It is easy to forget this, but professional cricket in England took off in the 19th century because people were prepared to pay to watch it. In those days, spectators - whether club members, or people charged at the gate - provided the revenues to pay the players. Now, television companies and corporate sponsors perform that function. Therefore, it might be argued, the public deserves no consideration when it comes to the scheduling of matches, or the composition of the teams that participate in them.
That is certainly how a great many county members have come, in recent years, to regard the cricket authorities' attitude to the sides they support, and the first-class competition in which those sides play. True, it would seem eccentric now to attempt to market county cricket as a viable leisure activity. But first-class county cricket has been changed to an extent at which it seems designed actively to drive spectators away. If this was the plan, it is working brilliantly.
The first step was to play county cricket over four days instead of three. With slow over-rates - why bowl 20 an hour when you can get away with bowling 15 or 16? - and four days to fill, the play became attritional. Only the retired have the time, and then not always the inclination, to watch such a contest. It is a contest made all the more soporific and irrelevant in recent seasons by the introduction of central contracts for England players and an extended international programme. This means that the best English players hardly ever appear for their clubs - and then, for good measure, they complain about the "lack of support" given them by their county committees. The two-division County Championship has suspended some ancient rivalries, an important ingredient of any sporting fixture list, added to which games are often either not scheduled for, or have finished by, the weekend, when people might have time to watch.
Indeed, all the major changes in the last 15 years have been made with complete disregard for the paying public. No doubt this reflects how little cash they actually bring into the game, but there is more to it than that. When counties have tried to stand up for their members' interests, they have been castigated for obstructing "progress". It is a chicken-and-egg argument. The public drifted away from cricket because it became progressively more unattractive as a spectacle. First-class county cricket is nigh unwatchable: it almost beggars belief that anybody should find it a recreation preferable to, say, sitting in his or her own garden and watching the flowers grow.
The county supporter's emotional tie to his or her side is considered sentimental and uncommercial. It seems to be the view of the ECB that the counties exist solely to breed England players. As soon as they are bred they are whisked off, not to be seen again until they have proved inadequate for the international task, returning to their counties in a useful state of demoralisation. This shows contempt for the counties themselves, for the players and for the paying public. The ECB don't appear to realise that if the last of those is a far smaller constituency than it used to be - and it is - it is largely the board's own fault, and that of their forerunner. Moreover, this decline matters. Those who lose the habit of paying to watch county cricket will in time lose the habit of paying to watch Test cricket, too.
The way the ECB treat the counties is reckless. At the going rate, there will be hardly any paying supporters for first-class cricket, and greatly reduced county memberships, before the end of the decade. After all, why should members pay to see boring cricket, played (by definition) by those who are not especially good cricketers? And just as this is driving away individuals, so it is driving away the corporate clients who were so in evidence in the 1980s and 1990s. The fewer people who go into county grounds, the less money that will be spent there. The begging bowl, which counties already hold out to the ECB, will be thrust more and more aggressively and desperately in the board's face. The choice will be either to pump more money into these loss-making enterprises, or accept blithely that a club or two will go bankrupt.
The counties have behaved stupidly themselves. Large staffs packed with mediocrities are simply not acceptable. Too many cricketers make it quite clear they hate playing cricket, and the game should not tolerate them. Their attitude is like a cancer dragging down the professional game, while reliance on subsidy has prevented some clubs from challenging the forces of decline head-on.
It does not, however, need to be like that. The board should realise, first, that their greed in scheduling so much international cricket - and thereby taking county players away for so much of the season - will in time prove counterproductive, as the currency of such contests is devalued. They should also realise that they achieve little by demanding that England-contracted players "rest" from matches in between Tests, thereby missing opportunities to stay in or get back into form, while at the same time entertaining county supporters. They should see, too, that four-day cricket is not working. If those with an interest in cricket were told that first-class matches would be played over three days, on uncovered wickets, featuring the best players in between an old-style international programme, then first-class county cricket might become attractive to them again.
At the moment, it is dying a painful death because of the attitude that counties, in return for providing international players, deserve no con-sideration other than the regular filling of the begging bowl. Yet it is madness to let what, in many cases, could be viable businesses go into terminal decline. We must not expect the ECB to be vulnerable to sentimental arguments about the place of county clubs in the history of English cricket. We might, though, expect the board to want to maximise the appeal of cricket and to make these clubs strong. After all, they are not just a source of players for England, but also of generating interest in English cricket: without such interest the game dies altogether. Furthermore, the more money they make themselves, the less they need from the begging bowl, which in turn means more for the ECB to invest in the game in ways that improve its asset base.
For all the changes that have been made, England are still not an especially good side; they would be unlikely to supply any player to the mythical World XI. It might just be that some of the reasons for the low calibre of the international team are to be found in the neglect of the game at the level that supplies the players. After all, who is to say that if radical changes were introduced, making the county game more attractive and more watchable, these would not cause an infectious spirit of improvement that, as in any successful business, would spread right to the top?
Simon Heffer is a columnist on the Daily Mail.