Cricket: MacLaurin fails to break down barrier

The decision of the counties to reject the most radical of the proposals for changes to English cricket was not a surprise. Derek Pringle, Cricket Correspondent, believes that the plans failed to address the game's problems
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Most of the players who sanctioned change wanted it. The chairman of the ECB, Lord MacLaurin, wanted it, and according to those convinced of the game's decline, cricket wanted it. Crucially, however, 12 of the 19 votes of the First Class Forum, the ones who could actually implement such a thing, did not agree, and cricket's Brave New World of a two-division championship has ended up as afternoon tea as usual.

As expected it was probably an "us and them" vote, with counties like Lancashire, Surrey, Nottinghamshire and Yorkshire - those six who own Test match grounds - likely to have voted for two divisions, while the others opposed it. Instead, an "all play all" championship with increased prize money remains, the only change being the addition of a knock-out "Super Cup" for the top eight, to replace the Benson and Hedges Cup. This is in addition to a two- division National One-day League and an expanded "FA Cup-style" Natwest Trophy.

To those who have dealt with the counties either as players or as members of the media (your correspondent is twice blessed, or cursed, depending on your outlook), the outcome is not that surprising. Neither of the two more radical proposals, the ECB's three-conference system or the two divisions, really provided a vastly superior model to the current status quo.

From the moment they were made public, the baseball-style conferences were always going to be a non-starter. Any system that can allow a team to win far fewer games than their closest rival and still be champions must be flawed. As for the proposed 25-match one-day league, and for all its potential money-making largesse, the words tedious and tiresome come to mind, with bits and pieces players becoming a priority rather than an rarity.

Of course two divisions would probably have shaken some of the complacency out of cricket. There are too many soft games of cricket, but tougher scraps over promotion and relegation are unlikely to attract both younger and larger crowds or improve the lot of the England side. In case it matters, no one watches Sheffield Shield cricket, or Ranji Trophy cricket, or Red Stripe Cup cricket, and they still turn out decent Test cricketers. Let's face it, county cricket is essentially a game followed in the media.

It is a difficult act to balance, but while the best need rest, the rest need better cricket. Twelve years ago, Essex's overseas player was a masterful batsman called Ken McEwan. Brought up on South Africa's Currie Cup, McEwan actually preferred county cricket as it gave him more innings in the middle. Contrast that with the way most bowlers feel, and you begin to realise the difficult scope of Lord MacLaurin's task.

In fact, a pepping-up of the championship with promotion and relegation would place even more pressure on our Test players to serve two masters.

Solutions can only hope to be found once an elite squad is contracted to the ECB, and players like Darren Gough and Dominic Cork - who have missed far too much recent Test cricket through injury - do not feel obliged to play for their counties.

Although he was upbeat about the outcome of his meeting at the press conference afterwards - after all, the majority of the "Raising the Standard" blueprint was in fact accepted - Lord MacLaurin must surely be miffed that changes to the county game, the apex of the ECB pyramid, have failed. Despite his claims that the incremental change of evolution and not revolution has been started, many will wonder whether his position as chairman of the ECB is still tenable.

Persuasive though he is, MacLaurin has been unable to reach into the private fiefdoms that dominate the county game. Having said earlier that he would not tolerate inertia, he has failed to move, by more than a smidgen, the entrenched rituals of county cricket.

It has been, by common consent, a thankless task. The issues are complex and deep-seated, and not easily solveable by mere structural changes. Improving the competitiveness of the England team was apparently the original raison d'etre for the blueprint. In the ensuing melee that has been lost sight of. Let us hope it can be put right by winning the 1999 World Cup.