Robin Scott-Elliot: A brave new world for cricket must take county game outside existing boundaries

Next summer, 2012, will be much tougher, with cricket floored by the combined sportingclout of the European Championship and the London Olympics
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The Independent Online

Spring is in the air, the sun is out, Alastair Cook has finished lambing and is back playing cricket. There is a spring in the step of cricketers up and down the country as whites are dusted down and that back-foot cover drive in front of the mirror takes on more urgency. Back, across, boof; and a wave of the bat to acknowledge applause for that previously elusive century.

English cricket begins the season on an Ashes-induced high but there is never a fanfare to the start of a new domestic campaign. A week ago Cook, the well-scrubbed poster boy of the English game, began his domestic campaign at Fenner's, opening the batting for Essex against the students of Cambridge watched by one man because the dog had stayed home to watch the World Cup final. That day, some x-hundred miles away, Mahendra Singh Dhoni confirmed himself as the poster boy of Indian cricket, thundering the six that was heard around the world. India, it declared, is cricket, and cricket is India's.

The Indian Premier League has also returned, the closeted whispers over its future drowned out by a new wave of money flooding into the sport. When last year more than $700m (£427m) was paid out for two new franchises it was difficult not to believe that they were operating in a cricket fantasy world, reached through the back of a Mumbai wardrobe. Now the figures are all too real. Dhoni commands $2m per endorsement in the wake of capturing his country's glory.

As for the English domestic game, in which only three of the 18 first-class counties made a profit according to most recent figures, where does it go? Unlike the IPL, which exists purely for itself, the English game exists, or rather has evolved to exist, for the national side. And in return the national governing body keeps the counties, all 18 of them, in existence. But for how much longer?

There are few more depressing sporting spectacles than a trip to watch, say, Derbyshire on a damp, blustery day play in a 40-over league match, but there are plenty of other grounds to visit where there is true sporting pleasure to be found. A post-lunch sojourn in a Hove deckchair, seduced by a gentle sea breeze and serenaded by ripples of applause, is the sort of British sporting event that should be listed, along with Boxing Day football and Sir Alex Ferguson.

County cricket is a very different sport to the days when Cook's predecessors in the Essex side would use a game against a South Coast county to take an overnight ferry trip to France and be back in time to take the field for day two. It remains, though, on the fringes of any sporting radar, even if the scorecards are a reassuring presence in the papers. The fear is that, in this time of harsh economics and loosening ties with the past, it has reached the point for the game to take some harsh decisions. There are working parties and reports and delayed decisions; which only goes to suggest that the authorities and the counties themselves know there is trouble ahead.

To blame the economic downturn for the counties' current struggles is at best disingenuous. There has long been a reliance on a central handout. It is time to cut; rugby league assesses any newcomers to Super League on a number of factors, on and off the pitch. Something similar could be applied for the grisly task of dispatching a couple of counties to the minors, although there could also be a route for readmittance.

In Britain there is not the all-consuming passion for cricket, nor the vast numbers wanting to watch it that has helped India become the game's powerhouse. But that does not mean a franchise system couldn't work well for Twenty20 in this country; a spread of urban bases can easily ensure nationwide reach. Perhaps they could assume responsibility for all limited-overs cricket. Scrap the embarrassingly pointless 40-over competition and reintroduce a 50-over knockout with a showcase Lord's final.

That helps rid the game of the impenetrable mess that is the current fixture list and leaves the counties to concentrate on feeding the Test side, a role they are meeting with a notable degree of success. The County Championship is successful on the field. As executives look to Australia for models of how cricket grounds can become multi-purpose arenas, Australia are looking with a rare tinge of envy at the on-field fruits of our domestic first-class game.

For all that, this summer is forecast to be the most lucrative in the English game's history, some feat outside an Ashes year, but the money is coming from India, largely via a colossal TV deal.

Next summer will be much tougher, with cricket floored by the combined sporting clout of football's European Championship and the London Olympics. That will hit the game hard financially, and is no time to be stepping into a brave new world. And that gives the authorities the chance to prevaricate, or the chance to get it right and give birth to a new form of the English game come spring 2013.

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