Henry Blofeld: Surfeit of counties leaves England chasing their tail

Click to follow

That hoary old question, "What are we going to do about the County Championship?", which has become the hardiest of annuals, has again raised its head. Lord MacLaurin, who resigned as chairman of the ECB at the start of the year, began the debate when he warned of an approaching downturn in the game's annual income and the folly and financial unviability of trying to continue with a system that continues to involve 18 first-class counties.

MacLaurin felt 12 counties would be the viable maximum and that to achieve this certain counties should merge. This would reduce the number of professional cricketers from 450 to just under 300, which was all that the game would be able to afford.

The present television contract with Channel 4 has two more years to run, and advance rumour has it that they are unlikely to want to renew it as it is. In whatever way the cricket package is marketed for television, there is likely to be a sizeable financial shortfall. In terms of cold logic, domestic cricket would have to cut its cloth accordingly.

It is an issue that inevitably produces an emotional shock-horror reaction from the dedicated followers of the County Championship who, of course, found it hard to stomach the MacLaurin-inspired decision to divide up the 18 counties into two divisions, a move which came into effect in 2001.

Their argument is usually that the old system has done pretty well for the country's cricket over the years, that more youngsters than ever are playing the game at grass roots level and the amount of raw talent is as abundant as ever. At worst, their argument goes, the system needs to be streamlined to ensure that this talent will come through. It is as certain as it is possible to be that nothing but the smallest cosmetic changes will be made and we will all roll up our sleeves for a similarly emotive discussion in a year's time.

The prime consideration should surely be to adopt whatever reforms are likely to produce the strongest possible England side. County committees are often all too reluctant to look beyond their own parochial boundaries and are unwilling to concentrate upon what must be the greater good. The surest way of raising the popularity of the game is to be in a position to field an England side that is capable of beating Australia and everyone else. Then, all the boys and girls will want to be Michael Vaughan or whoever, rather than dear old Becks.

Everything else should be secondary to the need to produce a formidable national side. Dividing the 18 counties into two divisions of nine was an important start, but it did not go far enough. Although Lord MacLaurin is no longer in power, his recent outpourings make excellent sense. The object must be to concentrate excellence in the First Division so that the best are continually playing against the best while devising a transfer system that will allow the best players to be elevated to the top division.

It would make excellent sense to bring the number of sides down to 12, with six in each division. If the counties played the others in their division twice a season, they would play 10 four-day games each. This would mean less actual cricket, in itself a good thing, and more time to work on the game. It also might mean that the contracted England players occasionally turn out for their counties, which would lessen the need for overseas players. No less than 67 foreign imports have played county cricket this year - a horrifying figure and a waste of money.

Gus Fraser made the point on Test Match Special that England tailenders, with the glorious exception of Steve Harmison on the fourth morning, do not bat as well as most of their overseas counterparts because so much continuous cricket is played in an English season and they never have the chance to practise this part of their game. The county coaches are anxious to keep their top-order batsmen in form and with little time available for net practice the opportunities are given to their main practitioners.

The value of lower-order batsmen who can keep their heads and their bats straight was also perfectly illustrated by Makhaya Ntini in South Africa's first innings at The Oval. He hung around while Shaun Pollock was able to collect most of the 52 runs they added for the 10th wicket. If England had been able to dismiss Ntini straightaway, they would have gone into the fourth day with a lead of 100 or more, which would have been invaluable.

Inevitably, the debate about the future shape of county cricket will meander on and on, and in all likelihood nothing will happen. The national side will carry on playing fitful cricket, unable to put together more than two good sessions at a time and so immediately surrendering any advantage they may have gained. No one will be brave enough to take this particular bull by the horns and give it a good old shake, and until they do, nothing will change.