Cricket: Curse of militant dependency

Andrew Longmore feels control must be wrested from cricket's weaker counties
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When Tim Lamb, the chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board, described the broad acceptance of the MacLaurin report last week as a "defining moment in the game", he might well have been closer to the truth than he anticipated.

The most powerful counties left Lord's on Monday defeated once more on the central issue of promotion and relegation in the County Championship, with hearts heavy and minds open to radical solutions which could split the first-class game from top to bottom. "Disappointed with a capital D," as one delegate to the meeting put it. "In shock mode," said another.

Once again, the Test playing counties, who generate most revenue for distribution by the ECB, have been thwarted in their attempts to modernise the County Championship and more than one of their representatives suggested that they might be forced to go it alone.

"I would be very surprised if there weren't commercial pressures for the Test-playing counties to break away," one official said. "If someone came to us and said `Here's a package attractive to sponsors and television', we would have to listen. Genuinely, no one wants that to happen, but the decision last Monday once again highlighted the continuing problems of self-interest in the game. This is a Test-match grounds v non Test-match grounds issue now."

All five of the Test playing counties - Lancashire, Surrey, Nottinghamshire, Yorkshire and Warwickshire - are believed to have voted for promotion and relegation, together with Worcestershire and Middlesex. The other 11 counties and MCC voted for what is laughingly called the "radical status quo", the maintenance of the present all-play-all Championship with the spurious bonus of a Super Cup one-day knockout tournament for the top eight teams. This was never going to be a big enough carrot to keep the main counties in line. Alan Moss (Middlesex), Jim Cumbes (Lancashire), Dennis Amiss (Warwickshire) and Paul Sheldon of Surrey all made impassioned pleas to the first-class forum to support Lord MacLaurin's stated preference for two divisions. "But," as one chief executive said. "We all knew what would happen."

While rugby union has embraced the new commercial age, cricket has been held back by an ancient constitution and reactionary thinking. Surrey generated pounds 1.8m for the ECB from their international cricket this summer; their total turnover last year was just under pounds 5m. Last year, the ECB distributed over pounds 16m to the counties, which for the weaker brethren like Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Northamptonshire represented more than 50 per cent of their income. That is serious dependency. Yet, as the working party report of the Test-match grounds pointed out two years ago when the idea of a breakaway first rumbled round, it is those dependent counties who hold the power.

"I don't know where the game goes from here," Jim Cumbes, the acting chief executive of Lancashire, said. "If England continue to perform unimpressively, I can see support from television, sponsors and crowds just draining away and that's the lifeblood of the game. Most counties wouldn't survive half a season without the hand-out from international cricket."

The Test-playing counties want more votes, more say in the way the game they do most to finance is run, but the others are unlikely to vote for a reduction of their power. The result is the stalemate which, for all the brave talk, will seriously hamper the implementation of the MacLaurin report and, in the present climate of disgruntled players and angry county officials, heighten the chances of a Packer-style hijack.

"In the long run, some form of breakaway group is not impossible because people are getting impatient," Cumbes said. "There might well be a Rupert Murdoch figure just waiting for the game to be in this sort of state and we would have to listen to him, see what he was proposing and then consider whether it was for the good of the game. would have to be properly thought through."

At a tetchy press conference on Monday, MacLaurin stressed the "inevitability" of the best players being contracted to the ECB and not the counties, which would mark a dramatic shift in the balance of power. "Sooner rather than later," he added. Before anyone else has the idea, in fact. But MacLaurin's own position has been desperately undermined by the intransigence of the dependent counties. Elected as the first chairman of the new ECB, with a mandate to reform the game from top to bottom, he has failed at the first hurdle.

His initial three-conference scheme for the Championship was quickly thrown out; his real preference for two divisions was also ignored.

MacLaurin's power base lies with the big counties, with Surrey, Lancashire and Warwickshire, who together generated 32 per cent of the total turnover of the 18 counties last year and almost half of the commercial and marketing income. Much of the Raising the Standard report reflected the reforms demanded by the Test-match grounds working party two years ago. Where it matters, they have met the same fate. If he decides to stand down next year and a moderate mandarin is elected instead, the bigger counties will blame the rest and the two sides will be further entrenched. The management board of the ECB has also to examine itself at a meeting next month and decide whether its own power has not been fatally compromised.

Ironically, the consistently poor performance of the national side might save the game from break-up. Defeat does not make good television. But the fear was relevant enough for Lamb to ring Paul Sheldon at Surrey on Wednesday morning seeking reassurance about reported remarks warning of the possibility of a Premier League breakaway. Lamb's brow was duly soothed, but he would have been left in no doubt about the sense of frustration felt by many counties. He will share it. The question now is what can the ECB do about it and how quickly. Some powerful factions are not prepared to wait much longer for signs of progress.