Behind the boundary, counties are on war footing

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The Independent Online

There is an enduring image of county cricket as a cosy cartel watching the world go by, usually in deckchairs. It turns out that they are all at each other's throats, worried about going broke.

In a year spent travelling the shires, Graeme Wright was dismayed to find a sport in the grip of crisis and conflict. His findings may (or may not) come as a surprise to the England and Wales Cricket Board as they begin their own review into the business of the domestic game.

Wright, a former editor of Wisden, reveals that much of county cricket is burdened by debt and paying the interest on that debt. There is a feeling that the ECB would not mind if some of the counties went out of business, and it emerges that many of them want different things.

"The feeling of conflict really came across to me," said Wright. "They don't trust each other. They're scared that if they agree on something, somebody will break ranks because it's to their advantage, or the board will promise somebody a Test match or a bit more cash for ground development."

The details of Wright's research are contained in his book Behind the Boundary – Cricket at the Crossroads. It may be required reading for David Morgan, the former ECB chairman, who is conducting the board's review.

Wright investigates the debt that some counties, particularly those staging international matches, took on to pay for ground improvements to comply with ECB requirements. It has pushed some, including Yorkshire, who have an immediate debt of £4 million, close to collapse. There lies the dilemma.

As Wright said: "There has been no shortage of people pointing a finger at Yorkshire. But what was the club supposed to do? The alternative was not hosting Test cricket."

Although Wright avoids trying to provide solutions (partly, perhaps, because there may be no solution) he is adamant that the professional game cannot survive under the present structure. Everybody agrees that county cricket is no longer viable as a business, if it ever was, but no two counties appear able to agree on what should happen.

"The people who run the game have to see themselves as a co-operative," said Wright. "A way to start would be to have an independent chairman who doesn't come from the counties.

"My argument really is how we do keep hold of county cricket as a valuable and intrinsic part of English community life. The 18 counties need to work together under a proper administrative body, have their own chief executive and a small admin staffthat will essentially look after and promote the county game."

The ECB do not come out well from Wright's researches and the counties clearly feel there has been obsessive tinkering, which has led to a risibly cluttered schedule. But the surprising conclusion is that all the counties realise change is inevitable.

"If the conversations reinforced any preconceptions it was that while everyone has different ideas, nobody says the structure should stay the same," Wright reported.

'Behind The Boundary' by Graeme Wright (A & C Black, £9.99)