Saturday, June 29, 2013

We need to change our out-dated domestic cricket structure


The debate about the future of domestic cricket in England can get rather rancorous at times! As someone who has argued that the current 18 County system is unsustainable, and that a change to an eight-team franchise structure is desirable, I am often on the receiving end of emotion-driven criticism – even abuse. It is almost as if I am a contrarian challenging the established church and that what I am preaching is heresy!   The reality of where we are is that all too many counties have business models that would see them in insolvency without substantial annual hand-outs from the ECB (some are close to bankruptcy even with the subvention). The need to raise revenues to cover these costs means that the ECB has to charge spectators the highest ticket prices in the world for international games, create a destructive bidding war between the ground owners (counties and MCC) for the allocation of the matches as well as establish long-term arrangements with commercial broadcasters which keeps all live cricket off free-to-air television. With sponsorship becoming more problematic in a difficult economic climate the main source of ECB revenues will continue to be the cricket loving public – and we are getting a rotten deal.

The problem is the assumption that a county structure first established in the 19th Century and little changed since then is right for cricket in the 21st Century. No other sport has the conceit to assume that because there was once logic to first-class cricket being played in the shires as well as the cities and at antiquated venues as well as modern stadia that is a model that is sustainable today. The Premier league in Football and the Premiership in Rugby Union are modern constructs created for modern times. Traditionalists may bemoan the passing of top tier football or rugby from locations and clubs where once they were played – but things had to move on, and they did.

The creation of eight city-based franchises at our Premier international cricket grounds would establish a financially sustainable model that would require overall far less subvention from the ECB than currently exists. The cricket that the franchises played would be of a high standard and the professionals that the franchises employed would be the best in the game – not substandard journeymen hanging in for a benefit or past-it old pros stretching their careers. In this structure the counties would not disappear – some might evolve into franchises, indeed this is the most likely route for some of them. But the shire counties would move into a semi-professional status and merge with the minor counties to create a new second tier regionally based structure on the current Minor Counties model. Good standard cricket wouldn’t disappear from Tunbridge Wells or Arundel or Derby or Leicester – it would continue but without the huge costs being incurred to sustain the current fully professional 18 county system.

One does not court popularity when one proposes to cricket lovers the demolition of traditional county cricket – but I would argue that whilst the change I suggest is radical it does not destroy cricket in the shires but actually establishes a model that means it will continue. Meanwhile the top tier cricket played by the franchises will be world class, will bring in the crowds and the viewing public and be a hugely improved breeding ground for England players that what currently exists. Above all it will be financially sustainable and mean that international cricket tickets can become affordable again and that cricket can return to free-to-air television. What’s not to like?

My intention is to throw down the challenge to those cricket lovers who wish to maintain the status quo to tell us all how that could be made to work. The challenge is not to write elegant pieces about the history of the game in the shires and of the charms of festival cricket. It is not to say that the reason first-class cricket should continue to be played in Kent or Sussex or Leicestershire or Northamptonshire (etc.) is because it always has been. Or about the delights of hearing the sound of willow on leather whilst lazing in a deckchair by the boundary at Tunbridge Wells. The challenge is to describe how an 18 county system can be financed fairly, how spectators can be attracted to a plethora of fixtures, how dilapidated grounds can be renovated when money just isn’t available and what the logic is for employing well over 300 professional cricketers all too many of whom are overseas mercenaries, or of sub-standard talent or just time servers. I look forward with interest to answers to these questions!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

You're advocating changing County cricket to something akin to Premiership rugby & football, bemoaning the 300 professional cricketers "all too many of whom are overseas mercenaries, or of substandard talent, or just time-servers."

Have you watched premiership rugby and football recently? There are about 300 professionals in either elite league and yet their make-up is exactly the same as the make-up you bemoan in county cricket!