Henry Blofeld: Divisions evident as union calls ECB staff cuts 'naïve'

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The Independent Online

Those two miserable old friends, Botch and Compromise, are on the march again. All those in important places realise that something must be done about county cricket if the England side is to become competitive against the best, which means Australia. For what seems to be their own committed, not to say prejudiced reasons, two more conflicting views have just been expressed.

David Morgan, who succeeded Lord MacLaurin as chairman of the ECB earlier this year, has had his say without saying anything in the way of evidence to promote his main point, which is to scrap the two divisions of the County Championship. This would mean that we all return to the cowardly old world of one highly unwieldy, largely pointless division of 18 teams.

His second point, which makes excellent sense, is that all counties should be restricted to professional staffs of 16 to 18 players. Enter stage left, one Richard Bevan, the militant chief executive of the Professional Cricketers' Association, who has described this suggestion as "naïve". Bevan showed every sign of wanting to develop into the game's Alastair Campbell last winter when he became the highly voluble mouthpiece for the England players over whether or not they should play a World Cup game in Zimbabwe.

At the time, it was impossible to escape the impression that the issue was of disproportionate importance to Bevan himself. One had the feeling that it became his own personal virility symbol, that he had to get his way in order to justify and consolidate his job with the PCA. England's refusal to go to Zimbabwe cost the game a huge amount of money that it can ill afford and sacrificed every drop of goodwill it had ever had in Africa, if not elsewhere.

It is difficult not to interpret his comments on Morgan's second suggestion as the remark of a man who wants to ensure that he maintains a decent band of brethren to follow him as he sets off on his charger. Of course, no one wants to see cricketers or anyone else lose their jobs, but one cannot fly in the face of financial imperatives. These will burst upon the game in two years' time when the next round of negotiations for television rights has been concluded and the pot is not nearly so full.

How much better to anticipate these unpleasant circumstances and to put something in place to prepare for them, rather than to hope that cricket will be able to busk it at the time. It was because the authorities resolutely refused to face the realities of the time that Kerry Packer burst upon the scene in 1977. Remember what that cost the game as a result of that unfortunate legal involvement in the High Court when Justice Christopher Slade found unerringly for Packer and his World Series Cricket. In any event, how will Bevan preserve county staffs at their present levels when the forthcoming financial bomb finally bursts?

Morgan is right that county staffs will have to be drastically reduced, not only to save money but also to allow the best club cricketers to find a way through into the county set-up. It is only by opening up this path that there is a chance of utilising a great deal of worthwhile talent which is, under the present system, lost to the game. I doubt Bevan would want an amateur influx, for that might make for some uncomfortable adjustments in the PCA.

Morgan's proposal to scrap the two-divisional system in the County Championship, if he has been correctly reported, is much more worrying. It is difficult to find one scintilla of evidence to suggest that this will be in any way beneficial to England's needs. It is the main job of the Championship to provide players of a sufficient calibre to play for England. As this column pointed out last week, a consistently successful England side is the greatest PR exercise of all as far as the game in England is concerned.

The system of two divisions is beginning to concentrate excellence in the top flight. The promotion and relegation of three sides brings an infinitely greater interest to the second half of the season than was the case in the old days. In August and September, so many of the sides that were out of contention for any prize did little more than go through the motions. Morgan is in grave danger of lining himself up with the old farts.

What he should be doing is moving in the opposite direction and trying to set about paring down the number of the counties. What we need is perhaps 10 sides in one division or six, just possibly seven, in two divisions. Morgan seems to embrace a steady-as-she-goes approach to the job rather than be willing to grasp an innovative role.

One gets the impression that he wants to make his mark, but perhaps he does not have the courage or the foresight to go forward into what would be a brave new world. He has decided, therefore, to take one shuffling step backwards. It will be a step that will take England back to the dark ages in terms of development and make it even more unlikely that they will beat Australia and regain the Ashes again, in my lifetime at any rate.

Alas, it looks as if Botch is going to get the better of Compromise - and it won't be for the first time. I wonder what we will have to face when we all foregather next April?