Long division fails to add up

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As England tumbled to their annual humiliation abroad the usual suspects were being rounded up at home. Zimbabwe might have been the latest team administering the ritual winter slaughter but in the minds of some observers there was no doubt who deserved both blame and urgent treatment.

The 18 first-class counties and the structure in which they operate have been roundly condemned. The words of derision were accompanied by calls for rapid, elementary change consisting mostly of a two-division County Championship. In turn, this itself hardly received an ecstatic reception from most of the clubs canvassed last week.

The scorn of those in favour of change was especially resonant because England's latest embarrassments coincided precisely with the assumption of power of the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECWB), which will in future control the entire game in the two countries. It has replaced three predecessors - the Test and County Cricket Board, the Cricket Council and the National Cricket Association - which formed a management system recognised even by its best pals as top-heavy.

Excitement at the advent of the new body has been heightened because its chairman is Lord MacLaurin, the chairman of Tesco. It is widely assumed that if he can drag a slumbering supermarket giant into the bright new world of the late millennium, changing a "pile it high and sell it cheap" philosophy, he can jolly well do likewise for the nation's cricket, where a similar method has been adopted - the opposition piling it high in terms of runs and England selling it cheap in terms of wickets.

Lord MacLaurin has already visited eight of the 18 counties on his mission to assimilate their thoughts and formulate a blueprint. It will surprise few of those proposing the move to two divisions that the counties are less certain. It is, however, sweepingly unfair to suggest that this demonstrates self-interest at England's expense.

Counties know they have a responsibility towards England (it cannot be seriously suggested otherwise when they unquestioningly allow their players to take part in Tests during the Championship). They simply do not see such restructuring as a cure-all. Five years ago, it may be remembered, four-day matches were reckoned a surefire way to breed a new generation of all-conquering, mentally-hardened international players, a supposition now seen to have flaws.

"I cannot see what possible benefits two divisions will have," Peter Edwards, the chief executive of Essex, said. "The income of second-division counties will be squeezed. How would they then be supposed to produce young cricketers?" It is difficult to see this as self-interest. Taking a mean of the past 10 years as a yardstick Essex have been the most successful Championship side, their average position two places ahead of the field.

At the other end of the decade's mean table (excluding newcomers Durham) are Glamorgan. Their chief executive Mike Fatkin is resistant to a divisional structure but sees merit in the sort of fixture schedule practised in the United States. Teams would play each other by random draw in a limited number of, say, 10 matches and play-offs would ensue.

Northamptonshire's 42-year-old chief executive Stephen Coverdale could hardly be accused of being one of the old guard but he described it as nonsense to blame the structure. He came up with a novel thought of blaming the players and their approach. But he also mentioned the need for improved coaching at all levels and the introduction of uncovered wickets.

The latter may be dismissed by some, who misguidedly point to other countries, as an irrelevance but Coverdale said: "In the years since wickets were no longer uncovered this country has not produced a single world-class player. Very good ones but not world class." This matters as much for bowlers as batsmen - a bad bowler takes five for 90 on a helpful wicket, a good one six for 20.

Lancashire do not give unfettered backing to a split. "It would worry me that in the top division they'd simply play not to lose," Bob Bennett, the chairman, said. Yorkshire, another Test match county, want to see a much more fundamental change at lower level - two-day club cricket. Technique was mentioned by almost everybody. "I'm open-minded but would two divisions necessarily improve technique?" said Kent chairman David Kemp.

What His Lordship has doubtless discovered already and will presumably find on his further travels is not resistance to change and change quickly but a diversity of opinion on what it should be. Two divisions and an alleged resulting removal of soft cricket and soft cricketers will not be the solution he is offered.