Can anyone save English cricket?

Lord MacLaurin's strategy to reverse the drift in the national game is misguided, writes Stephen Fay
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The Independent Online
People who don't like cricket simply cannot understand the acute anguish a lover of the game can suffer while watching it, particularly when England is playing a Test match. Friends and family may be capable of sympathy, but they never share the pain of knowing that Australia have bowled England out for 77 (as at Lords in June), or that they have passed 300 for the loss of only three wickets (as at Trent Bridge last Thursday).

There was a false dawn this summer (England won the first Test at Edgbaston), but the dark night for England's fans began long ago when the Ashes were lost to Australia in 1989, and the nightmare continued in 1990-91, 1993 and 1994-95. During the last eight years, Australia has won 16 Tests to England's three. This is the main reason why cricket lovers keenly awaited Lord MacLaurin's blueprint for the future of English cricket.

But when he revealed it last Tuesday, the hope that he might have found the way to shake up the game and create conditions in which England will win again began to shrivel. What I'm left with a few days later is a sinking feeling.

MacLaurin is a heroic figure in British business, voted the best manager in Britain by his peers for having masterminded Tesco's defeat of Sainsbury in the supermarket war. When he retired earlier this year, MacLaurin could have coasted, accepting prestigious non-executive directorships and playing a lot of golf. Instead, he agreed to lead an inquiry set up by the English Cricket Board. Such was the need that he was soon being treated by players, administrators, and spectators like me, as the man who might save English cricket.

When I interviewed him a couple of months ago, MacLaurin declared that the only thing which was banned from his agenda was the idea of no change at all. His report was expected to be a revelation. Ready to applaud a set of radical proposals, I thought "Lay it on me, Lord MacLaurin."

I was not the only one. The pundits had all weighed in with their own opinions. There was a surprising degree of agreement on a number of issues: that too many poor players earn a living from the game; that England players play more than is good for them, and that there is too much one-day cricket played for the good of the game.

My own grumble was about the 18 championship counties. Although they have the votes that control first-class cricket, they depend for their survival on a share of the money from the television rights and Test match receipts. This year each of the counties will receive around pounds 1m from the English Cricket Board. Without the England team, most of them would be bankrupt.

But what angered me most about the counties was their zealous commitment to one-day cricket. Because the flash and dash of these games attracts fathers and their children to cricket grounds, county administrators are willing to ignore the harm one-day cricket inflicts on batting and bowling skills. Good batsmen bat badly to get quick runs; good bowlers bowl defensively to stop them.

Slogging may delight a 10-year-old, but it can deconstruct a player's technique, and the arbitrary nature of the one-day game devalues victory and defeat. At the beginning of the summer England beat Australia three times in a row in one-day matches, and who cares? What we remember is the results of the Tests, and what we know is that our players are still not good enough.

Of course MacLaurin wants them to play better, but the emphasis of his blueprint is on marketing and revenue. Since he ran a supermarket chain, this is not surprising, but it means that his new programme for cricket is intended to attract the sponsors and the television companies. Complicated new leagues might or might not stimulate competitiveness in the County Championship, but the single most important innovation - the National League - means that English professionals will play more not less one- day cricket, and the games they play will be "of a purer form" (his words), or just longer (mine). There is nothing in the plan to offend the county chairmen; it seems likely to get the go-ahead in September.

MacLaurin's argument is couched in the language of the mission statement: "Achieve the best possible standards... best possible results and providing the best possible entertainment... [to] create the maximum public interest which will fuel maximum interest in the media and generate maximum revenue." These are unremarkable good intentions; the trick is to turn them into actual best possible results.

After I had read the report carefully, I spoke to him again last week. He was on hand at Trent Bridge making the case for his reforms, and when he came to the telephone he was unapologetic: "The way cricket is going in the next 10 years is towards more one-day cricket. That's where the money will come from. That's what television wants to watch. It's what television can cope with," he said. What worries MacLaurin most about the English game is that, if cricket was a business, its share price would be at the bottom of the Footsie 100 instead of top where it ought to be. Improving it means better management, more professionalism and understanding the commercial aspects of the game.

I sympathise instinctively with MacLaurin's impatience at the unbusinesslike incompetence of so many of the county organisations, but I also know that the only way I can cope with my grief when England are losing is to try to remember that cricket is only a game. I think MacLaurin may have forgotten this because when we talked last week he said: "After the last 12 months I know more about cricket than I do about selling baked beans."

Suddenly, I realised why his mission may have gone badly wrong. He has failed to distinguish between playing cricket and selling baked beans.