The counties concede their birthright and more, 1992

Notes by the Editor

Graeme Wright

Twelve months ago, as the Notes to the 1991 Wisden were being written, England failed to regain the Ashes in Australia, and were soon to embark on a series of embarrassing defeats in New Zealand. England's cricket, without a doubt, was in desperate straits. What a difference a year makes. Two Test wins over West Indies, and a drawn series, restored the confidence in English cricket which had been badly shaken by the events in Australia and New Zealand.

Although those victories were very much team efforts, they owed everything to individual performances, in particular to the batting of Graham Gooch, the captain, Robin Smith. No-one, however, delighted more than the left-arm spinner, Philip Tufnell, whose own passage from doldrums to buoyancy encapsulated that of the England team. Tufnell turned the final Test against West Indies with a spell of slow bowling on the Saturday which will find its way into cricketing mythology - where it will be joined by his achievement in bowling England to an unlikely victory over New Zealand at Christchurch in January.

At the end of a decade which had seen Test cricket dominated by relentless fast bowling, evidence that a slow bowler, through flight and spin, could not only change the course of a Test match but also win one was not simply a welcome relief. It encouraged optimism for the future of the game. For too long, cricket has been crying out for genuine variety. Perhaps now the philosophy of bowling will change. "If I can't bowl you out, I'll knock you out" might become "Hit me if you dare", and the game will develop as a more fascinating contest.

Yet in some quarters there are those, it seems, who think that the future belongs not to the spin bowler but to the man who paints logos on the outfield. In which case there might not be a place for the likes of P.C.R. Tufnell. With his short run-up, and with batsmen reluctant to hit him back over his head, one logo will be lost to the television cameras for overs on end. What price a logo in an age of spin, one wonders.

Symbolism in the outfield

The logo on the outfield is a symbol. It is a symbol of the level to which English cricket has to earn a crust. Indeed, it brings to mind that tragic figure of Victorian melodrama: the mother who goes out on the street to support her family in hard times. (Not that the editor of Wisden is best placed to cast the first stone.) But it is a symbol, too, of the influence which the marketing committee has within the Test and County Cricket Board, and of the diminishing influence of those whose first concern is for the game of cricket itself. The periphery, one feels, has become more important than the middle.

Last summer's decision by the first-class counties to ignore the advice of the TCCB's cricket committee, with regard to the future of the Sunday league, and instead to take on board the plans of the marketing men, further illustrates the struggle for the soul of the game.

For sound cricketing reasons - and perhaps for good commercial ones, too - the cricket committee advocated playing the Sunday League in two divisions of eight teams each, with a knockout stage to determine the season's champions. While cutting the number of 40-overs games - technically more damaging to playing standards than other forms of cricket - this would also have offered variety for spectators by freeing some Sundays for either 55-overs Benson and Hedges Cup matches or for Championship cricket.

Instead the TCCB rejected these proposals, voting in favour of the existing format and also for teams to wear coloured clothing and play with a white ball against black sightscreens.

Somehow the marketing men and the countries - Kent, Leicestershire, Middlesex and Surrey excepted - got it badly wrong. For a start they were flying in the face of members' opinion; not that members' opinions worry committeemen much, until the members get their act together and vote them out of office.

Replying to a questionnaire sent out prior to the Special Meeting of TCCB in May last year, the majority of county members who replied gave an emphatic thumbs down to coloured clothing. So did Refuge Assurance, the sponsors of the Sunday League. They chose not to renew their contract. But even worse, no-one else wanted to sponsor the Board's colourful new package either.

This does raise a question. If members opposed colored clothing, and sponsors didn't want it, for whom was it intended? Television? Only a small minority of potential viewers watch Sunday League cricket on television, now that the broadcasting rights reside with BSkyB, the satellite network.

To realise how few of the game's supporters bother with BSkyB, one had only to hear the thunderous applause which greeted the announcement at Lord's during the Nat West Bank Trophy final, that the BBC would again cover the Benson and Hedges Cup, as well as continuing to screen the Nat West and all international matches in England.

