March 30, 2012

We underestimate county cricket at our peril

Its familiarity may have bred contempt in many, but the County Championship remains of enormous value - value that cannot be judged by financial turnover alone

Like Mozart, van Gogh, your parents, or your corkscrew, it seems the destiny of the County Championship is to go unappreciated until it is no longer with us.

There are those - usually those who prefer their lazy view of county cricket to be uninformed by facts - who insist that the domestic game is tired, reactionary and serves little purpose. It is not so. It was the county game that gave birth to the List A format in 1963 and the county game that gave birth to the T20 format in 2003. It was the county game that nurtured the likes of Hobbs, Hutton, Gooch and Gower. It was the county game that produced the players - yes, all the players - who led the current England side to the top of the world ratings in Test and T20 cricket.

While other leagues have come, often amid a storm of propaganda, and gone - sometimes amid a torrent of lawsuits and unpaid bills - the championship has persisted for over 120 years. Its familiarity may have bred contempt in some, but it remains a gem. A bit in need of a polish, perhaps, but an unappreciated, priceless gem. We underestimate its worth at our peril.

It is not as unappreciated as some might have you believe, either.

Championship attendances actually increased by 9% last year (to 531,000) - how many businesses can compete with that in these trying economic times? - while the vast numbers following the game online or in newspapers suggest that interest remains undimmed.

That is not to say that the county game does not have problems. Clearly it does. Most pertinently, the competition to host international cricket has seen several clubs stretch themselves to their limits - maybe beyond them - to redevelop their venues. The Ageas Bowl is now council-owned, Leeds Carnegie is solvent purely through the benevolence of a benefactor, the SWALEC's business plan is patched together with personal loans and hope, while Edgbaston's debt would make a Greek wince. That is before even mentioning Gloucestershire, who in trying to dine with the big boys are in danger of being left with their bill. All have gambled on hosting major matches; it is hard to see how all can win.

The smaller clubs have problems of their own. With players' salaries having risen to unsustainable levels in recent years - a trend that is now being corrected amid much wailing and gnashing of teeth - clubs have sought to diversify. People are as likely to visit their county ground for a business conference, or hotel stay or just to pick up a pint of milk, as they are to watch cricket these days. It is not, by any means, a negative development.

Sadly, though, on the eve of another season, the greatest threat to the viability of the county championship comes from within. The changes advocated by David Morgan's review - one that ECB officials continue to push with the sort of never-say-die attitude that would impress Dracula - are the latest in a long line of well-intentioned interference that threatens to suffocate the counties with kindness. The county game is in danger of suffering death by a thousand regulations.

Consider, for a moment, how many obstacles the counties must overcome. They are not able to sign the players they want due to a raft of qualification requirements that, had they been brought in earlier, would have denied county audiences the opportunity to see the likes of Viv Richards or Graeme Hick. They are not able to pick the teams they want due to a raft of regulations that "incentivise" them to select younger players. They are forced to sacrifice their best players - players they may have groomed from the age of eight - to central contracts, Lions games, gym sessions and even to foreign domestic leagues. They are expected to play on homogenised surfaces that leave players helpless when confronted with alien conditions (the decision to penalise the Rose Bowl for preparing a spin-friendly surface appears even more ludicrous in light of England's struggles in Asia, doesn't it?). They are not able to attract or retain the top players - be they overseas or local - due to the imposition of a salary cap that renders them unable to match the market rate. They are presented with a fixture list so illogical and shapeless that it would take an Enigma machine to make sense of it (some counties play three of their five home T20 games within a week this year). And within a year or two, they will not even be allowed to offer the format - 40-over cricket - that many of their spectators most want.

The counties are not, perhaps, as financially self-reliant as they should be, but they are hardly given the best chance.

There are logical explanations for all these regulations. Most are designed to help the England team and most are accepted phlegmatically enough by the counties. It is all part of the sacrifice they make, quite rightly, for the sake of the game as a whole. After all, the broadcast rights from a successful international team pay the bills. It is quite right to remember that.

But that works both ways. If we accept that the foundations of the national side are in the county game - and we should, we really should - then it becomes apparent that by weakening those foundations we risk the whole edifice collapsing. If young players coming into the county game do not learn their trade against the best - be they Kolpak, overseas or British - the gap between domestic and international cricket will grow, as it did in the 1990s. If spectators are not offered the chance to see the best players, whatever their background, they can be forgiven for not wanting to spend their money or their time at county grounds. And if the ECB does not value its own championship - which should be its pride and joy - enough to fight for its integrity, it cannot be surprised if the rest of the world loses interest. Of course there is a balance to be found in all these areas. But we have degraded county cricket to such a degree that we are now at tipping point.

That is why it is such a shame that Morgan has advocated cutting the championship programme. The ECB accepts that a 14-game season played in an asymmetrical league will compromise the competition's integrity but feels it is a price worth paying. They are seemingly unconcerned that they are dismantling the one competition that everyone agrees has worked outstandingly well in recent years. They are seemingly unconcerned that opportunities for young players will be diminished.

If we accept that the foundations of the national side are in the county game - and we should, we really should - then it becomes apparent that by weakening those foundations we risk the whole edifice collapsing

They are seemingly unconcerned that, by introducing an element of illogicality and chance into the fixture list, they will inevitably reduce the intensity and, as a consequence, the quality of the competition. They are currently trying to convince the counties to accept an eight-team top division and a ten-team second division. Sad to report, they may well prove persuasive.

If they simply allowed the domestic season to continue until the end of September - as it did in 2009 - most of the scheduling difficulties would be resolved in a trice. That they do not has much to do with the scheduling of the Champions League. Quite why the ECB should bend over backwards to accommodate a foreign league that imposes a handicap on participating English teams is anyone's guess. Latest figures from the ECB suggest - contrary to the general perception - that there is no financial gain in participating in the Champions League anyway.

Part of the problem is the much-repeated myth that county cricket survives on ECB handouts. It is a nonsense, but as Joseph Goebbels is alleged to have said, if the same lie is repeated often enough, people will start to believe it.

Actually the game's resources - that is, those of all the counties and that of the England team - are pooled, distributed and reinvested. The counties, which are allocated about one third of the ECB's annual income, scout, develop and nurture players from boyhood to the international arena. So when Warwickshire pick up their annual share of ECB funds (something approaching £1.9m per county, all things considered) they are doing so not out of entitlement, but so they can go out and find another Ian Bell or Chris Woakes or, indeed, a Jonathan Trott.

The smaller clubs contribute just as much. Lowly Leicestershire, surviving on a turnover about 10% that of Surrey's, have produced the likes of Stuart Broad, Luke Wright, James Taylor and Darren Maddy in recent years. Turn off their funding and that supply line will disappear.

So it is a mistake to judge the county game purely by financial turnover. It will never pay its own way, going by the narrow criteria that are often used. But nor will women's cricket, grassroots cricket, disability cricket or the NHS. Not everything of value can be counted so neatly.

There will, thankfully, be much cricket to savour. Durham, who beat Lancashire and Warwickshire home and away last year before Lions call-ups and injuries blighted their charge, will again challenge in the championship. Warwickshire, blessed with an allrounder in Woakes, who could, just could, achieve the double (check his figures for last season if you don't believe it), will push them all the way, and Lancashire, armed with an ageless gem in Glen Chapple and a brilliant young spinner in Simon Kerrigan, will take some persuasion to relinquish their title. Meanwhile Essex should bounce back from a season of underachievement in all competitions, and Somerset, so often the bridesmaids, may finally enjoy a day in the sun. Their T20 side looks mouth-wateringly good.

But enjoy it while you can. The storm clouds are gathering.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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