Sunday, January 02, 2011

Lets stop raging against the dying of the light of county cricket


TunWells cricket

The subject of the need for reform of English domestic cricket is unlikely to make headline news – even on the sports pages. But in the circles where those of us who obsessively care about the game move there is no question more divisive pitching, as it does, the traditionalist against the moderniser in an often rancorous battle of words. For example in an article in the Kent County Cricket Supporters Club Magazine last summer I argued that the current “18 county model for the county game is broken beyond repair” and that we need an 8 team franchise structure based on established international grounds. It wasn’t a particularly original proposal - the “Cricket Reform Group” and others have been arguing for something like this for years. However to suggest to the Kent faithful that Kent county cricket would have to be downgraded to a semi-professional domestic second tier was tantamount to blasphemy for some. In the next edition of the magazine I was accused, by the County curator (archivist) no less, of being “disingenuous”, “misguided”, “promoting nonsense”, of being someone who doesn’t care about the “history and traditions of the game” or the “distinguished past” of the counties. I am, according to this self-appointed guardian of cricket’s traditions, promoting “elitism” and, finally, “barmy”!

Whilst Kent’s curator knows what he doesn’t like, and uses intemperate and insulting language to let us know about this, he fails completely to offer any alternative suggestions as to how we put right the mess that is County cricket. Ironically Kent CCC is one of the most obvious examples of one of the many problems of the current county system. The county’s finances are a shambles, attendance at many of their matches is pitiful and they simply do not have the resources to compete effectively in the top tier. It was no surprise that they fell back into the Championship’s second division after an embarrassingly unsuccessful 2010 season. Kent has also alienated its most loyal supporter group – its members – by implementing swingeing increases in annual membership costs and failing to respond to members’ complaints about having to pay a minimum of £200 per annum to maintain their membership rights. Kent is not the only County that wouldn’t have any financial future at all without huge subvention from the England and Wales Cricket Board - indeed this is the rule not the exception in our antiquated and unsuitable domestic structure.

Support for the need for change comes from an unlikely source in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph. Shane Warne, who of course played for and captained Hampshire, says that “It is time to cut county cricket from its traditional base of 18 teams back to 10”. He makes the excellent point that a ten team structure with say 16 players per squad would make 160 top cricketers in all compare with the 360 at present - among which, according to Warne, are “plenty of people who don’t deserve contracts” and that some sides in the second division are “not even club standard” ! Warne is right of course – although no doubt he would also be accused of being “barmy” by some of cricket’s old-school. I’d be happy to engage in a debate as to whether ten, eight or even less is the right number for a top class domestic system. William Buckland in his seminal book on the subject of English cricket “Pommies” thinks that a five team domestic structure is ideal – half again of Warnie’s suggestion. Whether it’s five or eight or (at a pinch) ten can be debated. But it sure as hell isn’t 18!

In the article I referred to above I tried to present a positive view of how cricket at England’s beautiful festival grounds like Tunbridge Wells and Arundel might be sustained and evolve. My guess is that the crowds for matches between Kent and Sussex (for example) wouldn’t be much less if the two counties were playing good quality semi-professional cricket compared with playing in the current substandard so-called “first-class” competition. Change isn’t easy and there would be huge regrets that the shire counties no longer hosted matches in the primary domestic competition. But the counties wouldn’t disappear and in the same way that good quality rugby continues to be played at historic clubs like Blackheath, Rosslyn Park and London Scottish despite the fact that they are not top tier any more so it would be with cricket’s counties. The Old Farts of Rugby had to bow to the inevitable and whilst I would not argue that the the 12-team Aviva Premiership is perfect its establishment did not lead to the destruction of those clubs who couldn’t make the transition to the new much more sustainable and commercial top flight. So it would be with cricket and nobody is served by nostalgically clinging to the past and raging against the dying of the light.