Cricket: Board games and playground thinking

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NOTHING will be decided at English cricket's autumn summit this week. This is perhaps partly because it would be flying in the face of custom and practice, which dictates that any meeting worth calling must spawn either a discussion document or a working party. But another reason is because there are probably as many playing structures being proposed for the future as there are first-class counties.

However, it may only be delaying the inevitable. The lack of decisions will not prevent change. Key issues affecting the domestic game - and by extension the Test side - will be discussed during the two-day conference in a London hotel. Television rights (and how the cash from them is distributed), players' contracts and the way in which the England and Wales Cricket Board is set up will all have their own separate presentations.

They will all, in turn, touch on the details of domestic playing arrangements. First among these may be the advent, early in the Millennium, of the seven- Test English summer and an annual one-day international triangular tournament. The two- division Championship will doubtless be given an airing at breakfast, lunch and dinner but the merit of the Super Cup, the regulations for the National League, the format of the NatWest Trophy and presumably the case for squeezing into the fixture schedule Cricket Max, Super Eights, French cricket and beach cricket with the tide in will all demand a share of the debate.

In the weeks after it, David Morgan, the chairman of the First-Class Forum, one of the main arms of the ECB, will gather his members and try to establish a consensus. By December there could be something more definite in place than recommendations, although, knowing the counties, appeals cannot be ruled out at any stage.

The summit conference was called by the ECB chairman, Lord MacLaurin, during the summer because he felt that the counties should once again re-examine the nature of English professional cricket. Any ideas about changing the structure are likely to be influenced by the information contained in the main presentations.

Television negotiations for the rights, which begin next summer, are now reaching a crucial point. Three companies are still left in the bidding. Two are as expected, the BBC and Sky, while the third is not only a surprise but may also be exactly what the ECB requires in both driving a hard financial bargain and ensuring the game is projected in the manner it deserves. Channel 4's presence at the party is refreshing. Their history in sports presentation is not particularly long but it has combined a mixture of appropriate respect for tradition and an upbeat approach. The one drawback may be not that Channel 4 is a minority station but that most of the sports they have shown - American Football, most notably - are minority pursuits, which is not a perception the ECB would be keen to promulgate about their game.

It is hoped that the TV contract will be finally awarded by the end of the year. But the current state of play not only with regard to Test cricket (and surely Channel 4 could not clear their schedules to show entire days of that) but also the knockout competitions and even the Championship, will pervade proceedings.

The issue of players' contracts is another on which most interested parties have a different opinion. Compensation to the county who nurtured a player is certain to be the subject of contentious discussion but it is difficult to see the clubs putting the country first on this one. The topic of the ECB's constitution is far-reaching not only because it covers the game, as the Board itself likes to have it, "from the playground to the Test arena", but also because it may help to determine where power and therefore the ability to make decisions actually lies.

No decisions on Wednesday then, but certainly a paving of the way for change. Still, it will be little short of wonder on a scale with Shane Warne's top-spinner or Sachin Tendulkar's on-drive if the representatives find grounds for agreement. The mood appears to be swinging marginally against two divisions once more, though some previous opponents, like Peter Anderson, Somerset's chief executive, have changed their minds because financial guarantees are now in place.

This year's table will be summoned as evidence by the one-league traditionalists. It shows that 10 of the 18 teams finished in a different half of the table in 1998 than they did in 1997 - five going from top nine to bottom nine, five reversing the process. Not only that, but the bottom three in the table, Nottinghamshire, Middlesex and Essex, have all been champions in the past 12 years. But equally that shows that movement between the two divisions would be regular.

The Super Cup, a one-day knockout competition in which the last season's top eight teams in the Championship will compete, may not be around for long unless it attracts immediate spectator support. There are higher hopes for the National League, which will be split into two divisions by dividing the 1998 Axa League Table. But by way of demonstrating that they concur on nothing the original idea of playing matches of 50 overs a side, in line with all one-day internationals, is now being opposed by the marketing men.

They want matches of 40 overs a side - as the Sunday League has been since its inception in 1969 - because it will be more attractive to sponsors and spectators, particularly those wishing to attend floodlit matches as it would avoid early afternoon starts.

If this argument proves persuasive the domestic game would then have a two-division National League of 40 overs, the NatWest Trophy of 60 overs and no competition involving all the counties of 50 overs, thus depriving the players of the chance to learn over the international standard length. This may not be eminently sensible, but it is eminently possible. From the playground to the Test arena may be the slogan but some of the game's administrators still seem to be fitted for only one of those places.