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As England were losing to a team from the Australian Cricket Academy at North Sydney Oval late in 1994, one of the most telling but not necessarily the worst of the many humiliations English cricket has suffered these past few years, a plane appeared (not thought on this occasion to be carrying David Gower) and sky-wrote the word WHY? in the clear blue sky.
The question apparently related to Sydney Airport's new runway, not cricket. But, invisibly, it hung there all tour, even after the victory in Adelaide. England are never boring: each time they plummet to a previously uncharted depth, they stage an improbable leap upwards; they were bowled out under 100 three times in 1994, but invariably came back to score a startling victory a Test or two later.
None the less, each depth does seem to be lower than the last. I have never seen a team as dismal and demoralised as the England side that slouched around the field on the fourth day of the Melbourne Test. Each time this happens the Why-ing gets more frenzied and less enlightening.
Much of it emanates from the press box, which is not an environment designed for original thought. But, though no one seems to be able to answer the question, everyone seems to know what to do about it. From 1913, when the bigger counties backed off from a threat to break away from the rest, until the 1990s, the idea of two divisions in the County Championship was one of those ideas that rarely got an airing outside the letters columns of the cricket magazines.
In the past 12 months, it has been paraded by many writers as the solution to England's problems with the certainty usually reserved for revealed truth. Just as hurriedly and thoughtlessly, the counties tossed it out at their meeting in December 1994.
Such a scheme could have infinitely more far-reaching effects than its enthusiasts have contemplated. Yes, it would make some Championship matches more pressurised. But it bears no relation to the present evenly spread division of power (consider the recent gyrations in the county table of Glamorgan, Warwickshire and Worcestershire); it would lead to a full-blown transfer system, probably within hours; and it could destroy what the counties actually do well - spotting the talent that is around, and keeping professional cricket alive and within easy reach of the vast majority of the population.
In practice, it could even damage the national team's prospects, because the pressure on teams to stay in the higher division might create club-country battles for the leading players' attention that would be irreconcilable in a short English summer. It seems to me that those who seek to reform English cricket are sometimes a bit too rapid in demanding the chucking out of not only the baby with the bathwater, but the bath itself.
But the counties have got to start doing some hard thinking, especially about the amount of one-day cricket they play. In 1995, having returned to a zonal system in the Benson and Hedges Cup, every county will play between 22 and 30 competitive one-day matches; 241 are scheduled in all, an unprecedented figure. In the face of all the evidence of the damage this form of the game is doing to English players' technique, this is grotesque and disgraceful.
Since the counties are most unlikely to get rid of the wretched Sunday League, I propose a small but, I think, elegant interim reform. In future, the Benson and Hedges Cup should be restricted to the top eight Championship teams of the previous season. This would cut out 50 of the least-watched one-day games, avoid the unjust April knockouts of 1993 and 1994, and add more vigour to some of the late-summer mid-table four-day games.
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