ECB changes: New concepts, old adversaries lurk in shadows of revolution

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Sometime next month the future direction of cricket in England will be established. It will certainly include more Twenty-20, the flavour of the century, and will probably entail a reduction in four-day cricket, which has come to smack of the century before last.

The nature of the season, already changed beyond recognition in the past 20 years, will be significantly amended. Depending largely on two reports, one on commercial imperatives and the other on public taste, it is eminently possible the season will have a block of Twenty20 cricket lasting at least a month, wherein even international matches, vastly the economic driver of the game, will not tread.

Whatever other powers it possesses, Twenty20 seems to be scrambling thought processes. There is an unseemly jockeying for position, with some counties apparently able to smell the money they think they can make from an enhanced T20 competition – a so-called England Premier League.

The day after the ECB's board met last week, Paul Sheldon, the chief executive of Surrey, said he was utterly in the dark about what the ECB proposed to do, and knew only what he read in the press. The thought occurred that if he really wanted to know what was going on he might have asked a man who is part of the 12-man ECB committee who are considering the options: his county chairman, David Stewart.

Surrey, like all the other large counties who stage internationals, are muscle-flexing. There is an implicit threat in everything they say that if they do not like what the ECB do they may consider going it alone. Improbable certainly, but not impossible.

Surrey are an adventurous, well-run club (until recently in Division Two of the County Championship incidentally, are still in Division Two of the Pro40 League, and failed to makethe Friends Provident Trophy quarter-finals, along with several other big names). In 12 years their turnover has increased fivefold to £23.5 million, and last year they had a record profit of £700,000. But that surplus was achieved because of the ECB's annual fee payment of £1.3m.

There is a degree of ill-will towards the ECB, caused partly by some clubs' belief that they are short-changed, partly by uncertainty. If it was to continue, the ECB may ultimately propose something truly outrageous, like building their own (much bigger) stadium. The gloves are not yet that far removed but Giles Clarke, the ECB chairman, will neither be bullied nor easily diverted.

It is inevitable that Twenty20 will feature more prominently. The Indian Premier League has seen to that. How much, however, will not be decided until the homework has been done. A report is imminent from the accountants KPMG that will assess the economic viability and sustainability of any new competition.

The idea that an England Premier League could rival the IPL is to enter the realms of the fantastic. Twenty20 is big, but this is not India. If there were only eight teams, based on city franchises, it is difficult to know where they would be located. The other report will stem from the market research being conducted during this year's domestic Twenty20 competition. This will endeavour to discover what Twenty20 spectators want, where and when.

"We have managed to get half a million people into our grounds but we must find out what else they like to watch," said Clarke. "There are other formats we're looking at but we need to know from these people what they would watch, when and where."

One of the possible formats is two-innings T20. The ECB make the reasonable point that T20 was predicated on extensive market research and any expansion should be likewise based.

There is a move in favour of setting aside part of the season for T20, but that would affect the rest of the season on either side. Some reduction of the Championship would seem inevitable given that it costs money to run. But three divisions of six counties would be difficult to operate fairly. How could a Division Three player ever hope to be selected for England?

The change in T20 itself is far from straightforward. It has wide appeal, but there are two separate audiences: the Friday night lads' night out and the Sunday afternoon family with kids.

As Clarke said: "We have to respect them all and we have to find out what we're going to fill our grounds with, because if we don't we are dead."