Stephen Brenkley: Another day, another kicking - and a warning

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The Independent Online

Next to cricket, the second most popular summer sport in England is telling the people who run it that they are hopelessly wrong. It is fashionable partly because they make it so easy.

Next to cricket, the second most popular summer sport in England is telling the people who run it that they are hopelessly wrong. It is fashionable partly because they make it so easy.

A couple of days ago, a lobby group called the Sports Nexus enlarged their space on the bandwagon. What they had to say about the game's shortcomings had been said hundreds of times before, frequently in these columns. But that did not diminish the force of their opinions so much as that they were accompanied by some astonishing proposed solutions, and that Sport England, the body which if not actually driving the bandwagon are riding shotgun, chose the moment to fire a potentially killing warning shot.

The root of the problem is, of course, money and where it goes. Sport England, who have given some £12 million to the England and Wales Cricket Board this year, have warned that there will not be more where that came from unless there is change. Bluntly, they want the first-class counties, who have the power to control the purse strings, to desist. Reform or else is Sport England's cry.

The Sports Nexus were established and are chaired by Jonathan Marland. He promises that they will not be going away in a hurry. "I've been lucky enough to make a bit of money and I love sport, and I got to thinking that sport in this country simply isn't accountable to the people who watch it," he says. "It is not properly run and I would like to show them where they are going wrong."

Presumably, he chose cricket first because it is a target waiting to be hit. This might all seem irrelevant to the passing fan, especially when he has just witnessed England winning seven Tests in a row. Can't be much wrong. And who are Sports Nexus anyway? Well, another voice with some influential backers.

Marland's team have spent months composing their dossier and proposals. Their work is far from flawless. For instance, they wanted to show that the financial performance of the 18 first-class counties could improve (though not by nearly as much as their playing performances if the recent, negative, Championship season is anything to go by).

They hired a forensic accountant to go through the accounts and were pretty miffed when only 11 counties responded. If they meant business, maybe Nexus could have outflanked them by doing something crafty like buying a county yearbook to get some of the other seven balance sheets.

The thrust of their solution is a survival of the fittest. Underperforming counties will just go to the wall. They are also quite rightly concerned about the lack of funds going to the recreational game, for without that there will be no professional game worth the candle in 20 years.

They give the usual kicking to the maligned First-Class Forum - understandably - and wonder aloud about the fact that in essence the present system allows private members' clubs to make the major financial decisions.

Part of the call for change is to allow the MCC to find a renewed role in the game by being put in charge of the recreational game, yet the MCC is the biggest private members' club in the world. It ran the whole game once, and this would be a case of going back to the future. Perhaps Marty McFly should succeed Tom Graveney as MCC president.

Sports Nexus said, less cogently, more or less what the Cricket Reform Group said last year. Bob Willis, one of the founding fathers of CRG, was at the Sports Nexus launch. Considering cricket is so defective it was surprising that David Morgan, the chairman of the ECB, was recently returned unopposed for another two-year term. Could not Nexus or CRG have found a candidate to cause mischief if nothing else?

Sport England's threat may have more immediate repercussions. But don't be sure. One influential county chairman has been heard to espouse his opinion that Sport England should be told where to go. Maybe he is hoping that he will get so much from the next round of TV rights that Sport England's money is of no concern - in which case he and cricket will learn an extremely expensive lesson.

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