Atherton's reformers dig in for long innings

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The Independent Online

The rebels will meet the establishment next week in the first round of talks about starting a revolution in English cricket. It will be a civilised confrontation, but it may also herald a bitter struggle, which could yet see a dramatic reduction in the number of professional players, a cut in the number of county clubs and a restructuring of the game from almost top to almost bottom.

The insurgents will be armed with a detailed manifesto, prepared by the former England captain turned cricketing pundit Michael Atherton. He is one of five founder- members of the Cricket Reform Group. They also include another former captain turned commentator, Bob Willis; the chat-show host and sports writer Michael Parkinson; the businessman and Saracens Rugby Club owner Nigel Wray; and Willis's elder brother, David, chief executive of the National Sporting Club and a seasoned administrator in amateur cricket.

This disparate band suddenly announced their formation during the year's final Test at The Oval, when England were in deep trouble against South Africa and about to end the season on a low note. A day later, match and summer were transformed by the home side's astonishing victory, and the CRG's points were submerged.

For a high-profile bunch wishing to force fundamental change on the game, they have been keeping a distinctly low profile since. The reason appears to be that they want to come to the table next week armed with substantial arguments rather than the flimsy A4 sheet of paper on which their original call for revolution was contained.

"Our manifesto for change is now in its final stages," said David Willis, who provided the original impetus for the CRG and enlisted the illustrious recruits. "Michael Atherton has undertaken discussions with a whole range of people in the game, and a number of very important people as well as players."

The CRG will meet officials from the England and Wales Cricket Board on 19 November, and they are not being dismissed lightly. The ECB delegation will consist of the chairman, David Morgan, and the deputy chief executive, John Carr. It would have been the chief executive, Tim Lamb, but he will be away on England's tour of Sri Lanka that week.

The CRG are unwilling to reveal much of their hand as yet, but key aims are likely to be a change in the County Championship to implement three divisions of six and therefore only 10 games for each side a summer; the end of Minor Counties cricket; and the formation of a much stronger club system, at which substantial amounts of cash would be thrown each year.

Secretly, it is entirely possible that many officers within the ECB share some of these objectives. But the ultimate power for change resides in the First Class Forum, the representatives of the 18 first-class counties.

Carr said: "The CRG consist of respected figures and of course we will be taking them seriously. There are always contentious issues in cricket, but we have to achieve a balance between being prepared to be honest and review our procedures, and reinforcing the fact that there is a lot that is good about the game at the moment. If there has been some concern about what the CRG have said, it is that."

The CRG are likely to have plenty of backing from club cricket. Barry Stuart-King, head of the Club Cricket Conference, said: "We are more organised than ever before and we are definitely in broad agreement with the CRG. There has to be more money handed down from the centre to club cricket."

The CRG want clubs to be far more closely linked to the big-time game. It happens in Australia. For instance, Jason Gillespie, who aims to play in the First Test against India in three weeks, is starting his comeback from injury today for his club team, Adelaide. Most English players sever connections with their clubs when they sign for counties.

The clubs have now formed the National Association of Club and League Cricket Conferences, and if they start kicking up a unified stink, boats could be rocked.

David Willis said: "After we have met the ECB and outlined our proposals we shall put them into the public domain. We will then make a concerted and organised effort to enlist support from all walks of cricket life. We don't intend to stop until we achieve change. This is for the good of the English game and the England team."

The CRG have already had talks with the Professional Cricketers' Association (who may not want to shed too many members) and will not be short of public forums to air their views. Their short-term chances of progress will depend on English failure. If England win in Sri Lanka and the West Indies this winter, everything will be hunky-dory, no matter what former England captains say.