Cricket: Change must start with the county game

Cricket in crisis: England's fall calls for radical solutions, beginning with restructuring of the regional competitions
Click to follow
The Independent Online
ENGLISH CRICKET'S fall from grace has been a disaster waiting to happen ever since Kerry Packer gave the game's rulers a wake-up call 22 years ago, when he took the world's best players and set up his own circus.

To date, that bugle blast has been roundly ignored. The guilty men, and there are plenty of them, are well known, though fingering them for public humiliation will not necessarily help our beleaguered summer game, which is desperately in need of solutions rather than scapegoats.

There is no doubt that the county game, as well as the attitudes of the people who run it, is the main area that requires drastic change. One of the best analogies regarding the England and Wales Cricket Board and the working relationship it has with the 18 counties is with the old Soviet Union. For ECB read CCCP, which means that the system is bloated, inefficient, uncompetitive, unfulfilling, over-subsidised and, as it stands on the cusp of a new millennium, fairly pointless.

If supporters of county cricket find such a remark offensive they are simply not in tune with reality. Clubs survive solely due to hand-outs from the centre, which in turn relies, at least in theory, on a successful England team bringing in revenues and sponsorship. Now that England are bottom of the pile, the realisation must be that a quantum leap, rather than the piece-meal fiddling of a two-divisional County Championship, is urgently required.

Compared to other countries, it is a unique problem, though the former West Indies Test player Colin Croft believes domestic cricket in the Caribbean to be in an even worse state, but only just. There are similarities, the main one being that no-one can make up their minds whether it is the Test team which is the priority, or the county sides that produce the players for it. National or parochial? That is the question that divides our cricket at the sharp end and one which two divisions will resolutely not answer.

Without Test players being available for every match, and next season there are seven Tests and 10 one-day internationals, two divisions will not be a fair reflection of the power in the land. "But," I hear the instigators cry, "there will be fewer meaningless games towards the end of the season." Perhaps there will but, let's face it, who gives a damn if, come mid-August, the mediocre sides try a bit harder against each other?

What English cricket needs most is an elite of about 50-60 players, or about five regional teams' worth. These in turn need to be fed from below by young talent which is motivated by desire rather than the promise of 10 years of comfortable living, as is largely the case now.

All 18 counties can remain as they are and play a four-day and a one- day competition. County playing staffs would be drastically reduced, though, with players only getting serious money and sponsored cars when they make the step up into the regional and Test teams - the former comprising the best 13 players of three or four counties, thrown together on a loose geographical basis.

I have written often about regional cricket and its perceived advantages in producing a stepping stone to Test level. Prize money for an eight- match, four-day championship and a one-day league with a Lord's final between the top two would be big, and the spectacle of both would be attractive to television.

If it sounds radical, the current system is simply not working. Ask any overseas player of his experiences in county cricket and two things crop up - lack of intensity on the pitch and too much cricket generally. Throw in poor pitches, poor practice facilities and a comfortable standard of living that hides mediocrity, and is it any wonder that our finest players are consistently shown up at the highest levels with their technique and confidence in tatters?

Decent pitches are a must and, with more time between matches, there would be no excuse for poor preparation. Good stand-alone practice facilities, as opposed to nets on the ground itself - a feature at many county headquarters - are also crucial. Practice, probably as a result of poor surfaces and excessive matches, is not taken as seriously in England as it is elsewhere and must be available at all times.

Other onlookers from overseas - and there has been no shortage of gloating Australians since Sunday - also emphasise the need to pick the best young players and then stick with them. With a regional system in place sorting the best out, especially the ones with mental as well as playing strengths, should be easier than at present, where poor standards and poor pitches make the task nigh-on impossible.

It takes a leap of faith to overlook short-term solutions for longer- term investment, but that is what must be done. Between 1984-87 Australia were at their worst in recent memory and in nine Test series they lost seven and drew two.

Compare this with England's last nine Test series, which have seen five lost, three won and one drawn, and their results are far worse. However, instead of going round in circles as England selectors are apt to do, they picked and stayed faithful to youngsters like Steve Waugh, Dean Jones, David Boon and Mark Taylor. With repeated exposure at Test level, all of them improved to become some of Australia's finest batsmen and secure their current reputation as the best team in world cricket.

Of course Australians have a more rigorous sporting upbringing than most children in England. With sporting excellence given status by society, they strive for success at an early age. They learn to win and to like it, something not always encouraged by trendy educators in Britain.

At present England's Under-19 team, winners of the first Test against their Australian counterparts and well-placed in the second, show that not all the nation's talent has ended up in football. England also won the last youth World Cup.

