Saturday, June 05, 2010

Tunbridge Wells - a model for the future of English cricket

Even the most trenchant of critics of County cricket (guilty as charged) would have to admit that a day of festival cricket such as that at Tunbridge Wells yesterday is an unalloyed joy. Writing in a splendid new publication which celebrates the Tunbridge Wells Festival Christopher Martin-Jenkins says that “the county festival weeks are a small but precious part of the English way of life” – nobody amongst the many hundreds at Tunbridge Wells yesterday would challenge that claim.

The sun shone throughout the long afternoon – curiously the match started at midday apparently to allow the Kent players time to recover from their previous night’s journey from the Rose Bowl. But no matter there was plenty to keep the faithful happy in the marquees that stood proud on one side of the ground - how appropriate it is that Shepherd Neame brewery are one of Kent’s main sponsors! We settled early into our comfy seats in the Tunbridge Wells Cricket Club tent and there was a palpable feeing of mellow contentment around well before the Nottinghamshire openers, Hales and Patel, took guard. Hales, a 21 year-old Englishman (hooray!) playing in only his twelfth first-class match is prodigiously talented. He took the Kent bowling apart and it seemed at one point that he would perform that rare feat of a century before lunch. That wasn’t to be and in fact he eventually fell for 95 off 121 balls with thirteen fours and two sixes. But it was festival cricket of the most entertaining kind – as was the rest of the Nottinghamshire innings – they reached 393 for 8 off 103 overs of which more than half were of spin from Treadwell and Bandara. Hugely compelling cricket!

CMJ emphasises the fact that cricket festival days like yesterday’s are about more than just cricket and he contrasts the pleasures of Tunbridge Wells or Arundel or Cheltenham with the “echoing caverns like The Oval or Edgbaston”. These grounds, says the Sage of Sussex, “come alive on the big international occasion but … too often seem glum and empty when they play host to the homespun atmosphere of the County Championship game”. Indeed they do – which, in my opinion, does not however mean that our mainly urban big grounds have no part to play in the domestic game. On the contrary. For cricket of the very highest standard you need facilities for spectators of the very highest standard as well - and that is where the current out-dated and financially unsustainable model of professional cricket in England needs to be radically changed.

If the quintessentially English festival cricket is undoubtedly worth preserving, which it is, but the current 18 county model for the county game is broken beyond repair (also true), then how can we create something that not only maintains the valuable and enjoyable heritage of Tunbridge Wells etc. but also establishes an affordable, high quality and commercially viable and popular structure for the domestic game? The answer is clear. You create eight cricket franchises on the IPL model based on the established international grounds at which world-class Twenty20 and four-day cricket would be played. For example Surrey would be one of the franchisees and through the season there would be regular top flight domestic cricket at The Oval which would pack in the punters for the one-day games and probably produce quite respectable crowds for the four-day tournament matches as well. Only the best of English domestic cricket would be on display and this would be the development arena for future international players – as well as being the home bases of current international players so far as the crowded Test and Limited Overs International calendar allowed.

Below the franchise tier you would, in this model, establish a county structure which combined the counties from the ten non international grounds with the twenty minor counties. These thirty counties, divided into (say) four regional structures, would play the highest quality cricket but they would not be fully professional. An affordable mix of gifted English amateurs, old pros and young Turks - along with one or full professionals (on the League cricket model) would deliver an intriguing and very watchable mix of cricket that could well attract the sort of crowds that we saw yesterday at Tunbridge Wells. The competitions would be worthwhile in themselves both as challenging sport but also as a genuine nursery for young English players who, if good enough, would progress to the fully professional franchises. These new counties, with hugely reduced wage bills and other costs compared the current system, would be financially viable and only require the most modest of subvention from the ECB. And crucially they would offer up festival cricket at some of England’s loveliest grounds which spectators would relish going to see.