Cricket: Playing the blueprint game

Andrew Longmore draws up his own master plan as game prepares for change; Elite corps of 20 players l Four divisions with promotion and relegation l Uncovered wickets l Two-week inter-city floodlit competition
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The Independent Online
The MacLaurin blueprint for the future of English cricket will be officially unveiled to the management committee of the English Cricket Board tomorrow. Lord MacLaurin, one of the most successful businessmen in the land, must feel like a schoolboy handing in his homework. It has taken a winter full of consultations with county chairmen, administrators, members, spectators, clubs and, yes, even a straw poll of players to produce the inch-thick document which will decide whether English cricket sails into the next millenium or wallows in the doldrums as it has done for much of the previous century.

The counties, the judge and jury of English cricket, will don their robes to vote on the proposals on 15 September, but the consequences of rejection are thought by the more enlightened county chief executives not to be worth contemplating. In persuading the notoriously staid counties to accept the modernisation, MacLaurin's message will be simple: sharpen up or lose out to other sports more attractive and colourful.

To satisfy the counties, the report will need to strike a delicate balance between innovation and consolidation, between the need to attract a new generation of young athletes to a game with diminishing street cred and to produce a steady flow of expert Test cricketers to keep the coffers full. International cricket pays the bills; the County Championship is the best breeding ground for international cricketers. One-day and Test cricket is thriving; the four-day game is much loved but moribund. In MacLaurin's brave new world, the route to the top would be more streamlined, the shop window more enticing and the whole structure, from the clubs through to Tests, broader based and more flexible. The rigid divisions between club and county need to be broken down and the gaps in standard between club, county and Test cricket lessened. Each layer of the game has to be preparation for the next step, from club leagues to County Championship and Test cricket. The cricket has to be sharper and more competitive. It is a tall order.

MacLaurin will not be as radical as he would doubtless like. The counties, representing the perceived interests of their members, will need to be coaxed into change. This might be merely the first step to further revolution. But, between the official unveiling of the MacLaurin report on 5 August and decision day six weeks later, it will be open season for opinions. Everyone will voice one. This is a personal blueprint for the future of the game, which reduces the amount of county cricket by a maximum of 30 days.

1 A corps of 20 elite cricketers to be contracted to the English Cricket Board and leased out to counties on a match-by-match basis during the domestic season. The trend has already been set this summer with Team England. Players have gathered earlier for training camps and several players, Atherton included, have admitted how limited is his motivation for county cricket. The national team, which is the game's best tool of publicity, could be properly prepared for a full international calendar. By the end of the Ashes series, England will have played 65 days of international cricket over the past year, which allows room for expansion, proper coaching and for generating more income from an extra series or a day-night series of one-day internationals in between Tests.

Australia's itinerary over the past 12 months has included tours of Sri Lanka, India, South Africa and England, besides a home series against the West Indies. Warne has played two Sheffield Shield games in the year. Team England would start with the Under-19s and progress through the A team to the full Test side as it does now.

2 County Championship. Four divisions of eight counties each, with promotion and relegation between the divisions. Matches to be played on uncovered wickets over three days midweek and some weekends, with bonus points available in both innings and a minimum of 110 overs a day. Counties in each division to play each other home and away. Prize money to be increased substantially. Current minor counties would need financial help from the ECB to establish a proper county structure. One overseas player per county; a maximum of five full professionals, the rest semi-pro, drawn from the county's leading clubs.

3 Benson & Hedges Cup to be abolished and replaced by a two-week inter- city floodlit competition, 50-overs-a-side played nightly in August between eight teams - London north (Lord's), London south (Oval), Birmingham, Leeds, Nottingham, Manchester based on the six Test playing grounds and two others (Newcastle and Bristol perhaps). Play-off final at Lord's between the top two teams. Minimum of 20 overs in case of rain. Hours: 3pm to 11pm. Tournament to be run by the ECB, with sponsorship for each team.

ECB players to be allotted equally between the city teams, which will be drawn from local counties and clubs. Coloured shirts to match those of city football teams. One overseas player allowed for each team.

4 NatWest Trophy. Fifty overs a side knockout between 32 counties, to be played on selected Saturdays through the season. Final at Lord's.

5 Sunday League. To remain the same, either one division of 16 counties or four divisions of eight following the pattern of the County Championship.

6 Each county to have a pyramid structure of club leagues, acting as a feeder for the county side. County clubs, backed by the ECB, would be encouraged to set up or maintain centres of excellence and to establish a pool of top-class coaches to nurture talent in schools and at colts level. At present, too much responsibility is invested in willing, enthusiastic, but ultimately unqualified "coaches" at club level. Top club league competitions to be played over two days at weekends, one innings each side, 100 overs a day. National knockout league competition to be played during August and September.

7 County second teams to be phased out. Top clubs to act as natural feeders for the county set-up.

8 The benefit system to be phased out and replaced by a proper pension scheme for the professional players. Players would be free to move counties once they were out of contract, lesser counties could loan players out, share coaching facilities and develop financial ties with more prosperous counties.