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Shrinking county game would hurt new-found drive to embrace diversity

New season arrives amid familiar handwringing about the state of England's professional circuit

David Hopps
David Hopps
Worcestershire's players take part in a pre-season photo shoot  •  Getty Images

Worcestershire's players take part in a pre-season photo shoot  •  Getty Images

Another county cricket season is upon us, arriving to the expectant trill of birdsong, the gradual awakening of a rain-lush landscape and the traditional sound of the disillusioned and dispossessed forever bickering over a professional system held to be on borrowed time.
Every year we must endure this self-indulgent navel-gazing - the game reduced to near impotency by the endless debate over whether counties should be culled, and interminable theorising about structures and fixture lists. And somehow, a professional circuit continues - sheepishly, outmodedly, defiantly - and a summer of cricket is played with commendable spirit to the backdrop of a game forever consumed by self-doubt.
People with most right to be aggrieved about county cricket are those from minority-ethnic backgrounds. Especially this year after a close-season narrative which has been unremittingly bleak. The evidence given by Azeem Rafiq about the institutional racism at Yorkshire will not have surprised them, nor will they recoil at growing evidence that Yorkshire are not an outlier, merely the crassest representatives of widespread prejudice within the game.
Most have long suspected the county game is not for them. They will spend the spring following the IPL, and might even have taken a brief look at the Hundred draft only to find to their confusion that there are actually bigger names playing in the Blast. The identity of Derbyshire's third seamer on an April greentop will find little connection here. (There again, considering the season they had last year, even Mickey Arthur is probably unsure about that).
It is little wonder so few English cricket lovers from minority-ethnic communities feel any sense of excitement as another county season is about to get underway. Many working-class cricket lovers might also feel a similar sense of exclusion in a game propped up by an annual life-support of optimistic, well-schooled, and often well-heeled young professionals from the private system. And if you are working class and Muslim then frankly, not only in Yorkshire have you been wasting your time dreaming of a professional cricket career in England.
To this audience, the insistence that county cricket is the best chance - perhaps the only chance - to develop a diverse professional cricket system in England, one finding talent from all classes, all races, all creeds, is not immediately persuasive. But to abandon an 18-team county system at precisely the time when diversity has become a live issue, when many counties are making strenuous efforts to right wrongs and respond to the demands of the age, and when even the laggards understand that they need to do some serious window dressing, would be a disaster for multi-ethnic professional cricket in this country.
What might surprise the sceptics is that Rafiq thinks exactly the same. Nobody has ever challenged county cricket at so much personal risk yet, having fought the fight, Rafiq recognises that opportunity lies not in rejection but in rectification. To recognise his impact, ESPNcricinfo's county-by-county guide includes a reference to every county's progress on diversity. Some, such as Warwickshire, are showing the way. Others should be embarrassed by their current state. But the expected direction of travel has never been more clearly indicated.
The most enlightened approach is to widen the franchise, not just to feed off the private schools who provide roughly two in three of county cricketers, but to spread the talent search into all parts of society
Rafiq tweeted late last month: "Surely at a time when the game needs to be made accessible to everyone, reducing opportunities (counties) is incredibly silly?" He then followed up: "There's absolutely no guarantee that reducing teams would make the England team better… make the game accessible to more people: I really don't think it's that complicated."
Anuj Dal, as vice-chair of the Professional Cricketers Association, gave evidence, as did Rafiq, to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport select committee about his own experience of racial stereotyping. Dal is on Derbyshire's books and with all due respect might have struggled to win a contract in a slimmed-down county system.
He stressed to the BBC at Derbyshire's media day that Rafiq's testimony has offered a chance to change the county game. "South Asian players, and players from different backgrounds, now feel as though they've got someone there who's spoken out about issues that are there within the game. I don't think there is that stigma anymore. Now people are thinking 'how can I be actively positive to encourage guys and make sure we all get given the same opportunity, make sure we all get treated the same and feel respected?' And that for me is a huge one."
That county cricket has fallen in standard in the past decade should be clear to every regular observer. Kolpak players were not universally popular but their loss has been felt. The perpetual withdrawal of England players of all formats to fulfil a bloated international fixture list separates them from the professional circuit, as indeed it separates the journalists who set the agenda. The advent of The Hundred has turned county 50-overs cricket into a developmental competition.
One obvious solution is to address the excess of cricket and constant resistance to pyramid systems, both of which reduce intensity and dilute quality at the top level. But the most enlightened approach is to widen the franchise, not just to feed off the private schools (which are so indispensable that they provide roughly two in three of county cricketers), but to spread the talent search into all parts of society with more conviction than ever before.
It is time to catch the wave. Instead, there are the usual demands for shrinking the game. The BBC commentator, Jonathan Agnew, has broken off from yet another rendition of his tiresome legover story to issue another call for the 18 counties to be drastically reduced to "save" English Test cricket. One might ask, who exactly is he saving it for? Certainly not for those for whom opportunity does not come automatically.
When Aggers' song is sung, the plaintive call of the privileged is taken up by Kevin Pietersen. KP uses the word "franchises" a lot, giving the impression that he would flog off county cricket to the highest private bidder faster than the culture minister, Nadine Dorries, would offload Channel 4. Loose talk of "franchises" can be attractive to those who feel excluded because it promises new owners with a more inclusive outlook, but if county cricket has failed on diversity, despite endless edicts, what chance a private enterprise would put idealism before profitability?
There is no doubt what Pietersen would do with the revenue. "Pay the top players what they want; I don't care," is the gist of his message. In not so many words, sack every professional in the country without magic dust on their shoulders and lavish riches on the elite whose brilliance is assumed to develop purely by their own innate talent. There has never been a bigger divide between the best and worst paid professionals in England, but wealth inequality or lost jobs do not appear to give Pietersen sleepless nights.
Somehow, amid all this, the imperfect County Championship goes on, prized not just by those it serves but those it doesn't. In Different Class: The Untold Story of English Cricket, the historian Duncan Stone offers a revisionist critique of county cricket's history, but for all his doubts he remains drawn to the communal potential of the game in England.
He says: "For better or worse the counties represent the game in England, and as much as the evidence suggests they are elitist (and racist) I want them to re-discover an authentic culture of cricket. Cricket is, at heart, a 'people's game'. If it is to survive, as anything more than a boutique pastime for wealthy white people, it must re-discover that spirit. It has a once in a century opportunity to be the game it always should have been: inclusive, meritocratic, and a true reflection of it's constituency."
That message must also be heard by minority-ethnic groups. There has never been a better chance to claim their part in the English professional game. The first thing they have to do is believe it.

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps