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Cricket: Minus point of divisions

AS SOON as they got what they wanted and the game needed, the men charged with taking English cricket out of the past were distinctly restrained. There were several reasons, only one of which was that it would have ill-become men in grey suits to jump up and down punching their fists through the air.

Lord MacLaurin and Tim Lamb, respectively chairman and chief executive of the England and Wales Cricket Board, knew immediately the vote was made that splitting the venerable County Championship into two divisions was by no means the complete answer to England's prayers and were thus eager to disabuse any poor suckers who thought otherwise. They were pleased but in a sober, grey suit sort of way.

"Not the answer to why we are under-achieving at Test level," said MacLaurin. "Not a panacea, it's not going to answer all our problems," said Lamb. And to demonstrate conclusively that they speak the same language, which is probably as well in this case, both said it was part of the jigsaw.

MacLaurin and Lamb know that a bigger part of the jigsaw ought to be put in place next March, one that, if it does not complete the picture, will certainly bring it into sharper focus. It is then, at the next meeting of the First Class Forum, that a specific announcement can be expected on players' contracts.

It has already been accepted in principle that an elite band of players will be contracted directly to the ECB rather than to their counties. How this system will operate is at present being dealt with by an FCF sub-committee. "The devil is in the detail," said Lamb, not understating the issue. "It is likely to demand some flexibility and we will not be saying players can never play for the counties they came from. But counties will be compensated for players' services and the Board will have the right to ask them not to play if it is thought to be in their interests."

Given that the new two- divisional Championship (not to mention the new two- divisional National League of one-day cricket) will have promotion and relegation, any system chosen is likely to be severely tested by coaches and managers on both sides if a county in imminent danger of the drop is missing, say, two of their best former players because the ECB say so.

That raises the other issue, doubtless to be pronounced upon in March, of how many supposed elite players will exist. Given the present selection panel's tendency to name one-day squads apparently consisting of any player who knows both the whereabouts of the bat handle and the ball's seam, more players could be with the ECB than with the counties.

It is the settlement of this issue and putting it into practice which is likely to have the more far- reaching effect on England's success. The ECB, the counties and the members will be watching vigilantly. Another significant part of the jigsaw is now persuading all the leading clubs to be part of a pyramid structure by forming a national league, so that eventually the gap between all standards may be bridged.

The symbolic status of changing the Championship, to take place in 2000, is profound. It may answer no prayers and the evidence for suggesting it will be endlessly competitive is hardly conclusive but the 15-to-1 vote, with three abstentions, was a powerful demonstration that the game, at last, is willing to embrace change to secure its future.

The Championship, officially established in 1890 (when there were only eight counties, so two divisions might have been one too many), had come to represent all that was staid and static, if not necessarily wrong, about English cricket.

"The edge that promotion and relegation will lend [three up three down] will be strong," said Lamb. "I think people will identify with their teams more. We know that the four-day, first-class game will not attract people as county cricket once did but we are interested in the armchair viewer, the newspaper reader, the man in the pub. This will get the game talked about, it may well encourage television and do not forget what was in place was hardly working."

Those who lament the passing of the old competition do so largely because as David Acfield, chairman of the abstainers Essex, has always stressed it was part of the fabric of English society. Equally, the Championship has never been any great playing shakes. Weaker brethren have always abounded.

In what may be described as its pomp before the middle of this century, it was dominated by four teams. True, it has sometimes been a thing of timeless beauty but that is much different from ever having been responsible for a strong England team.