Vaughan's blueprint for counties shows blinkered vision

England captain believes streamlining Championship will cure game's ills as South Coast county aim to alter cricketing landscape with first title
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The Independent Online

It is hard to know where Michael Vaughan finds the time. Since being thrust into the job of captaining England seven weeks ago there must surely be more important issues for him to worry about than the first-class fixture list for 2004. But no, it appears that guiding England through a fluctuating Test series against South Africa, consulting in the selection of touring parties for Bangladesh and Sri Lanka and promoting a book has not been enough to sate his active mind.

Like several of his predecessors, Vaughan has blamed county cricket for the shortcomings of his side when they failed to perform to the necessary levels. And in the manner of Mike Atherton and Bob Willis - two former England captains, who along with a couple of chums have set themselves up as the Cricket Reform Group - the current leader has felt under pressure to justify his comments by coming up with a plan to cure the game of its ills.

In Friday's inaugural edition of The Wisden Cricketer magazine Vaughan has laid down his blueprint, albeit a pretty thin one, of how county cricket should be run. He, like members of the CRG, feels there should be a reduction in both the number of counties and the volume of cricket being played. England's leading batsman believes that 16, not 18, counties should compete in a two-divisional County Championship. The teams would field fewer overseas players and games would be played on pitches of Test standard. Each county would have seven matches, to be played when England are not on international duty.

Vaughan's views will naturally attract attention but it is difficult to see that his vision has been properly thought through. Only narrow-minded committee men - and sadly there are quite a few around - would put the interest of their county ahead of their country but it would be wrong for the Championship to fit around Tests and limited-over internationals when there is only a slim chance that any of England's centrally contracted players will even be allowed to grace the domestic scene.

In many ways the England and Wales Cricket Board are guilty of adding congestion to the domestic fixture list by attempting to organise it so that it accommodates England. It would be nice if England's players were able to take an active part in some of the domestic competitions, but in attempting to keep two or three people happy at the top of the England set-up, the ECB are making the county season more demanding for the 200 cricketers who are playing in it every week.

Duncan Fletcher and his coaching staff should have the expertise and facilities to work players through their problems between Test matches, and cheeky little fifties at Canterbury on a wet Tuesday should not drastically change the views of the selectors. Before they pick a player, the selectors should have a good idea of whether he has what it takes.

Although I do feel there are too many ordinary players in county cricket earning far more money than their skill or commitment deserve, I believe the domestic game needs to remain fully professional. It is the England players who are responsible for bringing money into the game and it is right that they have the potential to earn £400,000 from playing a full year of cricket. It would be helpful for fast bowlers in particular if the number of four-day games were reduced from 16 to 14 but it would be impossible to justify maintaining a professional first-class set-up if players were to work for only seven weeks of a six or seven-month contract.

Because of their success everyone looks at Australia as the model to follow. If we were to start from scratch in this country, the structure of cricket would not be as it is. But we do have a system which is the envy of many in the world. The game does need to become a stream-lined, more ruthless vehicle where excellence is both worked for and expected, but change has to be weighed up against the uncertainty of the product that may replace it. The challenge for English cricket is to make the most of the system in place by ensuring that the quality of personnel it employs is improved and by keeping good men in the game.

Semi-professionalism works in Australia because they have a completely different attitude to sport. If employers in England were to allow talented 20-year-olds two afternoons a week and the odd couple of days here and there off work so they can play cricket, then the vision of the CRG would have a chance of success but until that happens, and it is highly unlikely, then forget it.

It is also difficult to see how reducing the number of counties would benefit the game. Many respected commentators believe there should be a level above first-class cricket and that these six sides should be divided geographically. The regions would play 10 four-day matches each season and the counties would become glorified, semi-professional, club sides.

If this were to happen, some grounds - Somerset and Canterbury to name but two - may only host one first-class game per summer, and it would be difficult to see counties maintaining stadiums where only four days of competitive cricket were played each year.

If county grounds were to be turned into housing estates, cricket within such a region would lose its focal point and there would be a real danger of the game losing its profile.