June 17, 2010

Lessons from the county scene

George Dobell
County chief executives on the lessons learned from the season to date

The schedule doesn't work

This season started earlier than ever. The reason? Largely so it could finish earlier to allow the counties to participate in the Champions League and earn more money from extra T20 games. Well, the early signs are that it isn't creating more revenue. And no English counties will participate in this year's champions league. Apart from that, it's worked a treat.

Meanwhile, to allow space in mid-summer for T20, much of the 40-over competition was squeezed into the early weeks of the season. "And we learned quite quickly," says Dave Brooks, chief executive of Sussex, "that spectators won't come in April and early May. Forty-over cricket may be more attractive than 50 over cricket but, if we play so early, it'll make no difference to attendances."

David Smith, chief executive of Leicestershire, agrees. "Lots of our spectators won't come until after the end of the rugby and football seasons," he says. "I'd like to see limited-overs cricket start in late May, when the weather has warmed up."

"I don't think it's working at the moment," says David Harker, CEO of Durham, "but really, we need to get to the end of the season and review everything before making a decision.

"At the moment, the players are being asked to make some ridiculous journeys that can't be healthy or helpful. Maybe one of the things we could look at is playing limited-overs games on the back end of Championship matches against the same opposition. I'm not saying that is the answer, but let's discuss it."

"The different formats are all on top of each other," says Hampshire's Rod Bransgrove. "And we probably do play too much cricket. But the real problem is the amount of international cricket as it calls into question the integrity of the championship.

When counties don't see anything of their centrally contracted players, when international tours and A tours spring up from nowhere, when counties are penalised for playing experienced cricketers and when the likes of Stuart Broad and Steven Finn are taken out of the game for strength development, it does make you wonder whether county cricket even works as a nursery."

You can't buy success

It's often said that the most successful teams create a unit that is worth more than the sum of their parts. Think of the Sussex side of recent years, the Warwickshire side of the mid-90s or the Gloucestershire limited-overs side a little later.

Surrey have gone the other way. They've created a team worth far less than the sum of its parts. Despite investing heavily in players and coaches, they remain relentlessly unsuccessful. At the time of writing, they are bottom of the division two in the County Championship and bottom of the southern division of the Friends Provident t20.

Nor are they alone. Hampshire, another of the larger spending counties, are also struggling while Warwickshire, despite good limited-overs form, is fighting to avoid a second championship relegation in three years. For a club of their size, history and, sometimes, hubris, that's a poor record.

"It doesn't surprise me," Harker says. "I remember the Malcolm Allison school of football management which was about buying the best but never winning anything. You can't just assemble a team overnight.

"Look, realistically, the team with the best players will usually, eventually, emerge as the best team. But you can't over-estimate the importance of team spirit in cricket. The team have to spend so much time together - travelling, in hotels and in the dressing room - so if they don't get on, you have a real problem."

Clearly money is an advantage. Three of the top four teams in the Championship are still Test-hosting grounds. But if the example of Surrey shows us anything, it is that building team spirit takes shared experience, shared values and shared goals. Those are things a cheque book can't buy.

The Test match grounds are not as powerful as they thought

At the start of the season, it appeared the Test match grounds (TMGs) were trying to steal a march on the non-Test match grounds. There was talk of an IPL-style T20 competition based around franchises and a concern that the non-TMGs would be frozen out. Such a scenario now appears unlikely.

Indeed, it now seems that the non-TMGs have the more viable business model. The TMGs have borrowed enormous sums and there is a fear that there will not be enough games to go around to enable them to service their debts. As Harker puts it: "Under the current model, I would agree that we [the TMGs] can't all prosper. We don't all have the advantage of a long-term staging agreement like Surrey's [which guarantees major matches long into the future] and, at the minute, things don't look sustainable."

As a result of that insecurity, the TMGs have gone in search of other revenue-raising measures. Hence the interest in city cricket and franchises.

