An inter-city floodlit tournament could be staged in England next season under radical new proposals being discussed by four major counties. The Independent on Sunday understands that a pilot competition featuring Surrey, Lancashire, Yorkshire and Warwickshire might be held as early as this September as part of a determined effort to reverse cricket's recentfinancial decline.
Precise details of the day-night format have yet to be finalised but a city-based tournament with teams representing not only the likes of London, Birmingham, Leeds and Manchester but also Sydney, Madras, Johannesburg and Lahore is part of the long-term plan devised and initiated by Lancashire who, like all Test match counties, are looking to floodlit cricket to boost revenue and pay for the maintenance of their grounds.
Plans have already been presented to the chief executives of the four counties involved. "We see this as a spectacular event, an evening show where cricket is the main thrust of activity," said the county's secretary, David Edmundson. "I would never bastardise the game and Test cricket will always be played, but there is scope for thisvibrant night cricket. The players love playing it and it has a positive effect on the crowd.
"Old Trafford has a capacity of 19,500 and I'm certain we could have filled it for our match with Yorkshire last season. It was a foul night but there were more than 12,000 there. Cricket is the best game in the world and this could rejuvenate it andattract a new audience."
The England and Wales Cricket Board have been kept informed of the plans. Like the counties involved, they are anxious not to alienate the smaller clubs, who have traditionally blocked change, but they have given a cautious welcome. Terry Blake, the ECB's marketing director, said: "We've been kept in the loop on this and it's understandable that the Test-match grounds want to maximise revenue. This is one way of doing it, pop concerts might be another.
"The three-year domestic programme is already in place but I think the game will want to look very carefully at a floodlit league when it comes up for review again after the 2001 season."
There is obviously scope to move before then, and the counties involved have already spoken to sponsors and have attracted television interest. With airtime to fill, it is not difficult to imagine companies such as OnDigital or the cable company NTL being interested, as well as obvious contenders like Sky, who have pioneered the coverage of floodlit cricket in this country.
A tournament with four teams will be held towards the end of the summer only if there is room in the schedule. The ECB have earmarked the end of September for one-day international matches between India and Pakistan to capitalise on the fervent support generated by the World Cup match between the two last year. The cricket boards of both nations are known to be enthusiastic about the matches, but politics could yet intervene. If Pakistan and India do not send teams, Edmundson hopes the counties can seize the moment.
Some counties are likely to view the new tournament as a muscle-flexing exercise by the game's powerbrokers, perhaps the first move in an endgame which could lead to several smaller clubs going broke. The ECB will have to conduct a delicate balancing act, well aware that if they do not address the momentum for change there will be no shortage of private entrepreneurs willing to lead cricket towards a more dynamic future, both in England and in the tiger cricket economies of Asia.
Bizarrely enough, it is one of the so-called smaller counties who have led the way on floodlights. Sussex are alone in having erected a permanent set. David Gilbert, their chief executive, said: "Sunday one-day cricket is just not being supported as it was. Last season our Sunday crowds were pathetic, while for a floodlit game against Surrey we had a full house of 5,000."
The marketing of day-night games is crucial. For instance, Sussex will bill their match with Hampshire as the battle of the Aussies, Warne v Bevan. The ECB, as Blake conceded, may soon have to discuss the need for all clubs to have permanent lights.
The need for revamping the game has also been investigated by the Professional Cricketers' Association. "We have had at least six companies approach us to discuss formats," said Richard Bevan, the managing director of the management company of the PCA. "We are totally supportive of the ECB but we have to look at the long-term future of our members as well." One of those concepts is believed to involve an all-star Barbarian-style touring team, who would play a series of floodlit internationals worldwide for two months a year.