Big Five make a rich pitch

Derek Pringle says the counties must ensure reform benefits the game
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LET US get one thing straight. If sneak previews of the proposals attributed to the Big Five - those counties with Test match grounds (Middlesex are not included because they are tenants at Lord's) - prove correct when they are revealed on Thursdaythen they would appear to be more about making money than raising the standard of English cricket. More about self-interest than altruism.

The changes likely to be proposed are threefold: the formation of a new board to replace the TCCB, streamlined and based on a central group of managers answerable in part to the counties; using aggressive marketing to promote the professional game; reorganising the counties into a 38- team four- division championship with promotion and relegation between the top two groups and adapting a one-day competition to include teams from all over the nation in much the same way as football's FA Cup operates.

If true, it does not require a genius to work out how smaller leagues would suit clubs with Test match grounds, especially now the counties in question are playing better than they have for a while. Surrey lose money on every day of county cricket that they stage at the Foster's Oval, a predicament not helped by the pounds 2m they have just had to spend on the stadium to conform with the Safety of Sports Grounds Act.

It is understandable that they want a healthy return quickly, a chance that only arrives during Test matches and one-day internationals. Any programme that reduces the amount of county games, and therefore the losses, will always be in the interests of a club such as Surrey.

But as non-Test match counties will be only too quick to point out, clubs that host internationals already make huge profits from these matches as it is, and then complain over what they see as the unfair redistribution of Test funds to every county, including those with far lower running costs.

When England play the West Indies at the Oval later in the summer the ground authority will only hand over the admission takings to the TCCB, say about an average of pounds 25 per person. But by charging pounds 280 per person per day for one of the hundreds of places in private boxes, Surrey will be making huge profits for themselves.

Add to this the average charge of pounds 10,000 for a season-long advertising board, compared with the pounds 2,000 a county such as Kent or Essex would charge, and the minnows will feel that the Big Five are already doing quite all right from cricket without tilting the rules further in their favour.

As things stand the vocal five, Lancashire, Yorkshire, Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire and Surrey, are likely to be outvoted if the proposals are put to the TCCB's 20 members. In fact, there is about as much chance of the proposals being accepted, as there is of Ray Illingworth slapping Mike Atherton on the back and saying: "You were right about Gatting not going to Australia. Now what are you having to drink?"

Some believe that if the suggestions are blown out of the water the Big Five may try to break away from the TCCB and set up their own super league and Test series. This is unlikely to succeed, as the TCCB is a member of the ICC, which controls Test cricket on a global basis, and in any case the lucrative television deals have all been signed with the TCCB. It seems a pity that this disunity may hold up even longer the change that is necessary.

Last week, Atherton and Graham Gooch both spoke of the lack of competitiveness and mental toughness in English cricket, particularly at county level. Undoubtedly cricket in Britain pays the price, as the manufacturing industry has done before it, for being developed earlier than in other countries.

What is needed is a compromise: a regional competition comprising six or seven teams played over four days that superimposes itself on the present county system minus two of its one-day competitions could offer a way forward. The counties, with reduced staffs, would act as feeders to the regional sides, whose players would only play in a single one-day competition, and if selected, Test matches in addition to the four-dayers. It is a system similar to that advocated by the ex-England player Raman Subba Row, a former chairman of the TCCB. The system offers more rigorous competition than at present with the added advantage of not alienating the poorer counties.