Time for counties to decide whether change is an option

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The Independent Online
Seven weeks ago, when Lord MacLaurin first launched the England and Wales Cricket Board's "Raising the Standard" blueprint, we were assured that the general mood was for change. Today, as the Championship heads towards its most exciting conclusion in years, all those with vested as well as recreational interests in English cricket gather at Lord's to decide on just how much change, if any, will be made to a game in which reform is long overdue.

Whatever the final outcome, the ECB's original proposal of three baseball- style conferences for the County Championship will almost certainly not be one of them. Whether by miscalculation or shrewd Machiavellian design it was about as enticing as facing Sylvester Clarke on a green top: a barmy, overcomplicated and potentially unfair remedy to a system crying out for rigour and simplification.

Yet while both those criteria would appear to be met by adopting two divisions with promotion and relegation, most counties will almost certainly vote for the third proposal tabled two weeks ago - that of an unchanged championship with the top eight teams going through to contest a one-day cup (a kind of souped-up B&H without the zonal round) the following season.

With an additional proposal, by way of a disincentive, to make the bottom four in the championship play in the first round of the NatWest Trophy as well, it is about as radical and streamlined as Oasis's latest album. Whoever proposed it must have great faith in human nature as well for them to seriously believe that all those weary cricketers, previously unmotivated by mid-table mediocrity, are suddenly going to grasp the August nettle just for the chance of more one-day cricket.

Mind you, when the fourth option is to accept the status quo - something that even the most reactionary of counties would surely not contemplate in the wake of another conclusive Ashes defeat - it has its attractions, though these appear to be cosmetic at best and not of the magnitude required to produce a more competitive Test side. Which was the intended goal.

If a recent meeting of the Professional Cricketers' Association is to be believed such a direction would go against the majority wishes of the first-class players, who like many on the periphery see two divisions as the logical way to go.

Considering the wishes of players has never been a priority for county committees who, over the years, have heeded the concerns of their playing staffs with about as much interest as school prefects used to take in the social status of their fags.

For many of the counties - probably the majority needed to ensure that it is defeated later today - two divisions is too radical and they fear its disruptive potential. Indeed, some even believe it to be the hidden agenda of the Test match-owning grounds to create a Super League some time in the future, as well as a potential fast track to financial ruin.

With Test match grounds receiving about pounds 1m more per year than the other clubs some might argue that it would not be long before they had bought up all the best players and were ready to break away to play among themselves.

In any case unless all county matches could be played between Test matches, a two divisional system would penalise those counties which produced Test cricketers. Which is the point after all. Perhaps two divisions could become more tenable when Test players are finally contracted to the ECB but only if the extinction of certain clubs was considered an acceptable price to pay.

After delivering the document in early August Lord MacLaurin has recently broken his silence to come out in favour of a two-division system. Unless he is being fickle and simply going with the flow it appears that he has, with skilful subterfuge, manipulated proceedings towards that particular goal all along.

Unfortunately, he also appears to have misread the Pooterishness of most county clubs and unless there is some powerful last-minute lobbying, two divisions will be consigned to the ECB's cobwebbed version of Room 101.

If it is, then his Lordship's clarion cry earlier in the summer of "No change is not an option" will surely go down as one of the more optimistic cries since the Light Brigade were given their orders to charge.

The choice facing the counties

THE MACLAURIN PROPOSALS (`Raising the Standard')

County Championship: A 14-match three-conference championship (six teams per conference) with enhanced prize money structure. All teams enter end- of-season play-offs, with conference winners going into round-robin play- offs for first, second and third places, and play-offs on a similar basis for 4th to 18th places.

One-day cricket: In 1999, to replace the Sunday League and B&H Cup, a two-division, 25-match, 50-over National League with promotion and relegation. Teams would play home and away against others in their own division and one game against each side in the other division. Annual promotion and relegation for top and bottom three sides.

NatWest Trophy: Extended to allow more non-first-class teams a chance to progress through qualifying rounds to face first-class sides. (It has already been confirmed that this will be retained as the `FA Cup' of cricket, a 60-over-per-match tournament with a final in late August.)

ALTERNATIVE No 1

County Championship: Stays as before, a single league of 18 counties playing 17 four-day matches but with added prize money and incentive for the top eight counties.

Play-off cup competition: The incentive to do well in the county championship would be entry to a provisionally named `Super Cup', a one-day knock-out competition for the top eight. This would be played in the first half of the following season. The bottom four teams in next season's county championship would be obliged to play each other in the third round of the following year's NatWest Trophy.

One-day cricket: Two-division national league, based on finishing positions next year, with promotion and relegation for three. Would involve 16 matches, home and away against eight other teams in division, of 50 overs.

NatWest Trophy: To be retained as in `Raising the Standard' with exception of two third-round all-first-class ties.

ALTERNATIVE No 2

County Championship: Two divisions of nine teams based on finishing positions next year playing each other home and away from 1999 season. Three up, three down promotion and relegation structure.

One-day cricket: Two-division national league of 50 overs per game, as in Alternative One.

NatWest Trophy: To be retained as in `Raising the Standard'.

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