Notes by the Editor 2005

Hiatus at the ECB as county cricket loses the plot

Compared to what goes on elsewhere, the follies of English cricket administration are comparatively mild. None the less, it was a grim year at the ECB. On the field, all was fresh and creamy. Inside the office, everything curdled. This was partly, but not entirely, due to the endless agonising about the visit to Zimbabwe - to go or not to go, that is the question - which cost the board an interesting and original marketing chairman in Des Wilson, who resigned on principle after his arguments for a moral stance were rejected.

The chief executive, Tim Lamb, left wearily in September after eight years, and a whole cohort of junior officials went too, many for mundane reasons, but at a rate that suggested a deeply unhappy office. Very often, the lights were on and - as anyone who tried to phone them will confirm - almost nobody was home.

With the court in disarray, barons from the shires began throwing their weight around, as happened in the darker moments of English mediaeval history, with results we will discuss in a moment. The funding body Sport England began making threatening noises about English cricket's governance; and the ECB chairman, David Morgan, has been spending this springtime trying to get the size of the management board down from 16 just to 12 or 14, the eight or ten more often construed as ideal for decisive action being unacceptable to the barons, and to prise away financial control from the counties. Last autumn, without an executive head, the board could not avoid a decision far more consequential than the fate of one piddling tour, and there was no dither: a firm, confident and very definite choice was made...

Reach for the Sky
English cricket followers will get substantial benefits from the deal whereby live cricket in England will cease to be shown on terrestrial television, starting from 2006, and instead move to the satellite network, Sky Sports. The insidious process by which Test match days have had to start earlier and earlier so that they finish in time for the evening schedules will cease. Coverage will no longer have to be interrupted to accommodate horse races or other irrelevances. Cricket will have the benefit of being covered by a network with a proven commitment to the game and a reasonably innovative approach to it (even if the commentary is often banal). The subsidiary deal with Channel Five, which is a terrestrial station, ensures that the highlights package will be shown in the early evening and not, as has increasingly happened on the present main Test match station Channel 4, after midnight and shortly before the mud wrestling.

Readers who are unfamiliar with British TV may not grasp the passion attached to this argument. While the BBC, which showed home Test matches until 1998, and Channel 4 are available to everyone on payment of an annual licence fee (and Five to most people), Sky Sports has to be purchased by subscription, costing about £400 a year. Only a minority of the population makes this payment, but, as defenders of the deal have pointed out, it is thought half the households with children do pay, and these are the people cricket is most anxious to get at.

And from what one can gather, the ECB ran short of options. The BBC did not bid at all; Channel 4 entered only half-heartedly; Sky made it clear that, while not demanding all or nothing, it wanted all or would pay a great deal less. ECB sources say the funding gap between the Sky deal and any alternative package would have been £20m per year, a quarter of the board's annual budget. What matters here is the politics, not the economics. Had the ECB management board accepted a lesser deal, the counties would almost certainly have rebelled. Those responsible would have been voted out at best, strung up from Father Time at worst. That's today's reality.

Let us now consider tomorrow's reality. The pattern of TV viewing is indeed changing, though not in the way the deal's instigators claim. Giles Clarke, the board's chief negotiator, described terrestrial television as "a dying form". But though all TV is indeed scheduled to be digital by 2012, there will still be mainstream channels, available to all viewers, and specialist ones for paying customers only. On Channel 4, Test matches have a peak audience of just over a million. No one knows what the figure might be on Sky: the company does not reveal such figures, partly, one suspects, because they are too small to be measurable by any available method; and partly because they would draw derisive laughter. All the anecdotal evidence and one's intuition suggest that Test matches only on Sky get noticed less than others.

Sky's business model does not depend on drawing large audiences. It makes money by accreting minorities who want different aspects of their service. Sky Sports will indeed give a good service to cricket lovers willing to pay the subscription. It will not, however, go beyond them. Cricket's postwar survival in Britain was driven by the BBC. Television and radio attracted not just the obvious audience, but drew in people who knew nothing about the game until they heard or glimpsed it by chance and were captivated. Sky will attract only the already committed.

