Counties set out in search of the lost generation

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The Independent Online

The future of English cricket will be proclaimed on Thursday. If the decisions contained in the blueprint to be adopted from next year are wrong or fall short there may be no future worth waiting for.

The future of English cricket will be proclaimed on Thursday. If the decisions contained in the blueprint to be adopted from next year are wrong or fall short there may be no future worth waiting for.

Changes being urgently proposed are the introduction of a 20-over evening competition to revitalise county cricket, more one-day internationals to give England more experience and to meet what is judged to be the "growing appetite of the consumer for ODIs", more players centrally contracted to England and an increase in the number of overseas players.

The County Championship, which last week secured a sponsor, Liverpool Victoria, who will put in £1 million over four years, will be untouched. (Confusingly it is to be called the Frizzell Championship).

It is not the first time in living memory that doom has been predicted but there is hardly scope for another dose of déjà vu. On this occasion, the First Class Forum – not the most radical arm of the ECB – must agree to sweeping change or effectively accept the impending extinction of several of their number despite the annual £1m subsidy from the England and Wales Cricket Board's international profits. Counties will go to the wall. Either way the road ahead will be hard.

The FCF, who represent the counties, have been considering the recommendations of the Domestic Structure Working Party. While the proposals are some way off being rev- olutionary, their report made it plain that inaction would result in dire consequences.

"The working party believes that the consumer research findings serve to emphasise the extent of the challenge facing cricket to maintain its long-term popularity," the paper says.

"In particular the lack of interest in the game from the 15-24 age group is a major concern and suggests that as time moves on the game could face a crisis in terms of levels of support unless the younger generation is encouraged to take a greater interest not only in playing the game but in attending matches and developing county affinity.

"Qualitative research also suggests that the main reason for this lack of popularity with these age groups is that the game is considered slow-moving and boring." There seems to be a common acceptance – unless the FCF think differently – that the game can no longer stand on its own two feet. But the working party, which was chaired by David Acfield whose working parties have been ignored before, recognised that they face potential opposition.

That is why they are not recommending the introduction of regional cricket to fill the gap between the county and international games. "The feedback suggests that regional cricket, even a few matches against touring teams, is politically unacceptable. However, the working party saw considerable merit in starting the season with a regional competition."

The potential and desperately required overhaul will not come close to matching the suggestions contained in the Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, whose 139th edition was published on Thursday. Suggesting that some counties are living on borrowed time the book puts forward a professional circuit based on cities, not counties, because "cities are marketable commodities."

This rather ignores the fact that counties often achieve their best attendances at their smaller outgrounds. But this Thursday something, anything, must change.

New ball game: The options facing the First Class Forum

1 Increase the number of one-day internationals played in England each summer to 10.

2 Year-long central contracts starting in September to be given to 25 players

3 Introduction of a 20-over evening competition for counties, to be played over a two-week period in June

4 Allow each county to field two overseas players

5 Set up a series of matches between centrally contracted players and county teams

6 Discussions on play-offs for the one-day league

7 No change in either the Championship or the first-class structure

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