Cricket: Historic vote passes two-division format

THE SPACE SHUTTLE may not have got off the ground yesterday, but English cricket blasted off into the 21st century as history was made at Lord's when the England and Wales Cricket Board voted overwhelmingly for a two-divisional County Championship beginning in the year 2000.

A vote of 15-1 with three abstentions was a complete turnaround from last year, when only seven first-class counties voted for the change when the ECB chairman, Lord MacLaurin, had presented his report "Raising the Standard".

"It has pleased me a great deal," MacLaurin said. "It is a very important day for the game. It will add an edge to the Championship, beginning next year when the top nine will form the First Division."

The object of the change, which will end 110 years of the one-dimensional County Championship first recognised in 1890, is to harden the competitive edge of the England team and produce a stronger Test side, but MacLaurin tempered his delight when he added: "It is a move forward, but it is not the answer as to why we are underachieving at Test level.

"It is part of the jigsaw we put together to raise standards and most of those things are now in operation. We have 400 professional players in first- class cricket in this country and we should be one of the best Test teams in the world."

David Graveney, chairman of the England selectors and chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association, which safeguards the interests of players and is responsible for their training, education and welfare, welcomed the move. "I've always been pro a two-divisional championship. The benefits are difficult to quantify at this stage, but we will probably start to see them from next season when cricket will be played closer to the edge, so to speak."

The solitary vote against the change was that of Glamorgan. "It is irrelevant what we at Glamorgan thought," their captain, Matthew Maynard, said. "My impression was that the championship had grown stronger lately, with a number of sides proving that they could win it. But we have to be positive, there is no point in being any other way. It will be an historic season next year, and in the year 2000 I just hope I will be around to take part in the new format. It does mean that next summer it will be desperately important to finish in the top nine."

The three abstentions were Marylebone Cricket Club, Essex and Durham.

The Essex chairman, David Acfield, said: "We were not against English cricket moving forward. We did not support 'no change', we were against two divisions and we did support a regional scheme. In the end we abstained because we felt there was nothing for us to vote for."

Matthew Engel, the editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, the game's bible, was against the decision. He said: "There are some short-term advantages in enhancing interest and increasing the chances of sponsorship. But in the long term I think it will be damaging and work against England's chances of of winning Tests because it will create conflict between club and country."

In the end the vote would appear to have been a formality. Lord MacLaurin said: "Last September it was all done in a bit of a rush. I wanted two divisions then but we were not in a position to put any financial safeguards in place."

The question of England players being contracted to the ECB is expected to be resolved when the First Class Forum meets again next March. The ECB's player registration regulations will remain largely as they are, something which Graveney welcomed, since half his PCA membership would be in the Second Division.

The Super Cup, involving the top eight finishers in next season's championship, will continue in the first year of the new format.

Other decisions included:

A free hit for no-balls in the 45-over National League, which begins next season.

The points system in the County Championship to change to 12 for a win (with bonus points remaining at four each for batting and bowling), and a draw increased from three points to four.

Professionals' verdict, page 28