Clarity the victim as vision of future is unveiled

The future of English cricket was outlined yesterday, but its proposals have not so much heralded a Bright New Dawn as a foggy compromise, particularly where first-class cricket is concerned. As this is where the power in the game lies, Lord MacLaurin and his team will have to wait until 15 September before knowing whether their plan will be accepted or not.

Plans, such as the Murray and Acfield Reports, have been consigned to the dustbin before and, although many of the county representatives appeared mollified by its content, there will be five weeks of lobbying to ensure it has every chance of survival.

Delivered under the banner "Raising the Standard," MacLaurin's blueprint has set about streamlining the game from the grass-roots up, so that talented youngsters can follow a well established path to the top. But although its scope is admirable, its clarity is not, and one cannot envisage a new-look County Championship which revolves around three conferences, with the teams in each conference not playing one another, pulling in renewed support from a sceptical public.

Indeed it is primarily at the top end of the game where the change has been most convoluted. The Championship, as old, if not quite as widely revered as the Queen Mother, will now be decided after 14 matches or 56 days' cricket, 12 more than in Australia's Sheffield Shield.

If accepted, the system will be in operation next season, with the composition of the new conferences determined by a complex system of seeding and regional bias from finishing positions the previous year. In its favour, it is true that the proposed system might provide more meaningful cricket later in the season, and give the players 12 fewer days of cricket than the current system.

Even more puzzling, given that one-day cricket was seen by many as the devil in cricket's midst, is the revamp of the one-day programme. With the Benson and Hedges Cup as well the Sunday League due to be phased out after next year, a fifty over competition known as the National League will be started as a two-division competition, with promotion and relegation, and with the divisions decided by the finishing positions in next season's AXA Sunday League.

The one-day programme will involve each team playing those in its own division twice and the sides in the other division once - a total of 25 games. With the NatWest to remain, though as a 50-over knock-out with an increased scope of 60 teams (like football's FA Cup), most county sides will in fact be playing more one-day cricket and not less.

The reason for this is that one-day cricket is seen as the game's provider. As a former businessman, MacLaurin is keen for counties to have the means to be more financially self-sufficient. To that end, counties will be given a certain freedom to hold their National League matches when they see fit, which could include having them on weekdays under lights or at weekends.

It is even feasible that little festivals of one-day cricket could take place over bank holiday weekends. But if the financial aspect is enticing, the logistics may provide problems as teams shuffle their fixtures to maximise their gate.

Where the plan does have great merit is in attempting to improve the feeder system for talented players into the first-class game. By 2000, the current county second XIs, as well as the minor counties, will play in a 38-team County Board competition played over two days. Crucially this will also provide scope for the best club players to find a way into the first-class game without having to commit themselves to professional cricket until they are perhaps ready to do so.

However, as Lord MacLaurin later stressed, there is no quick fix as far as cricket is concerned. "Changing the structure is not enough," he said. "Cricket is about people, the players the spectators, the groundsmen. It is they who will determine the success of this document.We have got to build foundations up if we are to raise standards. This is a foundation and is by no means the limit of our ambition."

In presenting the proposals MacLaurin gave a slick performance, one that appeared as well rehearsed as it was researched. But, for all the hard work and carefully pitched arguments, it appears unecessarily overwrought, considering Tim Lamb's concern that, "Football is capturing the middle classes.''

Football is popular because it is a simple game played within a simple system. By contrast it is difficult not to see cricket as a game whose complexity has just been made even more impenetrable by this plan.

Reaction, page 23

Main proposals in blueprint

Establish a three-conference County Championship, with an enhanced prize-money structure to increase competitiveness.

Introduce in 1999 a two-division, 50-over National League with promotion and relegation to supersede the Sunday League and the Benson and Hedges Cup.

Extend the NatWest Trophy to allow more non-first-class teams the chance to compete against the counties.

Reduce first-class county staffs to allow more cricketers the opportunity to progress further in the game.

Wind down the first-class counties' second XI programme and seek to introduce by year 2,000 a fully integrated championship to operate as a feeder competition.

Establish selected universities in addition to Oxford and Cambridge as centres of excellence.

Introduce a new development game so that more young people can experience a form of cricket at secondary schools.

Make county boards accountable for inter-school/inter-district cricket, funded and organised with schools and other local agencies.

Ensure that county boards co-ordinate all junior county representative cricket.

Extend the two-day grade format to all under-17 and under-19 county cricket.

Establish a national network of premier leagues for the top club sides by the start of the 1999 season.

Create a new national knock-out competition for premier league clubs.

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