Twenty20 vision: All change on the county scene
The future of English domestic cricket is on the line as the ECB meets today to discuss a raft of radical proposals, but what it must get right, argues Angus Fraser, is how to harness the power of the shortest form of the game
Thursday 29 May 2008
Revolution, evolution or blind panic? Which policy will the England and Wales Cricket Board's board of directors adopt when they gather at Lord's today to discuss how English cricket reacts to the Indian Premier League and the huge worldwide demand for Twenty20 cricket? The verdict of the 12-man board and the proposed structure of county cricket from 2010 will not be made public until the ECB have gathered market research on the topic during this summer's domestic Twenty20 season, which starts in 12 days' time, but the results are expected to be far-reaching.
Radicalism and county cricket are not natural bedfellows but the boon of Twenty20 cricket, and particularly the IPL, has shown that vast amounts of money can be generated from non-international matches. With the exception of the post Second World War period, an era when county championship matches regularly attracted crowds of over 20,000, this has never been the case.
The decisions facing the board are huge. If they get the structure of domestic cricket in England right and organise a vibrant, moneyspinning Twenty20 tournament, the English Premier League, which is attractive to broadcasters – the current contract with Sky, BBC and Five, worth £220m, expires at the end of the 2009 season – everybody will benefit. Should they get it wrong there is the potential for anarchy, with Test match grounds threatening to break away to organise events and games for themselves.
There have been many suggestions as to how domestic cricket should be structured from 2010 onwards. Some of the recommendations – a 21 team Twenty20 League – are interesting, others – a Pro40 competition of two 20-over innings per side – laughable. Hopefully common sense will prevail. It needs to. Careful yet imaginative tinkering rather than knee-jerk wholesale changes are what is required.
At the forefront of the new structure is Twenty20 cricket. The concept, introduced in 2003, has brought millions of pounds in to domestic cricket and made most counties far less dependent on their annual handout of £1.25m from the ECB. There are two chains of thought. It has been mooted that an all singing, all dancing six- or eight-team competition containing the top names from the IPL needs to be created to attract an Indian broadcaster with a spare couple of hundred million pounds. The IPL appears to have been a success but, realistically, an English equivalent is not going to attract the same kind of money. There is not the interest. If the ECB were to attract a new broadcaster it would have to be with the blessing of Sky, who have invested hundreds of millions of pounds into English cricket over almost 20 years. The creation of a new Twenty20 competition to sit above the current one would have a divisive effect on the counties too. It would make their tournament second rate.
A second and more realistic option is to revamp the current tournament by adding three extra teams to make it a 21-team competition. The move would be popular because it involves all 18 counties – the constitution of the ECB requires this – plus three attractive overseas teams. The winners of the IPL and possibly the victors of an Australasian Twenty20 League could be two of them. The third could be Sir Allen Stanford's West Indian All-Star XI. Stanford, the Texan billionaire, is set to invest about £75m in to Twenty20 cricket by bankrolling an annual West Indies All-Star XI v England match in Antigua and a quadrangular tournament at Lord's. Having an All-Star team in the EPL could well be one of his demands.
The format of the tournament should not change. It has been suggested that the league becomes a weekly Friday/Saturday night spectacular spread across the summer. It would be the wrong decision. Twenty20 cricket at Lord's is attended by thousands of men and women from offices in London. The stands are a sea of light blue and white. It offers a boss a relatively cheap way of entertaining his workforce after a day at the office. These people would not attend on a Friday or Saturday night, they have other things to do.
Though congested the current format, with 90 group-stage matches played over a 17-day period, works well. Everyone knows a two and a half week Twenty20 frenzy is about to take place and it gives the teams the chance to concentrate on one aspect of the game, rather than drifting between four-day, 50-over and 40-over cricket. The three seven-team leagues should take place at a prime time when there is no international cricket and the England players are available. Quarter-finals and a finals day should follow a week or two later.
Giving Twenty20 such prominence will horrify many cricket lovers but the fallout could be beneficial to the game. The 2007 Schofield Report, which looked into the structure of English cricket and the performance of the England team, suggested that the volume of cricket played by county pros and England players should be reduced. It was deemed that if the quality of county cricket were to rise, more time needed to be set aside for practice, rest and rehabilitation.
