Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Can England change its domestic cricket to reflect the new world? Lets start with T20

In my study I have a complete run of Wisden dating back to the first published in 1864. Those prior to the Second World War are all facsimiles from the brilliant Willows Publishing so please don't assume that my “collection” suggests millionaire status! But the run is a wonderful thing for a cricket lover, especially a writer,  to have and I wouldn't be without it. The majority of the pages of these 150 volumes cover the English County Championship from its early days in the mid 1890s through to today.

In my childhood the County Championship still mattered and when Kent won it for the first time for 57 years in 1970 it was one of the more exciting moments in my sporting life – and it still is. By then of course “Limited Overs” cricket was well established. The Gillette Cup had arrived in 1963 and it

“…fired the imagination of the public to such an extent that Lord’s was full to overflowing for the Final on a sombre September day when rosettes and banners gave the game a new dimension…”

as Gordon Ross put it at the time in “Playfair” (that other essential cricket Annual). In that season the matches were 65 Overs per side so there was good value in store for the fans with 130 completed overs in prospect in a full day. The Limited Overs goose was to continue to lay golden eggs for some time and inevitably the Gillette was joined in 1969 by the “Sunday League” a 40 Overs per side competition which did not start until after Morning Worship had been completed. Cricket purists were not over-welcoming of this 80 Overs per day event. Gordon Ross was less than enthusiastic and quoted theatrical impresario C.B. Cochrane in the 1970 “Playfair” annual:

“You give the public not what you think they ought to have, but what they want”

Increasingly what the public wanted was limited overs cricket and when the “Benson and Hedges” (“B&H”) Cup (55 Overs) arrived in 1972 it was clear that this was the future of the domestic game – not least because compared with the County Championship that is where the money was.

So three limited overs competitions became established alongside the County Championship which struggled on as as a sort of purists’ eccentricity watched only by aging fans many of whom regarded the one day game with contempt – not least when coloured kit came in and it could be dismissed as “Pyjama cricket”. But the golden goose started to stutter a bit and the golden eggs became even less frequent so that by the new Millennium, and with the B&H finishing, something new was again perceived to be necessary. In the 2003 Wisden the Editor described the imminent arrival of Twenty20 like this

“The new knockabout Twenty20 Cup is a valid experiment in itself, which shows cricket noticing at last that some of its followers have other commitments”

Well, as they say, the rest is history. We, the English, invented something and within a few years it was copied and enormously enhanced and improved by other countries. That may have happened before!  “Enhanced and improved” – in this point of view means that the Indians (especially), the Australians (initially reluctantly), the South Africans and just about every other country where cricket is played launched commercially successful T20 tournaments. In ten years a lowish key English experiment has revolutionised world cricket – except, it has to be said, in England!

No country decided that their T20 tournaments should have 18 participating teams! None decided that matches should be played in country grounds without a big spectator catchment area and with inadequate facilities (often even no floodlights!). All knew that the number of teams (“franchises”) should be limited to say eight. That the matches should be played at night in big city grounds each of which had a huge catchment area. That they could not simply build on whatever moribund domestic team structure they had but start afresh.

Here in England in 2014 there will be 18 T20 teams again this year. And there will be fixtures at all of the tired old County grounds: Grace Road, Brighton, Taunton, Derby, Chelmsford, Northwood (Northwood??), Arundel (Arundel??) and the rest. That’s 126 matches spread over three months before we even get to the knockout stages. (That is not a misprint. 126 matches). What might once have been a golden goose has become a preposterous monster!

Part of the British way is eventually to get around to the idea that others might have perfected our institutions over time rather better than we have. It takes time though – time measured often in decades (or more) rather than a year or two. Keith Bradshaw when he sat on the ECB Board as representative of MCC worked with others to put together a sensible domestic T20 proposal. It involved eight or ten teams (“Franchises”) playing an IPL style tournament over a prescribed shorter period of time. It made total sense copying the successful model of the IPL and the Australian “Big Bash” (etc.). It went down like a lead balloon with the ECB not because it was ill-thought through, or commercially unwise (on the contrary) but because it moved away from the 18 County system.

English cricket is riddled with prejudice and rancid with nostalgia. We meander every year through the delusion that Four Day County cricket matches matter when across the whole season the moribund County Championship gets fewer spectators than the Football League Division Two gets in one day. The recent match between Chesterfield and Fleetwood was watched by 6,500 spectators. That would be close to a record crowd at Taunton ! And for T20 as well – it would be unthinkable for the County Championship. Note: I’m not comparing our County system with the top of the Football leagues (The Premier League) but with the bottom.

So what’s to do? Well Keith Bradshaw was on the right track and as a starter we should adopt that idea pronto for T20. I’ll address the longer form of the game in a later blog but suffice to say that the current 18 Team domestic structure is not right for the four day game any more than it is right for T20. But for now lets state the case for a proper, exciting, focused T20 tournament played at the biggest city grounds at a time that people can watch them. Oh and let us remind ourselves again of Cochrane’s maxim:

“You give the public not what you think they ought to have, but what they want”

That quote was in Playfair 44 years ago. Must be time to take note of it. Even in England !  

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