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.