Until now there has been no sign of this taking place – the counties continue to flog their players. But the desire for change, along with efforts to create room for a bigger and sexier Twenty20 competition, could see a reduction take place.
One of the current one-day tournaments has to be scrapped, with the competition that is kept mirroring international limited over cricket. There are mutterings that international one-day cricket will be reduced to 40 overs per side, and if that is the case then the domestic tournament played must be the same. But until then it has to be 50 overs. A significant chunk of a county's income comes through their annual handout from the ECB, who raise their money from the England side, and the very least the counties should be willing to do is help to produce good England cricketers.
The Pro40 League, when it was the 40-over John Player League in the Seventies, was a huge hit with sizeable crowds turning up at county grounds on a Sunday afternoon. Because it brings in a few extra thousand pounds eight times a season the counties like it. Sky do too because it fills airtime before the football season starts. But it has slowly lost its identity and should go. The 4x20-over innings game being recommended as a replacement appears to be a desperate move. It is gimmicky, but if Sky want it to be implemented it could well be.
The 50-over league should be repositioned. It is wasted at the start of the season when the weather is often foul. To date, 14 of this season's regional group matches have been abandoned and the Powerplays are a waste of time. In May, on damp seaming pitches, batsmen are looking to see off the new ball rather than make the most of fielding restrictions. The cricket does little to prepare players for international duty.
The County Championship is domestic cricket's most illustrious tournament with a history dating back to the 19th century, so changes to its structure inevitably cause greatest reaction. In recent times it has moved from a three-day to a four-day format and in 2000 two divisions were formed. The alterations, predictably, created dissatisfaction among many cricket fans but it is generally agreed that the two-divisional arrangement has produced a more competitive competition.
The easiest way of creating space is to reduce the amount of four-day cricket played and there is a strong possibility of the 16 game season produced by two divisions of nine teams being split into a three-league 10- or 12-match championship. Jack Simmons, the ECB's chairman of cricket, has suggested a return to a one-division three-day county championship with 120 overs per day being bowled. On poorer pitches than now and when over-rates were higher ingenious captains were capable of producing entertaining games of cricket, but the format has had its day and it will not happen. County cricketers want their first-class cricket to be as close as it can to Test level. This season a day's play has been reduced from six and half hours to six hours with 98 overs, rather than 106, being the minimum bowled. If the three division/conference format is brought in it will be fascinating to see how the teams are divvied up. A regional split with a semi-final and grand final at the end would ensure local derbies take place, but it could result in some counties having far easier rides through to the grand final than others, a set-up that could result in the best team not winning the competition. Randomly drawn leagues would create the same problems.
Lord MacLaurin, the former chairman of the ECB, wanted this sort of arrangement with the teams of one conference playing each team from the other two conferences. Such a system would create a 12- rather than a 10-match championship where a side plays the teams in their conference home and away. Again it would create the problems noted above, as well as being too complicated. The best way would be to have three divisions on merit, with the placing of teams being dependent on their position at the end of the 2009 season. The top six of division one make up the first division. The bottom three of division one and the top three of division two compete in the second division. The rest can pay in the third. Undoubtedly, there will be counties who vote against the format, fearing that life in division three will be hard. Unlucky, do something about it.
The status quo, however, could be maintained. There are other potential positives from a reduction too. The cricket season begins ridiculously early now – 10 April this season – when the weather is awful. A three-division format would allow the season to start in late April/early May when the weather is starting to improve. It would also give counties the chance to allow some of their players to go and line their pockets in the IPL without missing much, if any, county cricket.
Gimmicks and glamour: Angus Fraser's reaction to the proposals... and some of his own
* One 18-team division playing three-day cricket.
Angus Fraser's reaction: 'Been there, done that – it's outdated.
* Pro40 changed to four 20-over innings matches – a Test in an afternoon.
'Innovative? No. Gimmicky? Yes.'
* An extended Twenty20 League with minor counties
* Three regional conferences in county championship
* A 6-8 team Twenty20 League containing IPL players
'A panic-driven, copycat, ill thought-out response.'
* Scrap a one-day competition
'Quality not quantity is required.'
* Start the season at the end of April
'Playing and watching in mid-April is not fun.'
* Invite overseas teams to play in an English Premier League
* Say no to franchises and regional cricket
'Who wants to play cricket for London or South/South East?'
* Make England players available for the EPL
'Creates far more interest.'
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