The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) proposed last week that first class county cricket at the weekends should be no more (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/cricket/counties/9612699/ECB-plans-to-deprive-fans-of-weekend-games.html). After publicity by the Daily Telegraph and anger amongst the counties, who asked when people who worked would be able to watch cricket, the ECB dropped the truly mad idea and agreed that 14 of the 16 Championship 4-day games would start on Sundays. (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/sport/cricket/counties/9618944/Sundays-best-for-start-of-County-Championship-after-ECB-rethink.html). This was welcome, not least because it guarantees, weather permitting, a full day’s play in Championship matches at the weekend, but the structure of English county cricket is still a mess.
The dividing of the 18 first-class counties into two divisions for Championship cricket and conferences for 40 over and Twenty/20 games has resulted in county followers not having the opportunity to see all counties playing one another each year. In addition, with most Championship matches starting on Wednesdays, often the Saturday (the fourth day) has arrived with little or no cricket to watch. In recent seasons there have also been long periods when no Championship cricket has been played because the Twenty/20 competition has been stuck in the middle of the season to the exclusion of Championship cricket. To accommodate this the season has begun earlier and earlier, with the 2012 season seeing its first round of Championship matches begin on 5 April, a time when the weather is often inclement and batting conditions unreasonably difficult. The result has been that the Championship has been squeezed into April and May with a second bout in August and September. This makes members or would-be members, wonder why they are paying their membership fee, while the fragmented fixture lists which results confuses and discourages the non-member from going regularly.
There has also the disruptive employment of foreign players, whether official or Kolpaks. Such players are increasingly being brought in in large numbers for ever smaller periods of time. Nor, because of the Indian Premier League Twenty/20 competition taking most of the best foreign players for much of the season, is the quality of those employed generally high. These practices weaken the idea of county identification, for example, how can a Middlesex member feel that it is their county when the side frequently contains three South Africans (Malan, Berg, Dexter), two or three of Australians (Robson, Rogers, Crook) and a West Indian (Collymore)? The employment of such players also blocks the way for young English players, prevents a clear career structure for the English pro who is likely to play little or no international cricket (the vast majority in the nature of things because only eleven can play for England) and allows foreign players, especially young players still to make their way in international cricket, to gain valuable experience of English conditions. There is very little reciprocity from foreign countries who allow few English players to turn out in their first class competitions (English players could readily do so because foreign seasons occur in the English winter. )
The other ECB created problems are the overload of international cricket (too many matches and too much travelling not too much cricket) and the failure to promote Championship cricket. In 2012 seven Tests, twelve ODIs and four Twenty/20s. That is far too many. I realise the ECB are tied into TV contracts for a few years, but after that they should aim for seven per season, with these divided four and three matches series. The only exception should be the Ashes which should remain at five. (In Ashes years the weakest Test nations could be given two match series). ODIs should be limited to three match series and the Twenty/20 international games held at the same number. The ODI games should be played before each Test series as an appetiser; the twenty/20s games after the Tests. That would most strikingly separate the three forms of cricket and give each the greatest impact. Even before the negotiation of new TV contracts something could be done about the sequence of ODIs, Twenty/20s and Tests.
As for promoting the County game, the ECB could allow those who have purchased tickets for England games – whether Tests, ODIs and Twenty/20 – to present their England ticket stub at a Championship match and gain free entry for the day for one adult and two under 16s - this would require next to no further administration or cost. ( I raised the matter with Tim Lamb in the early 2000s when he was Chief Executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board but nothing came of it). Even though such spectators would get in free, they would spend money on refreshments and in the club shop. As several hundred thousand people go to England games each year, many more than once, the potential increase in Championship crowds is large. Experience of County Cricket by those who would not normally go, especially the young, would be likely to draw a fair number back as paying customers. But even if that did not happen, the addition of large numbers of extra people going once or twice for free would greatly improve the atmosphere at Championship games and make them more attractive to sponsors.
What else can be done to improve matters in the County game? I suggest this:
1. Scrap the divisions in all forms of the game. This would improve the spectator interest because all counties could be seen at least once every two years playing against a member’s team at the home ground of the member. It would also make scheduling much easier.
2. Have only three competitions, the Championship, 50-overs and Twenty/20.
3. The season to run from the last week in April to the second week in September. That would give 20 weeks to fit everything into.
4. Play the 17 championship matches once a week between the last week in April to the end of August. These to be played from Saturday to Tuesday.
5. Turn the twenty/twenty competition in a league . These games to be played on Fridays. The four top teams to play in a retained finals’ day in Sept.
6. Make the 50-over competition a straight knockout The four bottom championship teams from the previous season to play off with the winners progressing to the competition. This would give 16 entrants which would mean a maximum of 4 games.
7. A 4 day North v South match in the middle of the season to mimic the old Gentlemen v Players match.
8. A 4 day Champion county v the Rest match in September.
9. Ban all foreigners, Kolpak or otherwise, from the English FC game.
10. The ECB to release Centrally contracted players for all Championship games when they are no playing Tests and there is a reasonable period of time between one Test and the next. The frequent injuries, inconsistent play of both England bowlers and batsmen and fallible fielding recently suggests such players are suffering from too little not too much cricket.
The county fixture list would be simple under such a regime. The Championship game and the twenty/20 match would be played over five consecutive days on the days and at times most likely to attract spectators. As the Championship match and the Twenty/20 would be played at the same ground each week , five days on the trot should not be too onerous because there would be no long drives or settling into new hotels between the Championship and Twenty/20 games. A county would play eight Championship and Twenty/20 home games one year and nine the next. The County fixture list would be the same each year with each county playing the same county at the same time each year.
My proposals would result in slightly less cricket because I have reduced the competitions to three and made one of them a straight knock-out. But travel and accommodation expenses would be much reduced because of the playing of a Championship match and a Twenty/20 game at the same venue each week. Counties should increase their shop takings and probably improve their sponsorship deals because of the larger crowds.
County cricket should not be seen as simply a breeding ground for England cricketers, both because it is a worthwhile game in its own right and because the experience of the West Indies and Australia in the past twenty years shows the danger of killing the golden goose by not feeding it. Both the West Indies and Australia experienced long periods of dominance before falling, especially in the West Indies’ case, rapidly and alarmingly into mediocrity. Both had the same likely cause of their fall from grace: they did not nurture their domestic cricket during their period of dominance. England needs to take action now to ensure County Cricket remains strong.