Goalposts move and game might follow

England's brave new world: Yes, we have seen it all before - but at least this time there is a genuine glimmer

Amid the sound of back-slapping and general applause that greeted the latest grand plan to make English cricket great, it was just possible to hear goalposts being shifted. Perhaps it was discernible only to the trained or cynical ear, but if you listened it was unmistakable.

Amid the sound of back-slapping and general applause that greeted the latest grand plan to make English cricket great, it was just possible to hear goalposts being shifted. Perhaps it was discernible only to the trained or cynical ear, but if you listened it was unmistakable.

Back in 2001, it was the intention - it was called, lest anybody doubted the gravity, a mission statement - to make England the best Test team in the world by 2007. That express aim was contained in a document entitled A Cricketing Future For All, The National Strategy For Cricket. By last Tuesday, the mission statement had become a target and the year had moved to 2009. This time, it covered men's, women's and disabled teams, and was enshrined in a dossier with an eerily familiar theme, Building Partnerships, Cricket's Strategic Plan. A degree of scepticism was possibly forgivable, if not wholly justified, especially as the ambition has been sneakily amended to making England first or second.

In 2001, six years seemed a long way off, so it seemed safe to say it. But time is running out. In all but an arithmetical sense, it has already run out. Only if England thump Australia twice and Australia lose to everybody else, probably including all the Balkan cricket-playing states, could England become the best team in the world by 2007. Of course, if they beat Australia twice by whatever margin it will not matter a jot what the tables declare.

So, 2009 it is. The England and Wales Cricket Board feel slightly hard done by that some should think they are simply moving the year to suit need. The implied suggestion is that in 2007, say, if English cricketing events have not gone as smoothly as they might have done, a paper might be issued called, for instance, Raising The Standard, An ECB Blueprint For The Future Playing Structure Of Cricket. Oops, sorry, that one was issued in 1998.

It has been mooted before that the walls of the ECB headquarters at Lord's must be papered with copies of previous reports into the state of English cricket. Launching a report and hatching a strategy have become the way of doing things, rather than actually doing anything. Without exception, these reports have been well-meant. They go back, as well. In the Fifties, the Altham Report stressed the importance of having more qualified coaches. As if to illustrate what half a century of progress has done, Building Partnerships states the aim "to have 17,500 registered coaches and 85,000 registered volunteer roles".

Yet this time, it really could be different. David Collier, who took over as the chief executive of the ECB in January, was blunt in stipulating that this time each element had been properly costed, with clear and measurable goals. He was as scathing about the past as it is possible to be in polite society. Any current successes, such as England being the second best team in the world and Twenty20, had come, he said, against a background of ill-defined roles and responsibilities. "In effect, our game's planning was based on wish lists and a series of well-intentioned independent projects which were not part of any unified strategy."

That tells it like it is, but it is unfair to Collier's predecessor, Tim Lamb. This latest strategy was 18 months in gestation. It began under Lamb's watch, and he should not be too hastily airbrushed out of the picture to suit the new management team. None the less, it is Collier who has supplied the fine print and it is Collier who has impressed the ECB staff that this strategic plan will actually leave the planning stage. One experienced coaching co-ordinator said: "For the first time I feel we're being told what it is that is expected of us, how it can be achieved and that the money is there to do it."

Resources are everything, of course, and the key to Building Partnerships is that funds have been diverted to grassroots cricket, otherwise known as the recreational game. There is recognition that without people learning to play cricket, there will be no decent England team and nobody to watch an indecent one. All this has been said before, but Collier has insisted on detailing what money will go where.

The biggest coup of this new strategy is the impending demise of the First Class Forum, a body perceived as embodying self-interest (the counties) and deliberately hampering progress (England). But they have been persuaded, as their chairman, Mike Soper, conceded, that their time has come. "It's the budget that made it necessary, and a new breed of county chairmen, businessmen most of them, knew it had to happen." But he added by way of warning that this did not mean that the 18 counties would be reduced so that there was less cricket. "The only way that will happen is if some go out of business."

But those who see a reduction in the number of counties as a panacea miss the point entirely. A country with the population of the UK and with its sporting heritage ought easily to be able to sustain 18 clubs playing first-class cricket.

However, the optimism generated by cricket's plans was somewhat dissipated a day later when it emerged that Yorkshire, having lost £500,000 last year, have failed in their attempt to buy the freehold of the Headingley ground. This could end international cricket there. Robin Smith, the county chairman, realises that the 15-year staging agreement with the ECB will have to be renegotiated. It may not be straightforward.

Headingley's place in the sport is vaunted, but it is a glum arena to attend these days. Its expensive revamping was superficial: where other grounds have constructed aesthetically pleasing new stands, Yorkshire threw up a few plastic bucket-seats. England's chances of being the best cricket team in the world by 2009 are a thousand times greater than Headingley's chances of being the best stadium.

What happened to the other cunning plans

1998: Raising The Standard

In many ways this brainchild of Lord MacLaurin was a bizarre aberration. It sought to bridge the gap between recreational cricket and first-class cricket, so that club players had "a real chance of progressing to the highest level", ditching county second XI cricket into the bargain. The big idea was dividing the County Championship into conferences of six teams each, thus reducing the number of matches. This plan survived only weeks, but at least it paved the way for two divisions.

2001: A Cricketing Future For All

Its most-publicised objective was to make England the best Test side in the world by 2007, which is now mathematically impossible. It also contained many of the ideals in the latest plan. It provided a framework for the whole game, aiming for cricket to be available in every school. It also wanted to ensure first-class cricket commanded the support and attention of the public. England indubitably improved, not much else happened.

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