Cricket: The radical solution for England

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The Independent Online
IN ITS abridged version, the story so far is that England are the worst side in the world and the counties are to blame. Spare us the gory details. This is a bang to rights case, guv, and if it required the deductive powers of a Holmes, that would be Percy not Sherlock. With this knowledge in mind and the sad prospect that not much may change shortly, the Test and one-day parties for the winter tours of South Africa and Zimbabwe will be announced tomorrow. There will be 17 men for the longer- game series, 15 for the shorter, and the latter will definitely be a team built with a view to a golden future.

Peter Edwards will have no direct influence on these squads, none, but he is right at the front of the queue when culprits are being sought for why the present pretty pass has been reached. He has been chief executive of Essex for 20 years, the second-longest such office-holder among the 18 first-class clubs and he sits on the management board of the England and Wales Cricket Board. His tenure has coincided with what is easily the county's most successful era, yielding 13 trophies as opposed to none in the previous 93 years, but when the labels "dinosaur", "reactionary" and "what's gone wrong with the English game?" are being attached he is a regular recipient.

At first glance he would appear to be drawing up his own charge sheet. He wants a return to three-day Championship cricket and uncovered wickets, seems pretty convinced that the split into two divisions is an offence against God, talks of county members as if they were God, thinks that 18 counties is precisely the right number, and not only embraced the restoration of the Benson and Hedges Cup in its old format, the one-day competition of which all reformers were glad to be shot, but proposed it.

On the other hand, he suspects that county cricket is indeed a comfort zone for too many players, judges that there are too many professionals, too many of whom have the easy life, reckons counties, including his own, should give youngsters a chance much earlier, opines that pitches are, by and large, a disgrace and would give the heave-ho to several of the England team. Not a lot wrong there, then. Far from being pessimistic about the future of the game he is almost bullish.

Edwards's passion for cricket is glaring. His office overlooks the county ground at Chelmsford and through a huge picture window he seems not to miss a ball that is bowled even when he is on the phone, reading documents (which must be a regular and onerous activity on the ECB) or rattling through filing cabinets. He is 60 and he has watched Essex all his life. He remembered, fleetingly, watching Tom Graveney playing on the ground for Gloucestershire (and Jack Crapp, of course, he said) and not minding really how Essex did because it was such a delight to see Graveney bat well. In those days, before Edwards was involved professionally, Essex usually lived up to Jack's name.

"It is frequently being said that England have too many first-class counties and that countries like Australia have far fewer," he said. "The population of this country is much bigger than Australia's and all our counties, or almost all, have set up academies of excellence. Into those academies they have poured huge amounts of money. At Essex last year it was pounds 400,000. That is aimed at producing cricketers of the future. The counties are not neglectful, they are diligent in this role.

"There are coaches and development officers and they are all there to encourage the playing of the game. This is too often forgotten. There was a hiatus when cricket wasn't played in schools but it is being played there again more and more. It's not proper cricket you say but it is getting them interested and getting them young. As a country we have a consistently good record of producing age-group sides. They've been unbeaten for ages."

Edwards has hatched a revolutionary plan, with which he has headed nowhere in the corridors of power, though it seems to have much more merit than bringing back the B&H Cup. The England Under-19 team, 1-0 up in the mini- Test series against Australia, will as usual be replaced by the next batch of Under-19s next summer. The players will return to their counties where they will fight forlornly for a first-team place. Edwards would keep them together as a unit to compete in the following season's County Championship.

"They would probably be beaten more often than not but they would be learning by playing a serious game. Some would fall by the wayside, but that is a natural process, some would succeed." Edwards is a measured man whose beliefs are firm and is visibly annoyed by pundits' glib views, particularly with regard to regional teams, the latest panacea dreamed up to make the national team more competitive, if not exactly regain the Ashes at the next time of asking. The cream would play the cream and thus hone mutual skills.

"It's bollocks," said Edwards, quite taking the wind out of your sails with his ferocity. But he expanded: "Do you think anybody would be remotely interested in the fate of regional teams. As for making the best better, well four-day cricket has-n't done it, going from uncovered wickets hasn't done it, two divisions won't." Edwards recognises that it is vital for England to do well but insists that the B&H Cup's return is not at odds with that aim. It stirred the cricket watcher at the beginning of the season, got the members back in and they were, after all, members' clubs. But all this one-day cricket? "We must not forget too that we are here to entertain."

While he loves cricketers he wants fewer of them. "Too many now, I think. Sixteen or seventeen on staffs is the ideal number. If it was harder for them to get on they'd fight harder, be less cosy." He is desperate for Essex to avoid the Championship second division (they went ninth on Friday, exactly on the cut-off point) and still desperately angry that the split was agreed. Apart from all else, a transfer market looms.

As for pitches, he bristles at their state. He is not alone in realising that their part in assisting the demise of England is immense, maybe actually the single most important element. Essex are truly blameless. Only at Chelmsford, Taunton and probably Hove have decent strips been regularly provided. Edwards, being an ECB bod as well as an Essex one, insisted that he was playing a straight bat throughout the conversation but you could tell he thought this was appalling. And it is. Uncovered pitches, he recollected, were only awful when it rained. The rest of the time they had been impeccable.

But England's fortunes have plummeted too far now, he said. Time for change and tomorrow at 11am change there will be. The selectors met for three hours early last week and again last night. "You can only talk for so long," said David Graveney, chairman of the selectors. "I think it's fair to say there will be fresh blood but fresh blood doesn't necessarily mean young blood."

Welcome at last then at the age of 29 to Chris Adams. The rest, as Peter Edwards observed - and he was watching the England captain, Nasser Hussain, perform for Essex at the time - might be anybody's guess.