England left on a treadmill by ECB's need for cash

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The Independent Online

Michael Vaughan complained the other day that back-to-back Test matches had been forced upon England on two occasions this season. The amount of cricket, both international and domestic, steadily increases and all the new stuff is designed to enlarge the pot of gold that the England and Wales Cricket Board will have collected by the end of the year and from which it will have to pay its contracted players and all the other many expenses that come its way.

The triangular one-day competition of 10 matches played in midsummer has become a fixture. This year, three more one-day games against India have been fitted in for September. As there will be three one-day games against Australia outside the triangular competition next year, it is reasonable to assume that from now on each summer will see these three extra games.

This September will also see England hosting the Champions' Trophy between the nine Test-playing countries and one qualifier, the United States. To accommodate this lot it is surprising that there are not more back-to-back Tests than the first and second and then the third and fourth in the series against the West Indies. This enormous programme has to be fitted in and then time has to be set aside for the Twenty20 competition.

Of course, it is all pretty tiring for England's leading players, but they have surely to ask themselves if their central contracts with the ECB would produce as much money if the international programme was curtailed. Vaughan probably has a particular dislike for back-to-back Tests in view of the fact that he succeeded to the captaincy between back-to-back Tests against South Africa a year ago. Nasser Hussain suddenly resigned after the first Test against South Africa at Edgbaston, leaving the new captain with little time to prepare for the Lord's Test two days later.

In the best of all worlds back-to-back Test matches would not happen, but cricket has always been strapped for cash and there is not the slightest chance that this heavy programme will be cut. This cannot be said too firmly at a time when all the important financial contracts governing English cricket are coming up for renewal.

The television rights for Tests will have to be renegotiated in time for the 2006 season; Vodafone's present sponsorship of the England team comes to an end next year. The radio rights will again be up for grabs after next year and npower's contract for Test matches has to be renegotiated. NatWest's sponsorship of one-day international matches also has a question mark hanging over it.

The one thing of which you may be sure is that the much-depleted ECB, which has seen four of its principal administrators resign this summer, will not be contemplating cuts that will offer its potential paymasters less cricket than they are getting at the moment. If anything, it may want to offer them more.

The serious point is that the ECB officials who would have carried out the negotiations have all gone, partly in protest at that absurd body which makes English cricket such a laughing stock, the First-Class Forum. It is also a major worry that the ECB may not have the tough and suitable negotiators in place to rearrange these crucial contracts.

The self-interest of the First-Class Forum is sickening and a dead weight on the development of English cricket. This body appears to be unable to agree to anything that does not serve its own self-interest and should be ashamed of its behaviour.

It is because of the First-Class Forum - which effectively has the power of veto over anything and everything that the main board of the ECB proposes, and is composed of stuffy, self-serving, bureaucratically-minded little emperors from the counties - that the game in England has been held back over these past few years.

It was the counties, marshalled by Brian Downing, a far-seeing administrator both of Surrey and the ECB, that persuaded Lord MacLaurin to become chairman of the ECB when his days at Tesco had finished. After Downing had won the approval of the majority of the members of the First-Class Forum, it was this same body that blocked everything that MacLaurin proposed.

He made a start by splitting the old County Championship of 18 sides into two divisions of nine, but was stopped from further innovations that could only have helped to narrow the gap between first-class cricket and Test cricket.

The England side is doing much better at the moment, but playing Australia for the Ashes is ultimately the ball game that counts the most. Next year we will see how much the gap between the two countries has closed.

One fears that when push comes to shove there may still be a marked disparity. But as long as the county game insists on maintaining its comfortable and cosy ways and is sufficiently financed by the proceeds from England's international cricket, the men who run that part of our game will be full of smiles.

One fervently hopes rumours of change on the administrative front are well founded.