Please Don't Damage our County Game Any Further

There are so many things that the true cricket fan should be concerned about at the moment – most of them stemming from the ECB but the statement earlier this week by Wasim Khan that the latest working party review is seriously considering getting rid of two divisions in the county championship is to my mind the most serious.

Wasim Khan, the Chief Executive of Second division Leicestershire let us not forget, said that the current format is creating short-termism in the red ball game. That is an alarming statement and, in my opinion, underlies a completely different set of motives which I believe will harm the long-term future of first-class cricket. We as supporters of our counties need to make our voice heard.
Let’s examine that statement in a bit more detail and tease out the actual meaning behind those words. Mr Khan is notably vague in what he means by short-termism. He states, “We’ve seen examples of that in terms of players being brought in to support promotion and relegation. We’re a prime example: at Leicestershire we’ve lost players in the past as they felt they had to go and play Division One cricket.”
Now what that screams at me is that his real issue is that his second division Leicestershire side have lost out on talent who have wanted (or perhaps been told by the England set-up) that they need to be playing first division cricket. That isn’t short-termism that is meritocracy. If clubs like Leicestershire want to stop this happening they need to be more successful on the field to retain their talent. A large part of the reason for a number of second division clubs not being successful is that financially they can’t compete at the higher level of the county game.
It is not for me to comment or even draw conclusions on the reasons for the abject financial position of other counties which means they cannot compete but it is no coincidence that a significant proportion of the clubs currently in division two have experienced well-reported financial issues in the last few years.
So perhaps one of the things Mr Khan’s group needs to look at is the funding structure of the county game in an attempt to achieve a fairer allocation of the riches that come from international cricket. Let me be clear I’m not advocating some altruistic bale out counties that have been poorly run financially, rather a mechanism which reduces the financial dominance of the counties that host test cricket to the mutual benefit of all.
So what at face value seemed to be an intention to address the reasons for the county game being responsible for the abject nature of the England team is to my mind no more than a fox-shaped begging bowl emanating from Grace Road and a chief executive who realises his county will not be competing in the higher division for the foreseeable future.
Leaving aside the real reasons why county cricket isn’t preparing England players for a moment – don’t worry I’m coming back to them very soon – you have only to look at my beloved home county of Somerset to see how long-term planning, a strong youth and academy set up and sound financial management pay dividends in the current set up. There is clear evidence in Taunton that is possible to run a club that is financially successful without hosting test cricket, while at the same time maintain a place in division one.
Somerset have had three players make their debut in England in the last 8 months. All products of a talent pipeline that is going from strength to strength. And all this at a club which has the longest unbroken run in the top division and has totally reimagined (I’m not going to say redeveloped) its ground to make it one of the jewels on the circuit.
Now I know some are going to accuse me of writing this through maroon and black tinted spectacles – an accusation I’m happy to accept – but just ask yourselves, with reference to the short-termism accusations when Somerset, for example, blooded Dom Bess. The answer – in 2016 in the midst of a title challenge. And in 2017 when the competition for Somerset was at the wrong end of the table Bess along with Craig Overton and Jack Leach were key components in a side that avoided the drop alongside Ed Byrom and George Bartlett batting 2 and 3 is a side without overseas help.
Solving the problem of counties (who are financially able – there we go again) bringing overseas players in at crucial times of the season is easy if the ECB have the stomach to stand up to the likes of Surrey. It doesn’t require a change to the structure of the county game, it just needs to the ECB to impose a limit on the number of overseas players a club can use in a season and perhaps a minimum contract duration for those players. Whether they have the resolve to do this remains to be seen but I think it unlikely.
The introduction of 4-day cricket was intended to make the county game more like test cricket than its 3-day predecessor. I don’t think anyone can argue that this has undoubtedly been a success, those of us who remember the formulaic nature of the 3-day game with its 100 over first innings limits will agree that the current format offers much greater tactical flexibility.
