Morgan: the divisions do not add up

Cricket 2003: After a rollercoaster summer ECB's leading man casts doubt on two-tier Championship
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The Independent Online

Only a passing madman, surely, could have wished to conduct radical surgery on English cricket this last month. The euphoric events of late summer provided memories to last for years.

England's dramatic win at The Oval to draw the Test series against South Africa was followed by a more parochial, no less intoxicating triumph for Sussex in becoming cham-pions. They were the imperish-able episodes for which the sponsors (npower and Frizzell) hand over their cash.

All that was preceded by 20Twenty - bright, potted, high-summer cricket that was unquestionably a hit - and two whopping victories in one-day international tournaments that pushed England to third in the ICC table. What larks.

Nobody should be easily fooled. These happy occasions contrived to conceal a multitude of flaws. In assessing the season last week, David Morgan, the chairman of the England and Wales Cricket Board, was prepared for questioning by a flotilla of Frankensteins with notebooks. He was willing to assist with the scalpel.

Morgan began by celebrating recent weeks, but swiftly recognised their limitations. He was speaking in the wake both of proposals submitted by the Cricket Reform Group (led by Bob Willis and Michael Atherton, among others) who want to restructure the game, and of comments, later rescinded, by Michael Vaughan, who called for a reduction in the number of county clubs and matches and talked of the enthusiasm levels drained out of the players. They may be put on the back foot by Morgan.

"County clubs should be leaner and fitter," he said. "Engaging 25-plus professional cricketers per county in addition to centrally contracted players is in my view a waste. I believe the CRG are right when they flag up the number of professional cricketers. I think it's too many, and I've always thought so. There would be a far freer flow through from club cricket and the minor counties if clubs had maybe 15, 16 or 18."

Morgan also indicated that the ECB had to look seriously and quickly at the amount of county cricket being played (though he did not mention the potential overkill of seven Test matches and 13 one-dayers a summer). He defended the number of counties but suggested controversially that a return to one division was not out of the question.

"I don't regard two divisions as an achievement," he said. "There is a growing belief within the 18 first-class counties that in some respects two divisions has been retrograde. I think a return to one is a possibility. Before touting such things I would want it properly examined by a mix of current and former cricketers, as well as by a business base at the board.

"I recognise that there are many who say we play too much cricket, and I hear what they say. Of course, in terms of the wellbeing of the 18 they are businesses and they need volume and quality to prosper. You can retain 18 clubs and play fewer Championship games by having a conference system. We do not believe 18 clubs is excessive in a country with a population at least three times greater than Australia's.

"You're not going to get a quote from me today saying a single division is the way forward, or that a conference system is, but quite clearly, with the England head coach believing we play too much, it's something we have to look at. But there is a balance between reducing, reducing, reducing, and nourishing the plant in a proper way."

Morgan said change could come to the Championship for the 2005 season. He also wants to examine urgently the number of EU-qualified players - who are not eligible for England - being hired by counties, and possible differ-entials in the annual fee payments of £1.2m to counties.

"I think the influx of EU- qualified players has been to the detriment of the development of England-qualified talent," he said. "We took counsel's advice, and unsurprisingly EU law was that you couldn't discriminate against such people. We're taking it again to see if we can limit on the basis that county cricket exists primarily to produce a successful England team.

"The question of differential payments is thorny. Somebody said it should be based on the number of England- qualified players in a team, or centrally contracted players. These are being discussed and will not be long delayed."

Such statements of good intent by the ECB's head honcho are bound to appease - and may be intended to - the CRG and beyond. But statements are not actions, and everybody knows what road was paved by good intentions.

What two divisions have failed to do is raise standards. There is no discernible difference in quality between the two divisions. Sussex are a good team who have worked hard, but the sides at the bottom of the first division have been shambolic; some of the bowling purveyed by Leicestershire at Hove last week should not have been sent down in the name of professional cricket. In the second division, the clubs below halfway have played poor, disorganised cricket.

England's stirring comeback under a new captain, the deeds of Marcus Trescothick, the advent of James Anderson, the comeback of Graham Thorpe and the maturing of Andrew Flintoff were as heart-warming as they were spine-tingling. But take a look at the season's averages, the batting especially. It is dominated by touring South Africans and Australians who are not good enough for their national team.

One of the reasons that Duncan Fletcher extended his contract as England's coach was to work with what he saw as the exciting fresh talent. But the lack of young batsmen who have scored big runs and bowlers who have taken meaningful wickets does not speak of a game with depth, no matter how many professionals it has.

In so many ways it has been a striking, glorious summer. Do not suppose for a moment it has taken a single step to reclaiming the Ashes.

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