English cricket is preparing for a bitter struggle as its status in the country comes under threat. The game was looking distinctly out of sorts last week while it was besieged on three fronts.
First, England's epic triumph in the Rugby World Cup put into sharp focus the cricket team's moderate record. Secondly, the Cricket Reform Group, led by two former England captains, launched its manifesto and highlighted the domestic game's deficiencies. Thirdly, the England and Wales Cricket Board trimmed its budget to guard against future cash shortages.
"Rugby is understandably and justifiably hogging the limelight to the detriment of everybody," said John Reid, the ECB's director of corporate affairs. "Everybody is feeling the heat and people are inevitably comparing rugby to the other major national spectator sports, which principally means cricket and football.
"I'm sure we can learn from them. We've gone a long way to providing the framework that the coach Duncan Fletcher needs but whether we've done enough is a moot point. It has reinforced that winning at international level is what it's all about."
Winning at international level is precisely what the Reform Group's proposals are aimed at. With Bob Willis and Michael Atherton as their most prominent members, they demonstrated that they mean business with an impressive and pertinent document called Making English Cricket Great - For Everyone.
The ECB are aware that the Reform Group cannot be ignored. Privately, senior officials probably agree with many of their ideas but cannot execute them because the final decision always rests with the First Class Forum - the counties. The Reform Group want the First Class Forum abolished.
"We need to reflect on the manifesto and there are undoubtedly some good ideas there but I'm not sure they've all been thought through," said Reid. "It's so easy to criticise but we're the governing body and we have to make things happen." The ECB are staging their own review of domestic cricket. John Carr, the board's director of cricket operations, will report next May. The intention is that it will overhaul the county game starting in 2006 - with the aim still being to make England the best side in the world by 2007.
Reid said: "I don't know how radical it will be but the unanimous view among coaches is that there's too much county cricket played and we will definitely look at that." The Reform Group have suggested splitting the Championship into three groups of six (the first-class counties having merged with the minor counties) with each side playing 10 matches.
It is difficult to see how the ECB cannot opt for some changewith the CRG collectively breathing down their neck. In addition to Atherton and Willis, the Group include Michael Parkinson, the businessman and owner of Saracens rugby club, Nigel Wray, and the plan's originator, David Willis.
If Carr does nothing, with England still off the pace in the world game, there would be a grave risk of alienating sponsors. For that reason alone, the Reform Group may have spoken at the right time.
With cricket struggling for attention, it is also finding money tight. The ECB have decided to establish a reserve fund to cope both with a possible drop in TV income when the rights are renegotiated in 2005 and with any losses incurred by the refusal of other countries to tour England.
"It's about prudent financial management because of the way the world is and who we play. We've no reason at all to think either New Zealand or West Indies would withdraw from touring here next summer but who knows if there was a dreadful terrorist incident in London?"
The ECB want to set aside £10m, which effectively means the counties annual fee of £1.3m will be frozen and cuts will be made elsewhere. The counties may dislike it but could have occasion to dislike a lot more yet. In a clarion call which may dismay the Reform Group, Reid said: "We're constantly looking at how to improve things. In a way we are the Reform Group."Reuse content