Cricket: Crunch for the county game

COUNTY COMMENTARY by ADAM SZRETER
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The Independent Online
D-Day for domestic cricket is now just over a week away. The English Cricket Board's proposals for reform will be published a week tomorrow, and after a summer of incessant speculation and alternative manifestoes we will have six weeks of angry and bitter argument before the country chairmen take their vote on 16 September.

There are any number of issues up for discussion, from overseas players to uncovered pitches, but the main focus of attention will be on what Lord MacLaurin and his team think is the way forward for the creaky old County Championship. It will be a surprise if a move to split it into two divisions is not now forthcoming, but quite how that is done, and how soon, remains to be seen.

The lobby for two divisions is not a new development, but it was boosted by the recommendations of the Test match grounds working party 18 months ago. Since then the call for change has grown louder, gaining support in the media and from the players themselves.

In comparison to most, Warwickshire can consider themselves one of the more radical counties. They have never been afraid of innovation and last week they staged the first competitive floodlit game in this country, albeit 20 years after Kerry Packer first introduced it to the world, and after Surrey's attempt last month was foiled by the weather.

Dennis Amiss, Warwickshire's chief executive, was a player in the Packer circus as well as an England batsman of some distinction. He can claim great credit for the success of last Wednesday night's game against Somerset, and not surprisingly he sees floodlit cricket as an important step on the way ahead.

"I think cricket is going to emerge with an exciting future with all the things that are happening at the moment," he said towards the end of an extremely busy week. "We're already talking about maybe four floodlit fixtures next year, and now that we've seen it and it's successful, why can't we play international matches and World Cup matches under floodlights?"

As far as the Championship is concerned, Amiss is unequivocal: "Warwickshire have always been for two divisions. I believe promotion and relegation is of the utmost importance and I hope there isn't a half-way house of two divisions and play-offs. I don't think that's what it's all about.

"We need three up, three down so there will be an opportunity for everybody to have a go. Perhaps we need to offer an incentive to gain promotion, such as giving slightly more money from the ECB hand-out to First Division clubs.

"I don't believe those in the Second Division will fall away. The game needs all 18 counties and they'll still get the hand-out from the ECB, and there will always be sponsorship and advertising and support for the local club."

Amiss is not of the opinion that there is too much cricket in general: "International players probably play too much cricket, but I don't think county cricketers do. I think we've got a good balance at the moment. Four-day cricket is coming into its own more and more, and promotion and relegation will bring more people in. I'm not for doing away with a competition because I think one-day cricket has a great future, especially with floodlights.

"I wouldn't like to go back to uncovered wickets at the moment. I think you might find we're not playing as much cricket, and the sponsors aren't going to be too happy with that. I would certainly not kick the idea into touch completely, although if the footholds for fast bowlers remained dry they'd just knock your head off on a wet wicket now and it would be too one-sided.

"We're getting our act together internationally, with younger selectors like Gooch and Gatting who are still closely in touch with the game. I'm not sure whether Test players should be contracted to the ECB instead of a county, but I would not like to get rid of overseas players. They're an attraction. I also believe that if you have an injured overseas player, like Lancashire have at the moment with Wasim Akram, you should be allowed to go and get another one.

"They say we're not getting the big stars to come her any more, but we've got Brian Lara wanting to come back next year and there's talk about Shane Warne wanting to play county cricket next year. They'll come because there's going to be big money in it for them."

Whatever the details of next week's blueprint, which should also address the antiquated county benefit system and the prize-money structure for all competitions, one thing is clear: if cricket in this country is to survive and prosper, it will have to change with the times.

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