Cricket: Battle begins for hearts and minds

Andrew Longmore discovers that the counties still need much persuasion
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The first-class counties will have to accept the MacLaurin proposals for the future of English cricket when they meet to vote on 15 September, but whether they will do so in the right spirit is more open to question.

In reality, rejection is not an option. The counties have already been outmanoeuvred, their traditional lines of retreat cut off. Exhaustive research has unearthed an overwhelming desire for change and Raising the Standard is a compromise effectively fashioned by their own disparate - some would say desperate - needs.

The propaganda war has been lost too. In Lord MacLaurin English cricket has found a respected, independent enforcer who has through his own personality and judicious use of the media turned himself into the knight in shining armour charging to the rescue of a damsel in distress. For the damsel to reject help at the 11th hour would seem at best churlish, at worst suicide. The counties would stand accused once again of perpetuating mediocrity and self-interest, while the more radical and powerful forces within their ranks would renew attempts to go it alone.

The counties were a trifle coy about their plans last week. Public acceptance masked considerable disquiet, notably over the increase in one-day cricket (loved by treasurers, hated by coaches) and the vacuum between club and first-class cricket at present filled by second teams and minor counties. Despite the preparation, most counties seemed to be shell-shocked, uncertain quite what they were voting for, let alone how or why. Their confusion was understandable. Some sections of the report, persuading 120 Yorkshire leagues to adopt a Premier League structure, for example, were also based on a wing and a prayer.

Details of the voting procedure which could sanction the most profound change in county cricket this century have yet to be finalised. The most likely option is for the first-class forum (the 18 counties and MCC), to vote on three of the four chapters in the report as a package and for the recreation forum (the 38 county boards, the minor counties, women's and junior cricket), to vote on the two chapters which concern them. There will be two separate votes and it is possible that one group will vote for the proposals and the other reject them. Indeed, as chairman both of the county and the county board, Lyn Wilson of Northamptonshire could find himself voting two different ways in two different meetings. Nor is it entirely clear how widely the counties will canvass opinions and, in the event of disagreement, whose voice will be decisive.

Gloucestershire, for example, will first discuss the report at a management committee meeting tomorrow. On Tuesday, a members' forum has been called to widen the debate before a meeting of the 44-strong full council later in the month. In theory, a clear club view should emerge from all the "jaw jaw". "War war" is more likely.

"To reconcile the different ends of the game, the first-class and the recreational, will be almost impossible," Philip August, cricket secretary of Gloucestershire, said. "They both have different interests." The same could be said for the richer and poorer first-class counties, who are all being cajoled towards financial self-sufficiency. "We've been aware of that pressure for a long time," August said, "but it's easier said than done." Particularly if his money-spinning Cheltenham Festival has to be sacrificed to the vagaries of a complex new fixture list. For the smaller counties, grooming players for England comes second to soothing the bank manager.

One thing is clear. There is no room for idealism. The notion of three conferences may be unappealing, but the alternative of two leagues, promotion and relegation, would have been rejected by the counties who fear extinction. Like a rusty bolt, the first movement is the hardest. Down the line England players will surely be contracted to the ECB, the County Championship will return to a more user-friendly format, and a national academy will be established. "Life," as Lord MacLaurin said, "is a progression." The real danger is that approval for change will be half-hearted, which would be worse than no progress at all.

New order: How cricket would work

First-class cricket

(Based on Championship table on 6 August)

Counties split into six regional groups as determined by the ECB. Position in table in brackets.

Group A: Glamorgan (1), Gloucestershire (2), Somerset (12);

Group B: Kent (3), Hampshire (14), Sussex (18);

Group C: Essex (4), Middlesex (8), Surrey (13);

Group D: Yorkshire (5), Lancashire (10), Durham (16).

Group E: Warwickshire (6), Worcestershire (11), Northamptonshire (15);

Group F: Leicestershire (7), Nottinghamshire (9), Derbyshire (17).

Each county labelled 1, 2 or 3 according to position in group (Glamorgan would be A1, Gloucestershire A2, Somerset A3 etc) and divided into three conferences. Each to contain two teams finishing first, two teams finishing second and two teams finishing third in the regions:

Conference A

A1 Glamorgan

F1 Leicestershire

C2 Middlesex

D2 Lancashire

B3 Sussex

E3 Northamptonshire

Conference B

B1 Kent

E1 Warwickshire

A2 Gloucestershire

F2 Nottinghamshire

C3 Surrey

D3 Durham

Conference C

C1 Essex

D1 Yorkshire

B2 Hampshire

E2 Worcestershire

A3 Somerset

F3 Derbyshire

Regular season: Each side then plays all the teams from the other conferences once.

Play-offs: All teams enter end-of-season play-offs. Three conference winners play each other on round-robin basis, possibly over five days to determine champions. Similar play-offs establish finishing order of rest of Championship. With 12 conference and two play-off matches, each county will play 14 first-class matches.

One-day cricket

(Based on Sunday League table on 3 August)

First Division: Warwickshire, Lancashire, Essex, Kent, Gloucestershire, Yorkshire, Leicestershire, Worcestershire, Somerset.

Second Division: Nottinghamshire, Surrey, Northamptonshire, Glamorgan, Derbyshire, Hampshire, Durham, Middlesex, Sussex. Each county plays home and away against all the other teams in the same division, and one match against each county in the other division - a total of 25 50-over matches.