The non-TMGs are unimpressed. "The issue I have," explains Brooks, "is that some of the TMGs behave as if the game owes them something. They made commercial decisions to redevelop their grounds. They didn't have to make that investment. No-one made them. Now they have to make it work. They can't just come back and say 'please help us' if part of their business plan doesn't work. In the normal commercial world, businesses live or die by their decisions."

Smith agrees. "The advantage the non-TMGs have is that we are not in competition with one another. The TMGs thought they were heavyweights, but were reminded that, under the rules of the ECB constitution, they need 75% of the counties to support them if they are to make changes. They need to take our views on board."

In an effort to reach compromise, Essex's David East now sits on the working party investigating the viability of TMGs in order to ensure that the views of the non-TMGs are fully reflected.

Failure will not be tolerated

Has there ever been a season where four county captains have 'resigned' by the middle of June? Will Smith (Durham), Nicky Boje (Northants), Shaun Udal (Middlesex) and Mark Pettini (Essex, for the T20 at least) have all relinquished their positions after a run of disappointing results, while Ian Westwood (Warwickshire), Chris Read (Notts) and Nic Pothas (Hampshire) have stepped down for the duration of T20. Expect coaches and directors of cricket to come under similar scrutiny in the coming weeks.

"Cricket has changed," Mark Newton agrees. "Supporters are more demanding and less patient."

"It reflects modern life," David Smith says. "People seem to want instant success and captains and coaches are under more pressure. Cricket is becoming much more like football."

Impatience may be a virtue, however. "It's professional sport," says Harker. "So it's only right that people are judged by their results on the pitch. Maybe, if that wasn't the case in the past, it should have been."

"I wouldn't say cricket clubs are becoming like football clubs. Yes, we made the decision to change captain, but it wasn't taken hastily. There had been concerns for a while that we weren't getting the best out of the captaincy and the sense was that we got away with it a bit last season. He [Smith] just needed to score some more runs and have a spell out of the limelight. I'd describe it as a hiccup, not a crisis."

There's too much T20

Doom mongers forecast the demise of T20 every season. It's as much a part of the cycle as autumn and spring.

Yet, this year, there is some evidence to support their claims. It's not that T20's popularity has waned exactly, just that it's not so popular that it can support 16 group games per county. For a start, the current format will create a glut of dead matches. Lose the first five and the remaining 11 are pretty much meaningless.Will anyone come and watch them?

And then there's the issue of a saturated market. "All we've done is increase costs," Smith explains. "We'll have the same income from 16 games as we had from 10. But each county will have had to pay to stage three more."

There are mitigating factors. The football World Cup is vying for spectators' attention, while the economic climate remains challenging. It's worth remembering, however, that there is a major football event every couple of years. This is not a unique situation.

"Anecdotally, there's no doubt that crowd figures are down," Newton agrees. "I believe the economic situation is having a much greater impact than most people think. The corporate market, in particular, is extraordinarily difficult.

"We've learned that people will pick and choose more now. They'll consider how attractive the opposition are; they'll consider how we'll we're playing and they'll consider which night of the week it is. If we're in good form and playing an attractive side on a Friday night, we'll do very well."

Bransgrove also feels that the ECB are not as supportive of the T20 competition as they should be. "I'm not happy with [with ticket sales] at all," says Bransgrove. "We've just not got it right.

"It may be that we play too many games, but the ECB have also shown no commitment to the competition. Our international player [Kevin Pietersen] was only available for one game. We really need to grasp the opportunity of T20, but it's almost gone now."

Many overseas players are more trouble - and expense - than they're worth

The aim was that each team would boast a couple of world-class overseas players in T20. But it's not really happened.

The number of withdrawals and early departures has decimated the plans of some counties, leaving them both out of pocket and disillusioned. As Bransgrove, who has seen Shahid Afridi, Ajantha Mendis and now Abdul Razzaq pull out, puts it: "We may well not bother in future. We've had a nightmare this year."

