Some years have passed since the baby and its bathwater appeared in these Notes. Contrary to the warning of the saw-sayers, the time may have come to throw them both out. It is not only that the water is cold; the baby is old and should have been lifted out long ago.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that the time is approaching to reform the first-class county structure, as opposed to merely meddling with the cricket and the fixture list. Not that a little meddling would go amiss: the passing of the Benson and Hedges Cup this summer provides just the opportunity for fewer games, less travelling and more preparation. But I would like these Notes to open a wider-ranging, longer-term debate, aimed at revivifying professional cricket. And however loath I am to say it, I believe the county system runs counter to a positive future for English cricket at the highest level.
What we have at the moment is a Victorian institution that resisted reform in the 20th century and struggled into the 21st on subsidies rather than public support. It isn't that the counties haven't changed. A number have become like businesses rather than members' clubs, which is not to say they have become more businesslike. To be commercially viable, they have to satisfy their dual market needs. Because professional sport is essentially in the entertainment game, they should be able to attract and entertain an audience; and, such is the framework of English cricket, they must provide the right players for the national teams that generate much of the ECB's income. This is a well-rehearsed argument; it hardly requires repeating any more than the fact that many counties no longer seem capable of fulfilling these conditions. The system survives on a confederacy of mediocrity.
It is easy to understand, to sympathise even, with resistance to radical reform. There are livelihoods and grand traditions at stake. But if 18 counties cannot pay their way without subsidy, and if they fail the needs of the national team, do we need so many? What happens if the subsidy dries up? If nothing else, it might be prudent for county cricket to reform its structure before circumstances force it to change.
Some 60 per cent of the ECB's revenue comes from television. Government and lottery funding are essential for many projects, in particular the much vaunted National Cricket Academy. Cricket, compared with other sports, does well out of the lottery. This suggests that it still has a place in national life, but that place depends on the profile of the national team. Unlike football clubs, the counties have little national reference; rather, for much of the population and the media, county cricket drifts along in a backwater. Without the annual injection of more than a million pounds each, most counties would be further up the creek without a paddle.
Changes have been introduced in attempts to improve standards: among them, four-day matches, two divisions, pitch penalties and smaller-seamed balls. But they have not brought spectators to first-class cricket and they have not provided the core of players able to step up to international level. Some argue that the gap between county and Test cricket is so wide that another tier, regional cricket, is needed. It seems unlikely to happen, but its very presence in the debate is further confirmation that the county structure is failing England. An England squad system, giving players more time to practise and work together as a team, would be more worth while than a regional tier. The success England have enjoyed abroad these past few winters is a strong argument in favour of developing the squad system at home.
In fairness to the counties, there are simply not enough good young English players coming into professional cricket to sustain an environment that produces Test cricketers. The Australian board are able to put 25 cricketers under contract; the ECB manage just a dozen. That can't only be a matter of economics; England would be hard pushed to name 25 ready for international cricket. Take out the centrally contracted bowlers - six last year, three from Yorkshire - and the standard of county bowling is deplorably low. Batsmen hit 118 more centuries in 2001 than in the previous year and twice the number of double-hundreds. The other counties can only envy Yorkshire's bowling depth; England are merely covetous.
The counties themselves acknowledge the paucity of home-grown talent by increasing the intake of overseas players with British passports or flying the European Union's flag of convenience. There were ten in 2001; the Professional Cricketers' Association estimate a 150 per cent increase in 2002. Many come from South Africa, where political decrees on team selection and the country's changing economic circumstances hamper the career prospects of young white cricketers. They won't be able to play for England without meeting the ECB's qualification requirements, but they will have their salaries subsidised by income generated by Team England.
All aboard the academy express
In the meantime, seven counties are receiving £50,000 each towards accredited local academies that will identify players aged between 13 and 18, and help them become first-class cricketers. The need for these academies is a sorry commentary on the way sport, especially cricket, has been downgraded in schools by greater emphasis on exams, the selling-off of sports grounds and the paperwork that absorbs teachers' time, energy and desire. The problem is not new but it has taken cricket time to address it.
It was not so long ago that Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the ECB, was calling the counties themselves English cricket's 18 academies. This was back when the media wanted a national academy along Australian lines; last year their demand was met. It had become so apparent that the so-called "academies" were not producing the right calibre of cricketer to mix it with the best that the board bowed to the inevitable and hired an Australian to do the job properly. Admittedly, they didn't have any premises at the time; happily Rod Marsh, the man they appointed, knew just the place and so England's National Cricket Academy began life at the Australian Academy in Adelaide, where Marsh had previously been director. New Labour are trying something similar with the National Health Service, sending patients abroad for treatment.
Living on borrowed time
In the same way that the board chairman called the counties "academies", his chief executive Tim Lamb took to calling them "centres of excellence", which did nothing for the counties but made him sound like one of those well-spun politicians whose peculiar notion of excellence is applied in defence of failing institutions. Last year he took to describing the counties as "businesses". But, as the farming industry is currently debating, what happens to the business if the subsidy diminishes or disappears?
Given that the ECB's television agreement expires in 2005, this is not idle speculation. Channel 4's viewing figures for cricket have dropped each year since they began to televise the game in 1999. They put a brave face on this, comparing reductions in audiences for other sports. But however the numbers are interpreted, they mean fewer people have been watching cricket on television, and falling figures are anathema to any broadcaster dependent on advertising income. Cricket may not be living on borrowed time; some counties clearly are. I suspect there is already a tendency to let the weakest go to the wall. Natural wastage, businessmen call it.