Money should not be the only determining factor when it comes to broadcasting rights. Cricket is not such a popular sport that audience figures can afford to be ignored, especially with cricket being played at fewer schools and young people being offered a whole range of alternative leisure activities.

Cricket needs maximum exposure more than ever. Thousands of viewers in Britain will have watched the World Cup, perhaps hundreds of thousands. The fact that it would have been millions had the World Cup been shown on the BBC or ITV should be of concern to the TCCB. One feels it is not.

The need for balance

This has little to do with cricket itself, after a year when it is cricket that deserves to be celebrated. But the way the game is administered is, I believe, a matter for debate. Given the place cricket has in national life, a balance must be struck between cricket, the game, and cricket, the business. The game will continue to be played, from summer to summer, on Saturdays and Sundays and long into weekday evenings; by men and women from all walks of life. But what this game is, and how it is played, is influenced by the business that is cricket. The proliferation of the limited-overs game in club, league and schools cricket since the advent of the Gillette Cup, 30 years ago, testifies to that.

The problem, as I see it, is the need to support the professional county game, with its playing and administrative staffs. Just as many newspapers and magazines cannot survive on buyers alone, needing advertising revenue to cover their costs, so county cricket is unable to exist only on those who watch the games. The county clubs require a healthy membership, but even then they need the revenue generated by marketing the game.

The danger comes when the marketing men struggle to sell the product because its image no longer suits prospective sponsors. They then try to tailor it to suit the sponsor, rather as they might demand changes to a magazine's editorial approach or format in order to please advertisers, disregarding the fact that it was the editorial approach or the format which first attracted the magazine's readers. What often results then is a falling-off in readership until new readers are found who will accept the changed version. This is what is happening in cricket.

County cricket, unable to attract enough customers to pay its way, has come to depend on income from other sources. One of these, as of course it has been for some time, is the England team - through attendances at and broadcasting fees from Test matches and one-day internationals. In 1992, incidentally, there will be five of the latter, instead of three as has been the norm on a full tour.

Because of the money it brings to the game, the England team has grown in importance in the last decade, to the extent that today its welfare is given priority. One consequence of this is that county members have had to put up with changes in long-established fixture arrangements. Championship games, for example, start on Friday rather than Saturday so that the England team can assemble a day earlier before Test matches. That may not sound like a great hardship. But coming in halfway through a game - as those who can watch only on Saturdays must now do - is not the same as being there on the first day.

Decisions like this make members wonder if those who run cricket ever watch the game as the paying spectator does; or if they see it merely from inside a committee room, with its attendant attractions. Perhaps, on the other hand, the committeemen are looking out at the sparse crowd, then at the cost of running a county club, and are asking themselves what matters most.

More and more I prefer watching a day of county cricket to a day of Test match cricket. Nevertheless I can't help wondering what the rationale is for this April to September circuit that is so erratically supported; is at times no more than a meeting place for pensioners and a refuge for the truant. Benson and Hedges Cup games, played in April and May, often draw poor attendances, and the Sunday League is no longer the attraction it once was.

Yet this summer, eighteen countries will endeavour to keep the show on the road and off the breadline. Why? Because it has always been thus? Because it is part of the fabric of English life? Or because no-one will stand back and say that the time has come to overhaul the professional game?

Yet another working party

Last summer the TCCB set up a working party, under the chairmanship of M.P. Murray, the Middlesex chairman, to investigate the state of the first-class game in England. This could be interpreted as recognition of the need for change in the game, were it not for the fact that, only six years ago, the counties chose not to implement the major recommendations of the Palmer Report into the Standards of Play of English Cricket in Test and First-class County Cricket.

Establishing working parties and commissions is an easy way of persuading people that something is being done, even when nothing is done as result of them.

The county chairmen who make the decisions at the TCCB meeting will, on past performance, vote for logos on the outfield ahead of any radical changes to the structure of county cricket. By changes I don't mean uncovering pitches for County Championship matches, four-day games only in the Championship, or even a more meaningful formula for Championship cricket; rather, I mean making changes which would provide a dynamic, viable circuit for the professional game in the 1990s and beyond.

