More bold ideas destined for the dust mites

Martin Johnson, Cricket Correspondent, considers the latest plan for creating a more competitive structure for the county game
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The Independent Online
Cricket's County Championship has more or less been in permanent hibernation since its official formation over a century ago, and will comfortably manage to snore its way through the latest intrusion from an alarm clock.

However, at the end of this month, the Test and County Cricket Board will meet to discuss radical proposals aimed at turning the domestic game into a self-supporting feeder system to the England team, as opposed to what many regard as a dinosaur wallowing in mediocrity, and as dependent on hand-outs as a tube-station busker.

The prime movers behind the plan are the Test-match ground counties, who want a two-divisional promotion and relegation championship, a relaxation of the player-contract regulations close to the point of a football-style transfer system, and an extension of the NatWest Trophy to such a large contingent of club sides that it would become cricket's version of the FA Cup.

Until recently, this sort of proposal had popped up every time England lost a Test series (i.e. quite often) but after lurching between various in-trays and out-trays at Lord's, invariably found a final resting place in some darkened vault.

However, the formation of an English Cricket Board to succeed the TCCB by the end of this year - the new body being responsible for all cricket rather than just the first-class county game - has produced the most telling thrust yet towards revamping the game along more competitive and commercial lines.

As far as the smaller counties are concerned, it will be a question of over my dead body - their argument being that dead bodies, in terms of bankrupt counties, will be the upshot.

The counter argument is that the smaller counties pick up copies of England's latest Test debacle with one hand, stroll down to the bank with the cheque from England's Test match rake-off (about pounds 1m each on current figures) and then roll over and go back to sleep. England might be (as Keith Fletcher used to say) crap, but on the "where's there's muck there appears to be money" principle, the majority of counties do not lie awake all night fretting about improving standards.

So, on the basis that very few turkeys vote for Christmas, unless and until the voting rights go to a streamlined executive, rather than the majority of the counties, the dust mites currently chomping through a variety of "let's march boldly into the future" dossiers inside the Lord's filing cabinet will shortly be easing out their braces a few more notches to accommodate another meal.

The Hampshire chief executive, Tony Baker, said yesterday that he would "need to be convinced that the traditional way is wrong." Baker added: "We need to be very careful about throwing out something that has worked well over the years, and certainly need to be convinced that there is something better to replace it. There is a lot of water to flow under the bridge yet."

However, the formation of the English Cricket Board in itself is recognition that cricket in this country is in trouble at all levels. Quite apart from the fact that the Test side too often performs as though it has been heavily partaking in the corporate hospitality which makes it a financial success, cricket in state schools is even being eroded by netball and rounders.

The TCCB has no equals (Australia included) in the marketing department, but the argument of the radicals is that it is ultimately self-defeating to use so much of the cash they generate to prop up a system of no benefit to the national side. It is, they argue, the equivalent of feeding pigs with truffles.

However, what should be borne in mind is that even officially constituted TCCB working parties have grown used to their masters cocking a deaf 'un, let alone a minority renegade faction.

We might be about to see the end of young, talented cricketers stuffed into Second XIs in conjunction with ageing professionals no longer able to hold down first-team places. We may even be about to see the end of unwieldy county staffs, full of moderate players chugging along towards a benefit. We may also be about to see an end to a glut of fixtures that mean nine-tenths of bugger all. But don't hold your breath.