However, the question of the quality of pitches still has to be addressed. Marcus Trescothick referred to this during “Tuffers & Vaughan” on BBC 5 Live earlier this week. It is clear from his comments that the feeling among players on the county circuit is that a considerable amount of work needs to be done to get playing surfaces to the required standard.
Although, as Trescothick conceded, the squeezing of the championship into the extremes of the season with ever earlier starts, later finishes and the reduction of games in the period between June and August does make it harder to play championship cricket on “test-like” surfaces.
Returning to the question of the England team as I promised I would. I don’t think for one minute there is a direct correlation between the performance of the England team and the unsuitability of the current structure of county cricket. It has always been the tired refrain from the cricketing hierarchy and the media but it does not stand scrutiny.
I wrote here a couple of weeks ago that I was getting to the end of my tether with TMS talking down the county game. I strongly believe that a number of the division one sides could out-perform the current England team either head to head or against other international sides. A large part of the problem lies in selection, let’s hope that Ed Smith’s new approach will make the England team that is selected a more relevant representation of county cricket, based on merit.
The handicap that the 4-day game currently has is its scheduling. It is never going to be possible to replicate test match surfaces in England in county games starting in mid-April or late September, let alone overseas conditions. If you truly want county cricket to do that schedule the games in the heart of the summer when county groundsmen have a chance to produce a pitch that encourages the quicks early on, the spinners as the pitch wears, and provides true and consistent pace and bounce for batsmen.
The hint in Mr Khan’s comments that scrapping the two division format is likely would be a massive backward step, whether we go back to the old format or some conference system. I wonder if the ECB will rename the Championship “Major League Cricket” to make it more attractive to the peripheral audience.
How long would it be before we hear Messrs Boycott and Vaughan making a comment about a newly capped England player who has failed in his first couple of tests that making runs against Derbyshire and Northants isn’t the type of preparation required for a test against the Aussies.
The two division set up was designed to provide elite level county cricket in Division One as close as possible to test cricket. The whole point of this set up is to have the best players playing against each other week in week out. Mr Khan needs to remember this when he uses his definition of short-termism in future.
What is self-evident to all (apart from the ECB) is that introducing a new competition just won’t be possible without irreparably damaging the county game. It is not over dramatising to say this will be the beginning of the end for County Cricket as we know it. I hope that Mr Khan’s terms of reference include advising the ECB on the true cricketing merits of this ridiculous plan. Why can’t the powers-that-be come up with a solution that builds on the hugely successful T20 competition which, remember, already comprises each team playing a minimum of 14 games. There is no cricketing logic to “The Hundred” which requires further marginalisation or devaluation of the championship to accommodate it. Let’s all agree it is simply a construct of the non-cricketing minds of the marketing team and throw it into the nearest rubbish bin in St John’s Wood.
It is noticeable that Khan’s working party does not include any current players. Why no Paul Collingwood, Darren Stevens, Nick Compton or Marcus Trescothick? Yet up pop Ashley Giles and Hugh Morris! Encouragingly, there is a reference to participation from us, the humble supporter when Khan says, “And yes, we’re definitely looking at canvassing the views of spectators. We’re looking at setting up an email address. We’ll encourage people to send their views in. A lot of good people watch cricket and have for a long time. Let’s get their views on what they think would work.
I feel very strongly that we all need to act to make our voices heard. I’ll leave it to individuals to read the interview in full (there is a link at the start of this blog post and form their own opinion on what needs to be fed back to this group but I’m happy to share my thoughts:

  1. The existing 2 division structure needs to be retained;
  2. The “blocks” for the T20 and One-Day Cups need to fit around the championship not the other way round;
  3. The calendar needs to have a better structure with 4-day games starting on the same day of the week (Thursday) so the casual fan knows if he goes to a game on a Friday he will see the second day’s play);
  4. If Minor County participation is to be encouraged take the One-Day cup back to the old B&H format with group stages at the start of the season before the championship and then a knock out phase with a mid-summer final;
  5. Ensure the bulk of championship games are played after 1 May;
  6. Scrap the “Hundred” and make the T20 Blast more attractive to overseas players to raise the overall standard.

First published on The InCider on 7th June