Notes by the Editor, 2004

The Great Reform Act

Matthew Engel

The Reform Group's Mike Atherton and Bob Willis: Some of their ideas are rather vague, some extraordinarily prescriptive © Getty Images
In England a small band calling itself the Cricket Reform Group got considerable publicity last year. This was partly because the ECB has become so ill-regarded that in England the words cricket and reform in close proximity are assumed to be an absolute good thing, and partly because two-fifths of the group's members were former England captains, Mike Atherton and Bob Willis.

Now I like and respect both these men. And the manifesto they issued does contain some entirely valid objectives - fewer professionals, more streamlined management, more money for the recreational game, mergers between minor counties and major ones. Some of their ideas are rather vague, some extraordinarily prescriptive: the fifth round of Championship matches will start on June 6; Herefordshire and Shropshire will merge with Worcestershire. (Africa was conquered by remote know-alls drawing lines on the map, and the world is still paying the price.)

But if I grasp this manifesto correctly, there are two central proposals. Firstly, the Reform Group wants a premiership, an elite division: six teams with the best players and just ten fixtures each, taking place between Tests with "England players available for all championship matches".

This is a very appealing idea. Unfortunately - unless England are indeed kicked out of world cricket - there is not a hope in hell of the England management allowing the most important players to take part. If they did, although the scheme would reduce the workload of the average professional to a maximum 65 days a year, England's top cricketers would play at least 110 - or getting on for 200 with a busy winter. You'd have loved that, Bob.

In reality, the elite teams would be largely second elevens, as Surrey often are already, bulked out by rotating bought-in stars and Australians with Italian grannies, and thus EU qualification. That is not a premiership. The second idea is that there should be a clear path to the top via recreational cricket, with "non-full-time professionals" participating in the Championship "and taking minimal time off work". Again, this is appealing.

However, the counties, for all their many flaws, have been consistently excellent at picking up the available talent in their region and beyond, and are now investing large sums of money via their academies in trying to nurture it better. I have seen no evidence that the major club leagues are full of players willing and able to supplant the full-time professionals. Indeed, there is considerable evidence to the contrary.

Since 1964 teams representing the pinnacle of the amateur game - minor counties, universities and so on - have met first-class counties 748 times in various one-day cup competitions. They have won 34 of them, a strike-rate of 4.5%. If you take the minor counties and Board XIs alone, representing the top English club players, the figure goes down to 3%. Most of the 97% have been slaughters; many of the rest can be explained as flukes and freaks. Year after year the Minor County averages are dominated by old pros, and our League cricket reports show the clubs making it clear they want recreational competitions to be just that: recreational.

Across the world and the sporting spectrum, elite performers in onceamateur sports are becoming more and more professional; I am gobsmacked that Mike and Bob expect English cricket to be more competitive by becoming more amateur. I love the thought that once again Mr So-and-so might leave his merchant bank on a Wednesday and flay the Aussies on a Thursday. But that is not how modern cricket works - nor modern merchant banks.

Real reform
County cricket does need reform, badly. As Graeme Wright said in this space in 2002, it is "a confederacy of mediocrity"; and as Tim de Lisle said here last year, there are too many competitions and the tables are "a bad joke". But change has to be sensible and well-considered, and not a cover for the secret agenda of making many of the counties wither away. People flail around despairingly trying to find the alchemist's formula for English cricket: Strangle six counties! Abolish the lot and have regions instead! Let's play inter-city cricket! I find their arguments often naïve and sometimes dangerous.

Counties are expected to perform a difficult balancing act, to be successful in their own right, but also to be run primarily for English cricket as a whole. If they nurture a star player, the brighter he shines, the less likely he is to be around to do them any good. This may be compatible with running counties as businesses, but the proposition is a complex one. It is certainly nothing like running a football club, who would never tolerate such compromises.

Things can't go on as they are, though, and everyone knows it. The ECB working party, due to report this spring, seems sure to recommend less cricket (this year's modish nostrum for county cricketers though, curiously, not for international players) and an end to the mad system of three-up and three-down. A slowdown in the present crazed merry-go-round of overseas stars is already scheduled for 2005; some of them are not so much stars as asteroids. In 1991, you still had to be born in Yorkshire to play for them; in 2003 there appeared to be no obligation even to have visited the place. Bulked out with EU passport-holders, Middlesex - Middlesex! - last year sometimes fielded only two English-born players.

I would like to see a small-scale experiment with regional cricket as a stepping stone to the top level, though these games would work better as inter-regional Test trials rather than tourist fixtures (these can be very misleading - remember Shane Warne kidding us that he couldn't bowl to Graeme Hick?). Most of all, I want to see a serious redistribution of money from ordinary cricketers to extraordinary ones: rewards for success, not for turning up.

My own (more or less original) contribution to this debate is a proposal to merge two struggling competitions, the County Championship and the National League. There is no reason except habit why first-class cricket and one-day cricket should require different tournaments. A merger would reinvigorate both of them, provide an attractive sponsorship package, make the game far easier to follow and fixtures easier to plot. Above all, it would cut four competitions down to three and make it harder for counties to try in one form of the game and forget the other. It would be a spur to excellence, which the English domestic game badly needs. It is not, however, a magic bullet. Only children believe in magic.

© John Wisden & Co