Even if they do show up, there's no guarantee that they'll provide value for money. Andrew Symonds, for example, has barely hit the ball off the square as yet. And, when they succeed - as Ross Taylor has for Durham - there's little evidence that they are attracting more spectators. Is anyone in Manchester rushing to the ground to catch a first glimpse of Nathan McCullum?

Warwickshire declined the opportunity to sign further players. "We decided we didn't want someone who came purely because of the size of the cheque we were writing," explains the club's chief executive, Colin Povey. "There are excellent overseas players out there but, unless you can be certain that you're going to get a good one, you're just disrupting the dressing room and robbing a local player of opportunity."

"We're all looking at the overseas player issue," Smith confirmed. "We do feel a bit cheated, though it's not the players' fault."

Some at the ECB are hopelessly out of touch

The dominant reaction to the ECB's five proposals to reduce the Championship programme was incredulity.

As David Stewart, the Surrey chairman, asked in an open letter to ECB chief executive, David Collier: "We find it difficult to understand how the ECB could go into consultation with a set of proposals that have not included the views of the ECB cricket and commercial committees as well as those of the players collected through the PCA. If all those people have been excluded so far, who was left to come up [with] the proposals in the document?"

It's a very good question. And it's a question Collier needs to answer. As one chief executive put it: "there's no doubt this issue has undermined his credibility."

There was also something disingenuous about the ECB's document. While it states that the reduction in the Championship programme "would be consistent with the Schofield report," the author of that report disagrees. Ken Schofield himself has stated: "The reference to our report is quite inappropriate. Whereas all on the panel felt a reduction in BOTH international and domestic fixtures to allow for recuperation was important, it was one-day cricket that was in our firing line."

Fortunately it seems that sense will prevail. To their immense credit, Surrey sent out a questionnaire to ascertain their members' views. 96% of respondents voted to maintain the Championship as it is. Several other counties have also rejected all five proposals and the TMGs have asked for time to digest a report from Deloitte that is investigating the viability of the whole game. It should be published in August and is is highly likely to recommend a radical change in the way that major matches are allocated.

That's a crucial development. If Deloitte can find a solution to the allocation issue, it will reduce the pressure on the fixture list. The interest in city or franchise cricket all stems from the concern the TMGs have about servicing their debts and finding alternative income streams in case they lose their chance of hosting Tests. If the ECB are able to provide a greater degree of long-term certainty over fixtures, the clubs will no longer need to look to India for inspiration.

"The options on offer were even less sensible than the current situation," Povey says. "The odds on there being no change to the current structure have shortened a great deal."

But the ECB Cricket Committee deserves credit

Credit where it's due. The decision to ban the use of the heavy roller after the start of Championship matches has contributed to far more entertaining cricket. An alteration to the points system has also encouraged positive cricket, with the value of drawn games now diminished. Their actions have directly improved the entertainment on offer to spectators.

"I think everyone has been surprised by the impact of those decisions," says Povey. "It's helped create a much more exciting county championship."

The Championship is not quite so unloved as some would have you think

At the start of the summer it seemed inevitable that the Championship season would be cut in order to make space for the new, longer T20 season. Not any more. In fact, it's quite possible that we'll see the T20 programme reduced to allow the championship season the space it deserves.

"Whenever an institution is under threat, those that love it will rally around," says Brooks. "And that's probably happened in the last few weeks.

"And, we have to remember we are guardians of the game and its long history. We must hand it on in great shape to those who follow."

Why? Smith puts it best. "It remains the pinnacle of our domestic cricket," he says. "It's played to an excellent standard - look how Andrew Strauss couldn't make runs in division two - and it means a lot to a lot of people. I think we've all been reminded of the passion that people have for it."

"I'd like to think that county supporters made a difference," Harker says. "It's certainly true that the Championship has a broad following. No, they may not always be able to go to watch games. But they follow what is happening on-line and they read about it in the papers."

If only some at the ECB took such pride in the competition.