The counties concede their birthright

Such changes would almost certainly bring about the demise of some counties, but then it seems to me that county affiliation, with regard to players, becomes more nebulous every year. If the regulations governing the qualification and registration of players are anything to go by, the counties recognise this themselves. Up to 1991, a first-class county had first claim on a cricketer who qualified for it by birth, or one year's residence, or by his father having played regularly for that county. Not any more.

Cricketers registered for a county, and cricketers under sixteen with close cricketing connections with first-class county, may not be approached without that county's permission. All others are now open to offers from interested parties. Lord Harris must be turning in his grave at the prospect of cricketers flitting back and forth across the Forest Hill Road with impunity. The change in the regulations took me by surprise, for I thought the counties valued their locally produced players more than that.

The status of Oxford and Cambridge cricket

Surely the time has come for the TCCB to examine the first-class status of cricket at Oxford and Cambridge Universities. The cricket played is not first-class; it is, as often as not, barely Second Eleven standard. I know there are those who defend the retention of first-class status for a number of reasons: tradition, the facilities at Oxford and Cambridge, and the advantage young cricketers have, being able to play against county cricketers at such nurseries. Yet more young cricketers, who will go on to county cricket, would benefit from an early introduction to first-class cricket if Durham University were accorded first-class status.

That university has facilities for first-class cricket, and in county cricket today its alumni outnumber those of Oxford and Cambridge combined by two to one. For every Atherton or Crawley who remains in the public eye by playing his cricket at Fenner's or in The Parks, others of promise remain virtually out of sight for three years while they attend, say, Durham or Loughborough or Swansea.

This, however, is a side-issue to my main argument, which is that the cricket played by the majority of young men at Oxford and Cambridge does not merit first-class status. Occasionally a batsman shines, but the bowling has become embarrassingly weak.

The International Cricket Council, while leaving it to the Test match countries to decide the status of their cricket, none the less reminds them that the interest of first-class cricket will be served by ensuring that first-class status is not accorded to any match in which one or other of the teams taking part cannot on a strict interpretation of the definition be adjudged first-class.

Investing in England's success

There are days at the county games, too, when it is reasonable to ask if one is watching first-class cricket. But as often as not those players will prove their worth another day. The standard of county cricket, however, is no longer sufficiently high to allow players to move effortlessly from the county game to Test cricket.

Test cricket today requires a different approach, and given the importance of the England team's success to the economy of the domestic game, the effort that now goes into preparing England teams should not be undervalued. It may be pragmatic, but it is purposeful and it is producing results. For that, English cricket owes more to Micky Stewart's vision and determination than is usually allowed.

Five years ago he outlined what he saw as the problems of English cricket at international level, and he did not see answers to those problems within the county structure. His solution, if he could achieve it, was specialist preparation for players: something that would bridge the gap between county cricket and international cricket.

The benefit of such preparation was brought into focus by England's early success in the West Indies in 1990. Now, through the sponsorship of Whittingdale, a group of City investment managers, the senior England side and the A team are able to prepare thoroughly before going on tour. Prior to the winter's tours, for example, there were twice-weekly practice sessions at Lord's, The Oval, Headingley, Lilleshall and Cheltenham, as well as teach-ins with specialist coaches. Finally, the teams had four days at Lilleshall before setting off. In addition to the tourists, players on the fringe of selection were also invited to attend.

The sponsorship, furthermore, has enabled the team managers to video players at practice, and to build up a dossier on their progress. It is the kind of thing much admired when other countries do it, yet there is a feeling in some circles that this extraordinary preparation should not be necessary for English cricketers. Well, it shouldn't be. It wouldn't be if the counties were willing to implement a county programme which would be a natural stepping-stone to international cricket.