Some argue that the prime-time highlights package will be a huge bonus, but these programmes really are a dying form, because viewers can now see so much live sport. Others claim football has not suffered from being on Sky, which spectacularly misses the point. A vast amount of football remains on mass audience TV, most especially the two biennial festivals of the game, the World Cup and the European Championship. The 2003 cricket World Cup was only on Sky, and there is little prospect of anything different in 2007.

We are talking about a situation where the overwhelming majority of the British population will never come across a game of cricket in their daily lives. Never, never, never, never. There will be short-term consequences as sponsors drift away; the longer-term effects will take a generation to unfold. Some believe these could be serious. I think we're looking at a potential catastrophe.

County cricket loses the plot
One of the arguments privately advanced for the Sky deal is that otherwise "several counties would have gone to the wall". This is something that has echoed down the ages: Derbyshire were supposedly going out of business in 1910; Northamptonshire almost crashed in 1929, shortly after Wall Street. Yet they have all proved remarkably resilient.

Let them go. This is not said the way the county game's enemies say it, but in the belief that if counties were pushed back on their own resources, they would emerge stronger, and with a clearer sense of purpose, than the subsidy junkies of today. Either the people of Derbyshire, Northamptonshire and Leicestershire (to choose only the most obvious examples) want county cricket or they don't. If the social security cheques from Test revenues dried up, the experience might prove not just salutary but liberating.

Four-day cricket played by moderate players on dead pitches is never likely to be a major 21st century public entertainment, but the county game is now in danger of sliding from its position at the margins of British life into total oblivion.

Some of this is old news. Some isn't. The very reforms credited with helping the England team have actually had a dire effect lower down: there are no local heroes any more because the best English players almost never play for their counties. And whereas England have learned the value of a settled side with its own esprit de corps, counties happily spend their subsidies flying in international allsorts who barely even know which side they are representing, never mind who their team-mates might be.

A few of the evils may be mitigated by the new system of using handouts to reward counties that develop their own players, and by a belated mini-tightening of the rules on overseas signings from 2006. And help may be at hand from a very unexpected source. The new draft European Constitution (Article III-182) recognises the "specific nature" of sport, implying that the Kolpak ruling, which has allowed counties to sign cricketers from anywhere that has a trade agreement with the EU, will be open to challenge.

But Brussels won't change the fact that the county game is increasingly unwatchable and pointless. Precisely as predicted here six years ago, the introduction of two divisions has forced counties into short-term signings instead of long-term development of players. And the fear of relegation made first-division cricket last summer absolutely wretched.

I did propose an idea to try to pep up county cricket by merging the Championship and the one-day league to create a real champion county, something the public would understand. It was endorsed by an ECB working party but rejected by the county chairmen, as a side-effect of their determination to stop the fixture list being slashed. "The Championship is a great competition," snorted their spokesman, Mike Soper, "and to muddle it up with one-day games seems completely stupid." Great competition? Are we on the same planet?

Anyway, on December 23 (a traditional date for burying bad news - there really was no one home at the ECB) Soper's own working party announced a new one-day cricketing set-up from 2006 rendering what was previously confused entirely incomprehensible. The one competition everyone could understand, the knockout cup, is to be abolished, which is a dreadful decision. Instead, there will be three competitions, indistinguishable to the naked eye except for their length: 20, 40 and 50 overs. If and when the sheen wears off Twenty20, as it probably will once international cricket muscles in, county cricket may then finally wither for good and all.

In the meantime club cricketers complain vociferously that the game is being run by the counties for their own benefit. "The ECB is not a national governing body," says Barrie Stuart-King of the Club Cricket Conference. "It's an 18-member private club." He sees no indications of improved grassroots funding as a result of the Sky deal, and claims that in 2005 counties are likely to spend an extra £4m flying in yet more overseas players. However, at almost every level, clubs share this addiction to imports. The former England manager Micky Stewart did a survey for the ECB a decade ago and estimated there were 10,000 overseas players (i.e. who have come over specifically to play cricket) every summer in the English game. "To my knowledge there is very little difference now," he says. Both these figures - four million, 10,000 - may be on the high side, but the general points seem valid.

These players would range from fully fledged overseas professionals in the big leagues to Aussie and Kiwi lads who might play a bit, coach a bit, serve behind the club bar, and get a bit of cash in a brown envelope so they can backpack round Europe. It's all out of hand.

© John Wisden & Co