Cricket: Time for real change

Derek Pringle has doubts about latest proposals for reorganising the ga me in this country
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The Independent Online
The Australians are not even over here yet and already English cricket is being held to ransom. In a sneak preview of his plans for the future of the game, Lord MacLaurin, chairman of the new England and Wales Cricket Board, has claimed that unless his proposals contained within a "Strategic Plan" are accepted by the counties, he will resign.

It is a little bit like the playground provider insisting that if his chums do not uphold his claims that he was not ready when his middle stump was removed, the game is over and he will be taking his bat and ball with him.

Blackmail can be an invidious way to do business, but in the real world where MacLaurin comes from - rather than the cloistered stripy-tied world that used to, and to a certain extent still does run cricket in this country - it is preferable to not getting anything done at all. As he rightly points out, the counties brought him in to do a job, and that is what he proposes to do.

It is unequivocal stuff from MacLaurin whose ultimatum seems to be: Do what I say, or I'm off, and you can go back to your bickering and a governing body that will return to its time-honoured methods of fudge and counter- fudge.

Those county clubs, however, will be his biggest stumbling block if anything truly radical is introduced. According to an interview in the Sunday Telegraph, his ideas for the County Championship revolve around the model used by American football and baseball. It is to be divided into two divisions of equal standing, the top teams from each division eventually meeting in a final.

But whereas the American conferences remain unchanged from year to year, MacLaurin envisages a system that would be picked from a hat and one that would presumably change according to the laws of chance. Once the divisions were established, each team would play the others in their section twice. The top two sides from each division then meet in semi-finals before playing a final, presumably at Lord's or one of the other Test grounds.

There are, however, serious flaws to this system, not least that traditional fixtures such as the Roses match and other well-entrenched local derbies would not be an annual event. More importantly though, it does not address the current system's most pressing problem: that our best players play far too much cricket.

MacLaurin says that reducing this workload is a priority. This system actually provides the top four teams with more cricket than they play already, particularly if the losing semi-finalists have to play off for third place.

Having upper and lower divisions, while possibly providing an elite, is far from ideal either. It will not attract more spectators except to those in the top section, and once a struggling club's players have fled the roost, as they inevitably will, there would be little prospect of getting into the top division. In fact, there would be little reason to exist at all and several clubs would go to the wall.

More radical - in that it would destroy traditional fan bases - but perhaps more palatable to many would be an elite regional competition of four sides. Nominally, these would be South, West, North and Midlands with each comprising either four or five counties, and each team would play each other twice, with perhaps a five-day final between the top two sides.

For example, the West would contain the cream from Somerset, Glamorgan, Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and Hampshire, while the North would be taken from the strongest XI that Lancashire, Yorkshire, Durham and Derbyshire could provide. No overseas players would be involved.

The regional players - who are picked on merit and not to satisfy any political criteria - would still be affiliated to county staffs, but would not play for them unless they lost form and were dropped from the regional side.

That would mean a minimum of six games and a maximum of seven to be played from Friday to Monday in between Tests. These matches do not have to be played on Test grounds, just good pitches. The same could be done with one-day cricket, with one batch of games at the beginning of the season and another towards the end, the final being at Lord's.

The County Championship remains as it is, but by dropping one of the limited-over competitions it acts as an incubator, rather than a treadmill, in which largely younger talent is developed. If they are interested, one experienced overseas player would be allowed to play.

This ought not to overly disappoint the few members that watch on a regular basis. After all, counties rarely get good value from their Test players once the international season starts.

Playing less frequent, higher intensity matches ought to encourage the public at large, who simply do not have the time to watch county cricket on a regular basis. This is where the American system, particularly its marketing arm, would be worth considering. In America sporting occasions are an event and sold ever more slickly to the public. No coincidence then, that the National Basketball Association's marketing guru is even better paid than the leading players, who would not even get out of bed for your average county cricketer's salary.

Contrast this with the goings on at Edgbaston yesterday, where England A were playing The Rest and where Warwickshire held an open day for the public, and you can understand why the game is struggling to attract large scale public interest, particularly among the young.

As one visitor with two young boys was heard to claim, as the freezing cold weather forced the match into mid-afternoon rigor mortis: "It's enough to put your kids off for life." Executive boxes may be easy to sell for Test matches at Lord's but it is attitudes like this that have to be addressed if life is to be breathed back into the domestic game.