A challenge for Test cricket

If I put great stress on the international game, it is because there lies the future of cricket in terms of public perception. More than likely there will be too much of it - there already is - and both goose and golden egg will be consumed in the gluttony. How many years are left for Test cricket if crowds continue to decline, as they do in countries other than England? The return of South Africa to the international fold presents both an opportunity and a challenge. The opportunity lies in a population deprived of international cricket for twenty years. The challenge will be in sustaining an audience for Test cricket after the initial enthusiasm is satisfied.

The new generation, unaccustomed to the gradual development of a Test match, may wonder what all the fuss was about. A one-day international under lights, on a warm evening flavoured by steaks cooking on a barbecue, may well be what they want. Cricket currently needs the variety that South Africa will bring, but as the new South Africans seek their place in the sun, they could also quicken the erosion of what one increasingly thinks of as traditional cricket.

It is said that support for cricket continues to fall away in the West Indies. This is worrying. The West Indies team is in a state of transition, with those young players coming through still to establish themselves. As more and more people in the Caribbean look towards the United States for interests and influence, cricket must produce new heroes and counter-attractions.

World cricket cannot afford a second-best West Indies side. The one that is now breaking up has been one of the great attractions of the past decade, producing the fastest bowlers and some of the most breathtaking batsmen.

ICC takes action on bouncers

It will be interesting to see how the West Indians react to the new ICC regulations concerning over-rates and short-pitched bowling, both of which have been integral to their game plan in their years at the top. They have not been so formidable in one-day cricket since the lawmakers clipped their wings.

Personally, I do not like the restriction of one bouncer per over to one batsman. Not that I favour six an over, or even two. But this new limitation takes from the game a psychological element that made it intriguing. Now, as he wonders what the bowler will deliver after a bouncer, the batsman can be fairly sure that it won't be another bouncer, and I believe the game is poorer for that.

On the other hand it will be richer if batting is not confined entirely to the back foot. There was a stroke last summer, a straight drive by Botham on the front foot, which reminded me how beautiful the game can be. As long as cricket needs spectators, it has to provide entertainment; and something did have to be done to reduce the amount of short-pitched bowling, given the weakness of umpires to take the necessary action. It just seems a pity that it had to be by yet more legislation.

Similar regret can be expressed about the need for a Code of Conduct, details of which appear in the ICC section of this Almanack. There was never any reason for cricketers to behave like members of the House of Commons. Cricket should be a civilised game and a civilising one, and if that sounds high-falutin I make no apologies. What happened in India, during the final of the Duleep Trophy of 1990-91, when a bowler attacked a batsman with a stump, should never have happened in a game of cricket. The fact that the attack was not without provocation only intensifies the wrong. As for spectators in New Zealand aping Australian manners during a one-day international in Auckland....

A parting shot

Much has been written in recent years about the decline of cricket in schools. This does not necessarily mean that the game is losing interested young players, however, for the responsibility for their development has moved to other areas, such as local clubs and the county associations. There are good young cricketers in England, and it was encouraging to see how well the England Under-19 players fought back to level the series against their Australian counterparts, after being drubbed in the first Test at Leicester.

In some ways I am less concerned about the state of cricket in schools than I am about the state of education there, if the replies for the Almanack's schools section is any indication. Some 78 per cent of schools last year were unable to fill in the form correctly; in 32 per cent of the forms returned, there were numerical errors; almost seven per cent of the schools made mistakes in spelling the names of their opponents. In some instances, what passed for handwriting was beyond even the skill of our typesetter.

This is not a new phenomenon, but that should be a worry more than a consolation. Reviewing the schools 30 years ago for Wisden, E.M. Wellings noted that some of the forms reached the editor appearing more like jig-saw puzzles than cricket statistics. Most remarkable was the list which arranged its batsmen so that the number one found himself placed sixth, his average of 59 following others of 14, 15 and 17. That certainly sounds familiar. Given the restriction on space in the Almanack, I am tempted to include only those schools whose forms are 100 per cent correct. This may smack of Ă©litism, but as most of the schools are of the fee-paying variety, such a charge will carry little weight.

© John Wisden & Co