Cities, not counties
Maybe that's the answer; it is pragmatic, and lately English cricket has been learning to live with pragmatism. But it would add interest to the debate to hear something more radical being discussed; something that would take into account England in the 21st century rather than the 19th. It has become an urban society, built on cities and conurbations. Why not a professional circuit based on these, rather than on shires and counties, however romantically their names resonate? The grounds are already firmly established in cities.
It is a given that cricket does not exist on membership and gate money. Total membership for the 18 counties in 2001 was 128,234, with Yorkshire attracting 15,331 and Derbyshire 1,877 (including 16 dogs), a fair reflection of their Championship positions if ever there was. But one in every 330 adults in England and Wales belonging to a county cricket club is not a fair reflection of the national interest in cricket. It demonstrates mostly the extent to which professional cricket has to market itself. Becoming part of a city's life by name as well as location would assist this process. The cricket club could incorporate civic identity, and benefit from the commercial and sponsorship opportunities such an association would provide. Yorkshire would doubtless claim to be an exception.
Assuming the globalisation of cricket continues apace, it will be only a matter of time before there is a television-driven demand for international inter-city tournaments. Cities are marketable commodities in a way that counties, states and provinces are not. This may seem fanciful now, but looking ahead often does. Cricket may never have the lion's share of the television sports market in England, but it has immense potential elsewhere. English cricket should not simply be aware of this potential but positioned to exploit it when the opportunity arises. Cricket has trundled along traditional lines for a long time, but the pace of change and growth is faster now than it has ever been.
Australia show the way
England's showing against Australia last summer, along with the record of Australians in county cricket, offered ample evidence of the gap that has opened between the two countries. Since England relinquished the Ashes in 1989, six more series have passed and, generally speaking, they have been overwhelmed in each one. But last summer's Australians drove home a further message. Players have to give the public cricket that is entertaining as well as motivated: maybe the two are linked more than is appreciated.
At the end of last season there was a game at Cardiff that was neither. Surrey's first innings lasted from the second day until the last afternoon, by which time they had 701 on the board and were 443 runs ahead. True, it rained, but it is a harder truth that there are days when players do not deserve the efforts of the ECB and the counties to keep them in employment. A strategic aberration at Chelmsford apart, what made Steve Waugh's Australians so exciting was the way they went about their cricket. It's a tired old refrain, but playing cricket has to be more than a job. Sadly, not all cricketers appreciate this as obviously as the former England and Lancashire opening batsman, Winston Place, who died in January 2002. Asked on the last day of his first season what he was doing for a holiday, Place replied, "This is the last day of my holiday." And when, many years later, he was told that Lancashire no longer required him, he wept.
The holiday comment brought to mind a review of Peter Carey's 30 Days in Sydney. What emerges from this book, wrote reviewer Phillip Knightley, "is a hymn to all those characteristics that make Australians what they are: collectivism, mateship, courage, disdain for authority and love of life, a people forever on holiday". There is enough there to describe the way Australians play their cricket; enough to explain why people turned out in their thousands to see them, whether for a Test match or a game in a park against an MCC invitation eleven. They enjoyed the feeling of being on holiday as well; going to the cricket wasn't just something to do. It showed that there is still a healthy appetite for cricket in England, but it will not be satisfied if players treat the game with disdain.
And now for your bonus point
Give a cricketer a chance to stretch the rules and regulations and, it seems, he'll take it nine times out of ten. Last year, to help avoid predictability in one-day internationals, the ICC introduced bonus points for tournaments involving three or more teams. As an incentive for sides to maintain positive, attacking cricket throughout a game, and prevent crowds from drifting off during the longueurs, the winners now earn a point when their final run-rate is 1.25 times that of their opponents. But the 2001-02 VB triangular series in Australia threw up an unexpected ramification. Once it became obvious to New Zealand that they could not win their last qualifying game, against South Africa, their best route to the finals lay in conceding the bonus point that would guarantee South Africa's progress. Australia would then have to beat the South Africans and earn a bonus point to displace the New Zealanders. Victory without the bonus point would leave Australia with the same qualifying points as New Zealand, who had the better head-to-head record. Chasing 271 against South Africa, New Zealand calculated they must not reach 217 - and didn't. Nor did Australia get the bonus point in their last match and so, for only the third time in 23 seasons, they failed to contest the final series. It cost Steve Waugh the captaincy of, and his place in, their one-day side; as ramifications go, it was totally unexpected.
Avarice and averages
For something like 20 years, Wisden has liaised with other cricket reference books and the county scorers to ensure accurate scorecards and averages. By way of appreciation, we gave the scorers a small honorarium and a complimentary Almanack. Last season, we heard that the ECB were prohibiting the scorers from checking Wisden's scores. Rather than put the scorers in an intolerable position, and not wanting to compromise the accuracy of the scores we publish, we followed the course offered by the ECB. We purchased the scores from them, via the Press Association, which in turn took the scores from the county scorers. This added more than 50 per cent to our costs for English (and Welsh) scores and averages.
Despite some trepidation on our part, the provision of scores and averages worked satisfactorily: the proof, however, is in the publication. Of more concern now is the apparent intention of the ECB and PA to create their scores from a "down-the-line" commentary, rather than using the county scorers. This could lead to two sets of scores with, if I understand the Laws of Cricket correctly, the county scorers' version being the official one. I do not see how a "down-the-line" commentator falls within the requirements of Law 4.
The reason for all this, of course, is money. The ECB can't get enough of it. One sympathises with their need to protect valuable rights, so that cricket benefits from the anticipated wealth that the new technologies might create. It is thought, for example, that the sale of scores, statistics and images to mobile phone users could be worth as much as £25 million over five years. Bothering about the accuracy of Wisden's scores must seem small beer in comparison - but it remains essential to us.