Cricket: MacLaurin foresees the divisions

Stephen Brenkley hears reactions to plans for a two-tiered County Championship
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The Independent Online
There was a rueful smile on Lord MacLaurin's face as he contemplated the future of English cricket for the benefit of television viewers during the rain at Lord's. It was the sort of day, with the covers riddled with puddles, when it seemed that the game could have no future and it was a pretty dotty idea to have invented it in the first place.

But this was not what concerned the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board (though it might if the bad weather continues, sell-out crowds all claim their money back and the Board's insurance premiums rise sharply). Rather, he gave a hint of the thorny issues waiting to be confronted in changing first-class cricket's structure.

His Lordship went on what became known as a "grand tour" of the 18 first- class counties earlier this year. All of them, he said, had agreed on the need for change and had then added "but don't change this will you". That was when the rueful smile crossed his face.

It is an open secret that the main thing many and probably most of the counties do not want changing is the County Championship. The issue of two divisions, whether composed meritocratically or geographically, could indeed become to cricket what a single European currency has been to the Conservative Party: extremely divisive. Where one wants continued multiplicity the other wants continued singularity.

Not that the counties are breaking ranks in the same revolutionary style of Tory MPs. Two of the more committed proponents for retaining the status quo said on Friday that they were waiting for the full report on the game's restructuring to be released on 5 August, though also expressed their sustained reluctance to embrace wide-sweeping moves.

"We have to consider it as a whole package," said Peter Edwards, secretary of Essex, "and see any recommendations in that light. But I don't know many people, anywhere, particularly county members, who want two divisions. I can't really see at this moment any circumstances in which I would favour such a move. But till we know there's not a lot I can say."

Stephen Coverdale, the chief executive of Northamptonshire, said no decisions had been taken. This seemed to be a touch of wishful thinking because all the signs suggest that ECB officers, or at least those without a vested interest in the counties, back two divisions.

"We met Lord MacLaurin with Tim Lamb [ECB chief executive] in mid-January and since then we haven't been consulted. But nothing has happened since which convinces me that two divisions would be effective in any way."

At the heart of the matter is a tradition which goes back to 1890 when the Championship was formalised (though in the case of Northamptonshire only to 1905, Glamorgan to 1921 and Durham to 1992). While, to some, two divisions would be a panacea (but then so, in their time, were one-day knock-out cricket, covered pitches and four-day matches) without which the game will die, to others it is a poison which would prevent, for example, Middlesex playing Lancashire any longer.

Lord MacLaurin's smile at the prospect of what is lying in wait for him domestically came at the end of a week when cricket both in England and the rest of the world was running with the movers and shakers. The 1999 World Cup was launched amid much trumpeting of its potential to make money and encourage fans. Hoardings bearing the logo were dotted round Lord's for the Test.

There will be eight global sponsors, of which six have yet to be enlisted. Tickets will be on sale next year, though it should be noted even at this early stage that only some 10,000 of the 30,000 will be available to the general public for the final at Lord's.

Meanwhile, the game internationally confirmed its plans to play annual tournaments involving all the Test playing nations at Disneyworld, Florida. Ali Bacher, the chairman of the development committee, also talked of expanding the number of Test nations to 12, naming Bangladesh (where thousands watch club games) and Kenya, though eluded even him. He also said that Coca-Cola, sponsors of this summer's Ashes Tour have been given 60 days to decide if they want to back cricket in America through Disneyworld and globally.

Bacher may be losing patience with them slightly - hence the time limit - but he also sees them as a multi-national which can spread the word for the game in the areas where it spreads the word for its product. "It's up to them now. We'd like their involvement obviously but with them or without them we're determined to take the game to different horizons. That's got to be the message." A two-division County Championship and Lancashire not playing Middlesex for a few summers seemed small coke by comparison.

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