and excellent value-for-money. You get close to the players and can experience the nuance of play in an intimate environment. Most importantly it is truly democratic; members during thick and thin support the club and players through subscription and surely they should have the last word not ego-driven unaccountable managers following the latest fad.

  • Mark on April 13, 2010, 23:36 GMT

    South Africa has reduced the number of franchises, in part because, unlike English cricket, nobody wanted to watch (last season the crowds in the County Championship were at their highest level for many years). So, like England, they introduced a two-tier system.

    In case no one has noticed, there are only 9 sides in the First Division and the competition between them is cut-throat. The talk of 18 sides is irrelevant and misleading because the new South African model is simply a varient on the English two-division system. I notice that no one mentions that India has a lot of First Class sides, yet they seem to generate players. Australia cannot have more sides because the realities of their population distribution do not permit it, so their equivalent of the English system is to have Grade cricket as their Second Division.

  • anshu on April 13, 2010, 22:58 GMT

    County Cricket is really dull. If i go to watch Middlesex at Lord's these days, i am clapping alone, with the exception of a 2 or 3 others. It gets really boring. We don't have passion anymore. I mean we never really did sell out county games regularly except for the very important games, but still we used to draw half decent crowds. It's a shame considering our stadiums are so small in England. In India, even in the smaller cities, cricket matches are filled to the brim. Even 95% of IPL matches sell out. And their crowds are so passionate about their cricket. They are constantly shouting and cheering. During an England match at Lord's, you don't get 10% of that noise even if it's a big hitting T20 and you're comparing that with the smallest stadium in India. Their people are so involved in the game. That's why i prefer IPL to county cricket these days.

  • Michael on April 13, 2010, 22:46 GMT

    I felt comfortable reading this. Sanity seemed to be present at least on this page. One cannot measure people's interest in the Championship by the numbers in the stands. What county cricket does is engage people's interest throughout the summer in the pages of papers at breakfast or on teletext. It's one of the features of life which accompanies summer- rather like new potatoes, fresh lettuce. County Cricket feeds a gentle fanaticism and the powers that be pull the rug out from beneath its supporters' feet at their peril. Of course at present the ECB seems peopled by rank materialists with ADD- hence they cannot stop tinkering and tampering. I do not believe 4 day cricket is broken, nor that it needs fixing. It is the ECB which needs an overhaul-preferably involving mentalities which can tell gold from glitter- to haul it out of the gutter of self delusion. Too many marketing strategists, not enough cricket fans. Only a cricket hating narcissus would plan two months of 20/20 only.

  • Steve on April 13, 2010, 21:47 GMT

    Your sub-headline - regarding any change not being for the good - is quite sure of itself. But how can you possibly know that change will not be for the good? The fact is that too much first-class cricket is played in the county season. Anyone can see that. The amount of 40/50 over cricket has been reduced, correctly, to make room for 20/20 that brings in real revenue to the counties.

    But now the first class calendar needs to be pared down too. Even with the two division system there is still a lot of meaningless cricket being played in division 2 especially and there are too many conservative efforts being made in division 1 to prevent defeats - hence the large amount of draws. A conference system would reduce the amount of cricket being played and increase its intensity with more meaningful matches, and allow it to be played more in months when it's not likely to be piddling down. I say it's got to be worth at least a try for a couple of seasons.

  • Jackie on April 13, 2010, 18:38 GMT

    Cricket has survived so far. It is now going through a period of intense commercialisation when the ECB has been making decisions on the basis of business speculation rather than what is good for the sport. We need to get County cricket in perspective. The game is not played solely to provide England Test players. No matter how fiercely we want England to win and how nationalistic we want our sport to be, this is just not the case. County cricket exists because of the history of cricket in England, and therefore is different from cricket in Australia or baseball in America. This history is fundamental to our game and is deeply rooted, in fact, these roots are holding the game together in England. County cricket depends on its club members and supporters and its players who love playing the game. Do we have a culture of cricket in this country or do we not? We should want it to be as widespread as possible, and we should promote it and defend it. Respect your heritage or lose it.

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