Trouble in the shires

You may have noticed, unless you are one of our many international readers, that it’s been a little bit damp in England and Wales over the last month or so. You may also have noticed, unless your eyes have been firmly fixed on the 51 matches and counting (51!?) in the IPL, that the County Championship has just finished its fourth round of matches, having started in earnest on Thursday 5th April, the earliest start to a season ever. Given that cavemen have been playing with sticks and rocks for approximately 35,000 years (it wasn’t known as cricket then, of course, but the bloodcurdling cry of “HAAAAZZZZATTT!”, as popularised by the Brothers Akmal is barely unchanged from those primitive days), such an early start says something about the state of the modern game. You might have thought someone ought to have noticed that snow on the ground is not exactly conducive to good cricket.

If you, dear reader, did indeed think that, then congratulations, you’re more intelligent than the entire ECB, who seem to have got their concepts of the English weather from the top of biscuit tins and chocolate boxes, where the sun is always shining and passers-by greet the vicar as he wends his way through the village on his bicycle.

Of course the weather has been bad, even by British standards. We’re not saying that that makes playing in April idiotic – that would be as ridiculous as questioning why the professionals weren’t playing in March when the temperatures were 20+ degrees. What it reminds us, though, is that our weather is a fickle and changeable beast and that the ECB have been pushing their luck over the last few years by playing chicken with it, seeing how early they can go without getting caught out. Looks like they lost big time this year.

However, rather than spending an entire post laughing at the ECB for being so silly (and we could), we want to look at why they have felt the need to push back the boundaries of the county season to the extent that they have. It’s all about something called ‘scheduling’. You see, the ECB, having given birth to the little sprog that is T20 cricket, raised and nurtured it like any good parent. However, India took the teenage T20, gave it some Jagerbombs and introduced it to some dancing girls and turned it into the whizzbang moneyspinner it is now. The ECB, saw this and, probably with cartoon dollar signs in their eyes and a ‘kerching’ sound effect, realised that they could line their pockets by doing the same. So now we have a dedicated period in the summer for the ECB’s favourite tousle-haired youngster, which has pushed the County Championship (the well-regarded older brother) and the CB40 (the undersized runt of the litter) to the fringes.

The trouble is that the entire T20 whirligig has had to be shoehorned into the timeframe that was previously reserved for the thoroughly drab Benson & Hedges 50-over cup. When you add to this that India came along and dreamt up the Champions League, which the ECB, not wanting to tread on India’s toes, grudgingly agreed to bolt on to the end of the season, everything’s become rather squeezed. It seems the Champions League is likely to be dropped, but even so, the county season is being forced to wear trousers several sizes too small for it, and they’re splitting at the seams.

Now, to their partial credit, the ECB did notice this problem (although that didn’t meant they’ve done anything to effectively solve it). They commissioned the Morgan review this past offseason, which recommended some pretty swingeing cuts to the fabric of the County Championship amongst other things. However, only this week the players have come out and categorically rejected the suggestions put forward.

So where are we now? Well there’s a bit of a tug-of-war going on.

On one hand is the County Championship. The players want it to remain intact and integral to the domestic season. They know better than anyone that a strong championship is vital to England’s success in the international arena and, above all, it’s the cricket they love to play. It’s the real deal. The vast majority of cricketers, whether amateur or professional, want to play two-innings, multi-day cricket. The ECB realise the need for a strong championship as well, but the little devil on their shoulder quite rightly points out that the County Championship is to money what One Direction is to musical talent.

On the other hand is T20. The players like it because it earns them money and exposure and gives them a chance to earn a quick buck for hitting sixes, but there isn’t much more to it than that. We may be making assumptions, but we reckon you’d be hard-pressed to find more than a team’s worth of players in the English game for whom playing T20 is their ultimate aspiration. The ECB, however, love it. It brings in gates, sponsorship, glamour and fast-paced action and, to their credit, has been a massive success story. Its influence in reviving interest in domestic cricket is undeniable. However, its appeal is not universal and its effect on the blue riband Test side is not wholly positive. Furthermore, it has multiplied largely unchecked, to the extent that there are now slightly too many unmemorable group games. A careful line has had to be toed to avoid alienating the archetypal older-generation county fan and expanding the tournament much more would be to risk boring those who do like it.

Then there’s the CB40, which is hopeless. For more on that, see yesterday’s post

So what’s to be done about the uncomfortable situation? Well, we doubt we can come up with a better idea than those paid large sums by the ECB (although if anyone from the ECB does want to pay us large sums to look into the matter, we daresay we could try). For us, the key is to retain the integrity of the County Championship, whilst introducing a new generation to its delights through the medium of T20. This could probably be achieved with just a few tweaks.

One thing that has long been mooted is the reduction of the current eighteen major counties to make the fixture calendar more manageable. Some of this may occur via natural selection – because the real dosh is to be made from hosting international games, many of the poorer counties have been borrowing far beyond their means to try and get noticed by the ECB with shiny new stadiums, to the extent that they can barely pay their players. It’s unsustainable – there are just too few internationals to ensure that everyone can get a return on their investment, and a county is bound to go bust or have to be bailed out sooner rather than later. Looking elsewhere, Australia seem to manage just fine with six state sides, and whilst we wouldn’t advocate quite such a brutal cull, a moderate reduction would be a good thing. Frankly, the likes of Northants and Derbyshire could vanish and hardly anybody would notice. It’s an unwelcome proposition because of the history attached to the county sides, but the main difficulty with the idea is that cutting the number of counties would require a vote by them, which brings the words ‘turkeys’ and ‘Christmas’ to mind. The most sensible option would be to combine counties in regional groups, but that’s not something they’re likely to agree to either.

We’re not too fussed what the solution is, so long as it is for the long term good of the game and not just aimed at short-sighted moneymaking. And so long as it doesn’t involve the season starting in January. To be honest, we’re not entirely confident.

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