Something appears to get lost in the move to first-class cricket. Job protectionism, as well as an overloaded fixture list, can dull the ambitions of youngsters who find the county game uninspiring and full of cynical old pros hanging on for a benefit season. That would change if you scrapped benefits and paid regional and Test players reasonably well, with performance- related bonuses.

Naturally turkeys do not vote for Christmas, so getting the tin-pot despots who survey their county fiefdoms from committee-room windows to take the necessary steps is highly unlikely. So before contemplating change on the field, there has to be some reform off it.

Instead of having ECB representation by the county, a smaller executive, headed by an outsider, should be formed on merit. Queensland, through the ministrations of their chief executive, Barry Richards, managed it, and were rewarded with the first Sheffield Shield in their history. Maybe then, the hard decisions that need to be taken will be, and English cricket can move in to the 21st century with certainty rather than blind hope.

Series averages

BATTING

ENGLAND

M I No Runs HS 100 50 Avge

M A Atherton 2 4 0 133 64 0 1 33.25

N Hussain 3 5 0 164 61 0 1 32.80

A J Stewart 4 8 1 215 83* 0 2 30.71

M R Ramprakash 4 6 1 127 69* 0 1 25.40

G P Thorpe 4 8 2 147 44 0 0 24.50

A R Caddick 4 6 0 126 45 0 0 21.00

M A Butcher 3 6 0 86 33 0 0 14.33

G A Hick 1 1 0 12 12 0 0 12.00

D W Headley 2 3 0 34 18 0 0 11.33

C M W Read 3 4 0 38 37 0 0 9.50

D L Maddy 1 2 0 19 14 0 0 9.50

A Habib 2 3 0 26 19 0 0 8.66

R C Irani 1 2 0 10 9 0 0 5.00

P C R Tufnell 4 6 3 14 6 0 0 4.66

A D Mullally 3 5 0 18 10 0 0 3.60

A J Tudor 1 2 2 131 99* 0 1 0.00

E S H Giddins 1 2 1 0 0* 0 0 0.00

P M Such 1 1 0 0 0 0 0 0.00

NEW ZEALAND

M D Bell 3 5 1 151 83 0 1 37.75

C D McMillan 4 6 1 188 107* 1 0 37.60

S P Fleming 4 7 2 166 66* 0 1 33.20

N J Astle 4 6 0 193 101 1 0 32.16

C L Cairns 4 6 0 183 80 0 1 30.50

M J Horne 4 7 0 203 100 1 0 29.00

S B Doull 1 2 0 57 46 0 0 28.50

D L Vettori 4 6 1 114 54 0 2 22.80

D J Nash 4 6 1 81 26 0 0 16.20

A C Parore 4 6 0 96 73 0 1 16.00

R G Twose 4 6 0 73 52 0 1 12.16

S B O'Connor 1 2 0 7 6 0 0 3.50

C Z Harris 1 1 0 3 3 0 0 3.00

G I Allott 2 3 3 8 7* 0 0 0.00

* denotes not out

BOWLING

ENGLAND

Overs M Runs Wkts Avge 5W 10W Best

E S H Giddins 26.0 7 79 4 19.75 0 0 3-38

A R Caddick 174.1 62 412 20 20.60 1 0 5-32

P C R Tufnell 132.2 36 317 14 22.64 0 0 3-22

A D Mullally 111.4 29 300 11 27.27 0 0 3-48

P M Such 41.0 11 114 4 28.50 0 0 4-114

R C Irani 11.0 3 38 1 38.00 0 0 1-38

M A Butcher 12.0 2z 45 1 45.00 0 0 1-25

D W Headley 58.0 11 189 4 47.25 0 0 3-74

A J Tudor 16.0 4 59 1 59.00 0 0 1-44

G A Hick 1.0 0 8 0 0.00 0 0 0-0

M R Ramprakash 1.0 0 1 0 0.00 0 0 0-0

NEW ZEALAND

D J Nash 135.1 52 297 17 17.47 0 0 4-39

S B O'Connor 24.0 6 62 3 20.66 0 0 2-32

C L Cairns 139.0 34 404 19 21.26 2 0 6-77

C Z Harris 26.0 10 46 2 23.00 0 0 2-16

D L Vettori 137.0 50 249 10 24.90 0 0 3-46

G I Allott 55.4 10 182 7 26.00 0 0 3-36

N J Astle 27.0 13 36 1 36.00 0 0 1-6

S B Doull 19.0 6 65 1 65.00 0 0 1-17

C D McMillan 3.4 0 14 0 0.00 0 0 0-0

Comments