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By 1992, the county fixture list, bedrock of English cricket, had degenerated into an unholy mess. With each new year, it seemed, the schedulers were adopting baffling new variations with the glee of a creator of crossword puzzles producing heinously cryptic clues. It had become ever more obvious that the counties were playing too much cricket, most of it badly scheduled and designed to depress standards and discourage excellence.
This was the cause of the working party, under Mike Murray. The effect is the most radical set of reforms the county game has ever seen. In welcoming almost all the conclusions of the working party, I believe I am only mirroring a relief, within the game, that the cluttered chaos of recent years will now give way to an ordered symmetry, the emphasis on improving quality at the expense of quantity.
Four-day cricket in the County Championship is inevitable and overdue. But for the voluble dissent of a number of county administrators, doubtless expressing the views of their older and more reactionary members, it would have been adopted long ago. Now, though it may cynically be seen as only the outcome of players' disrespect for the three-day game, there are many more advantages to the change than that. Five seasons of experimentation with a mixed programme of three and four-day games have been revealing. A substantially higher proportion of the longer games produced a positive result and, what is more, did so without recourse to the wearisome spectacle of joke bowling which has brought three-day cricket into increasing disrepute. Spin bowling has been encouraged by the extra day and there is compelling evidence to support the theory that the better team will usually prevail.
The scheduling of almost all Championship games from Thursday to Monday is not ideal, as continuity can be lost by the intrusion of a Sunday League game. But it does give members the Saturday championship cricket they desire, and it does give the fixture list a symmetry which has been missing for too long. At last, those who follow the game will understand exactly when a game is due to start, and over what period it will be played.
The argument of lost revenue and lost festivals has always seemed to me a shallow one. It will take only a measure of refocusing and a positive attitude for counties to market the four-day game successfully; as for festivals, those worthy of support will all continue, albeit in a slightly revised form. Retaining all three limited-overs competitions smacks, to me, of marketing expediency getting the better of cricketing sense, but at least the abolition of the unloved group stages of the Benson and Hedges Cup allows the early part of the season to be dominated, as it always should be, by the Championship.
Mike Murray has served the game admirably. His working party consulted extensively throughout the game, and there is so much logic behind their conclusions that they are fully worthy of their three-year trial.
Alan Lee is cricket correspondent of The Times.
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