Appeal of two divisions spreading in the shires

David Llewellyn says it will be back to Plan A for cricket's County Championship
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The Independent Online
It is beginning to look increasingly likely that cricket's County Championship will become a two-division competition. Plans to change the championship into a three-conference format are expected to meet widespread opposition when the first-class counties and MCC meet at Lord's today for a forum to discuss in detail the England and Wales Cricket Board's blueprint for the future.

The ECB's lengthy document, brainchild of the board chairman Lord MacLaurin and entitled Raising the Standard, proposed, among many changes, a restructured county championship featuring three "conferences" of six teams apiece.

However, the blueprint has aroused suspicion, antipathy and anxiety. Rumour is rife that the forum will end the divide by rejecting the conference idea and opting for a two-division system, something which, prior to the report's publication, was anathema to many counties.

While the wealthier counties would prefer a two-division competition with relegation and promotion, the poorer clubs, out on the financial and geographical periphery, fear that such a simplistic split would make little difference to the quality of the cricketers being produced. They also fear that the poorer counties would merely languish at the bottom of the Second Division, where there would be no relegation. They would just stagnate, unable, because of their position, to attract either young talent or the sponsors' and advertisers' cash to support anything like a competitive playing staff.

However, Surrey's chief executive, Paul Sheldon, feels that the forum will reject the three-conference plan. "The groundswell is that a three- conference structure is rather complicated and meaningless," he explained, "while the status quo is also unacceptable. A two-divisional thing is more likely to be adopted, with promotion and relegation, two or three up and two or three down, and tomorrow's meeting will presumably produce some form of consensus, which can then be put to the board when we meet to discuss the blueprint formally, later this month."

Somerset's chief executive, Peter Anderson, who called the forum, denied that today's meeting had been called to reject the MacLaurin plan and go for what amounted to the lesser of two evils.

"That is not the idea at all," he said. "We felt that we would not have had a chance to find out what other counties thought. That would have been a recipe for disaster just to pitch up cold on 15 September, when we are to meet with Lord MacLaurin and come up with possible alternatives and amendments. We wanted to find out what our neighbours thought."

Somerset obtained backing from the requisite five further counties (Leicestershire, Hamp- shire, Gloucestershire, North- amptonshire and Sussex) to call the forum, at which they also wanted to reflect the opinion of their members, and to that end the counties set aside time for a debate to give members a say.

Hampshire's chief executive, Tony Baker, said: "We need a frank exchange of views. As for us wanting a two-division championship, I don't think that is the case. Originally it was a minority in favour of that format anyway and I have no reason to think anything has changed. But this is something that needs discussion, because we seem to be heading, at breakneck speed, towards doing something in a tearing hurry. And the First XI programme is only one aspect of it anyway. There is also concern about Second XI cricket."

The report includes a plan to scrap the Second XI championship and instead incorporate it in a 38-strong competition run over two days. But Sheldon feels it would work against the thrust of the blueprint. "A two-day competition is not what is needed. We think the transition needs to be longer and there should be more four-day cricket."

Surrey, like some other counties, feel that the ECB plan calls for too much one-day cricket, especially since it was thought that the object of the exercise was to improve England's Test cricket. Sheldon added: "We think it would be better to have the number of games in the proposed two-division national one-day league reduced to 17 from the projected 25."

The 50-over national league would be formed by combining the Benson and Hedges Cup and the AXA Life Sunday League and is seen as a money-spinner courtesy of broadcasting deals, but as Anderson pointed out: "It is going to be difficult to implement over the next couple of years. We are contracted to AXA Life for the Sunday League and Benson and Hedges for the knock- out cup until 1998. You then have the World Cup in 1999, and there is every chance that the public will be suffering from TV one-day cricket fatigue after that and might not show too much interest in the proposed 50-over national league."

County members have not been too moved by what is planned if Sussex's experience of their open meeting last Saturday is anything to go by. A Sussex committee member, Roger Dakin, said yesterday: "It was a quiet meeting. I had the impression that a lot had not read the report, or had only read parts of it. But overall what did emerge was that they were concerned about the preponderance of one-day cricket to the exclusion of the four- day game."

Hampshire reported a muted response when they invited members to communicate their thoughts on the blueprint, although, like Sussex, they wanted more four-day cricket and less limited overs.

Anderson feels more time is needed. He said: "If there is a real desire to have promotion and relegation then why put off the evil day? This blueprint was seen as a compromise, a halfway house on the way to something like that. Why not come up with a plan for the year 2000? It will give everyone a chance to come up with something that should work and should please the majority."

How the new season might look

County Championship

Four days (dovetailing with Test series).

Two Divisions of nine teams, playing each other home and away (16 matches).

Optional Championship play-off between top two teams in Division One: one match.

Automatic relegation for bottom two in Division One.

Automatic promotion for top two in Division Two.

Play-off: Seventh in Division One versus third in Division Two.

One-day cricket

NatWest Trophy: 60 overs (unchanged from present). No day-night matches.

National League: 50 overs; two conferences of nine teams to play each other once and then also play the sides in the other conference: 17 matches.

Title play-off between top side in each conference: one match.

Day-night matches: Early-season dovetailing with Texaco internationals or equivalent.