County set must adapt for the good of England
Monday 27 May 2002
Cricket's County Championship has become a rather miserable Aunt Sally. There are those who want to plant a stick of dynamite or two under the whole blessed structure. Then there are others who, reverberating with moral indignation, want to rebuild every brick of the edifice so that the old dinosaur can creakily resume its place in the cast of Jurassic Park.
English cricket seems permanently to be involved in a tug-of-war between the avant-garde revolutionaries and the stately old reactionaries. The latter become apoplectic when Michael Atherton and Nasser Hussain doubt its effectiveness – even though they are the guys who have spent many years at the coalface.
Surely to goodness, the present ongoing inability of England to field a side which can shake a stick at the best teams around means that the engine needs more than just fine-tuning. The reality is that, while England was the only country to play professional cricket, the system of 17 first-class counties served us pretty well. The rest of the world then turned professional and left us far behind.
The surest way of ensuring that cricket retains its popularity in this country must be to produce a successful England side and everything should be geared to that end. It can only be counter-productive to try and hang onto a system which brings with it a congenial way of life, but is conspicuously failing to deliver the goods as far as England's fortunes are concerned – we last beat Australia in 1986-87.
The Aussies' system is an object lesson in planning a path of accessibility for everyone with true talent. They are, of course, helped by their admirable climate which is ideal for the development of young cricketers. However, for the best, the freeway forward is in place.
The journey starts with school or junior club cricket, which will lead onto Grade or District cricket and ever upwards to the state side and finally into a baggy dark green Australian cap. There is the celebrated Academy, too, which has been so successful in smoothing down any serious rough edges.
There is a formidable concentration of excellence in the six state sides who contest the Pura Milk Cup, which is what commercial progress has done to the old Sheffield Shield. A quick look around England at the Australians on the county circuit who are unable to get into the Australian side – but who would probably walk into England's – underlines the strength of their production lines.
In the last few years, England's cricket has taken a few nervous steps forward under the guidance of Lord MacLaurin, who has then been consistently pulled back by the First-Class Forum. This body has had the power of the veto over any executive suggestions, although this is finally being put right. His first attempt at reform came in that famous document 'Raising the Standard' which appeared in 1997 but was thrown out by the counties.
A year later, when nothing had improved, MacLaurin tried again and won. By 2000, the Championship had been divided up into two divisions of nine counties each, with promotion or relegation for six counties. A belated start had been made to the crucial job of trying to concentrate excellence at the top.
So far we have not gone far enough, although a great deal has been done by the ECB in the lower levels of the game. The logical conclusion to what has already begun is that there should be three divisions of six counties each, with one side being promoted and relegated each season. An official transfer system should also be put in place to ensure that the best players rise through to the top. Then players in the lower divisions would be paid less than those in the top flight and human nature would lend a helping hand.
The lower divisions would effectively become feeder leagues and, as happens now, the financing of the counties would remain a prior charge on the overall income generated by the ECB. There would also be half a dozen regional games between sides representing their quarter of the country which would also be played over four days.
Life in the Third Division may not have a great appeal for those counties at the bottom, but then nor does it have much glamour for football clubs like Leyton Orient, who muddle along at Brisbane Road, or Bristol Rovers, who do likewise at the Memorial Stadium. But each still has its core of diehard supporters who do not like to miss a game.
In the fullness of time, one or two counties may disappear – there must be a chance of this happening anyway. Sad though that would be, if the end product is a seriously competitive England side, the game as a whole will not suffer. If children run around the place wanting to be, say, Ian Bell – a class performer whose turn will soon come – and not just "Becks", cricket will have turned a corner.
The old farts will scream in horror, not to say blind fury, at these suggestions, but I, for one, would like to feel that at some stage in what is left of my lifetime there will be just a chance that England might beat Australia. If that end requires desperate measures and a little bit of devil's advocacy, so be it.
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