Cricket: Counties give go-ahead to Test bonanza

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IT IS not often that the 18 fiefdoms that comprise the county game reach a consensus over cricketing matters, but two days locked away in a hotel near Heathrow appears to have done the trick. In a meeting that many felt was characterised by a mood for change, the main surprise was the increase in the amount of international cricket to seven Test matches and 10 one-day internationals from the year 2000, a move more likely to find favour with a television audience than with paying spectators.

The meeting, which also agreed that the England squad should be contracted to the England and Wales Cricket Board in principle - boardroom speak for not in my lifetime - was apparently conducted in a mood genuinely in favour of change. Lord MacLaurin, the chairman of the ECB, felt it was: "A significant two days for cricket in this country."

With agreements also being reached over the number of overs for the NatWest as well as the National League, 50 and 45 respectively, this broadly consultative meeting turned into a festival of resolution. Only the structure of domestic cricket was left in limbo, the choice between two divisions and an early seasonal regional competition - in essence a series of Test trials - being deferred until the AGM in December.

The expansion in the amount of international cricket was agreed virtually unanimously, with only two abstentions. This is a substantial shift in opinion from the pre-meeting mood, which led one county chairman to predict that the get-together was likely to produce the "mother and father of all bloodbaths".

That nary a voice was raised in anger was no doubt due to the pacifying effects of the promise of extra revenue, the bulk of which is expected to come from television. Indeed, negotiations are currently underway with the BBC, BSkyB and Channel 4. Although the move comes hot on the heels of talk of a World Test Championship some will see yesterday's decision as little more than a two-way sop. Carrots come in many shapes and sizes and the increase in international cricket is clearly being used to bring in bigger bids from TV, which in turn will mean more money to be distributed among the counties.

There is no doubt that TV is the dominant factor here and not paying spectators. As the chief executives of Lancashire and Yorkshire will tell you, their current allotment of Test matches are difficult enough to sell, though at other venues England's Test match attendances remain the envy of the world. Yet unless new venues can be found, there is a danger of overkill, even at popular grounds like Lord's.

With more international cricket, the county clubs and their members can expect to see even less of their Test stars than they do currently. Even without games off to rest, appearances will be limited, rendering counties like Essex, Lancashire and Derbyshire, who have Test players as captains, virtually leaderless for much of the season.

On the face of it, such absenteeism probably increases the need for centralised contracts. But if the First Class Forum have agreed them in principle - a move that allows Donald Trangmar and his working party to explore the implications more fully - their acceptance is unlikely to be without problems. Contracting England players to the ECB will be a Pandora's box. Length of contracts, levels of compensation to counties all require a host of subjective judgements. Far easier then to give the chairman of selectors the power to rest an England player when he sees fit, and be done with it.

If the ECB found the counties less aggressive than normal, it was not all plain sailing and there were lengthy negotiations over the cricketing and marketing arguments concerning next year's National League. Most counties went to the meeting favouring 40 over 50, citing the popularity of floodlit cricket as a reason for keeping it the same as the old Sunday League. In the end, with the NatWest amended to 50 instead of 60 overs a side, a compromise of 45 overs, a form of the game played in South Africa, was reached. Whether such goodwill will be in evidence when the structure of the Championship is voted upon in December remains to be seen.