Guest Post: County Cricket – The Tail That Wags The Dog

The County Championship.....
The County Championship…..Last Tuesday – Surrey v Derbyshire (Dmitri Pics)

We have another new writer for the blog, by way of a guest post to get the debate flowing. Sean B, a panel member for the Ashes summer, has put together a discussion piece on the potential for re-structuring county cricket.

As always, really grateful for people putting in the time and effort to write for us, and I’d always counsel people to think that this is a first time post, and therefore one to treat with a bit more respect than my repeated old diatribes.

Take it away, Sean…

So we’ve won back the Ashes in glorious fashion and repelled those dastardly Australians’, so all is rosy in the garden of English cricket, right?? I think we might all agree on here (being as we’re most definitely outside cricket) that whilst the MSM might want us to think this, this is about as far from reality as it comes. This English team lacks the consistency and players to become number one, so why is this the case and who is to blame? The ECB? County Cricket? Or is it simply a mixture of the two?

Now don’t get me wrong, I love county cricket. I’ve been bought up with it as a staple for the past 25 years and am a staunch Middlesex fan, but the hard truth is that it is no longer fit to do what it is designed to do, which is to produce test quality individuals ready to go straight into the England team and perform. There I said it and I do not expect this view to be universally popular (I’ve already had my view branded on Twitter by one of the more well known county cricket apologists as “utterly nonsense”); however the stark facts of the current county cricket regime is that we play too much cricket, lurching from one form to another on different days, and this has led to a noticeable drop in quality of the four day game compared to that of 10 years ago. I also feel that the reduction in Kolpak qualified players has adversely affected the standard across both divisions, as the pool of good English youngsters gets smaller each year (it is a well known fact that less kids are playing cricket competitively now compared to 10 years ago). Now I’m not advocating a return to the darker days of county cricket, when anyone who had a South African passport and a cricket bat could get a gig (yes Sven Koenig, I’m looking at you), but I don’t buy the line that these players are blocking young English talent from getting a game. The likes of Peterson, Prince, Hogan and to a lesser extent Franklin are very good players in their own right, have been picked on merit and can help mentor some of the younger members of the team. The bottom line should be if you are good enough you will play, English qualified or Kolpak.

If I take a look back at this year’s Ashes series, the reality is that Adam Lyth, who was really the only opener we could pick based on county cricket form, was nowhere up to the task technically or mentally. Johnny Bairstow, who has murdered county attacks all year wrong, looked all at sea against better bowling and we are currently placing our spin hopes on a batsman (and one I rate) who up until a couple of years ago was most definitely a part time spin bowler. The sad fact is that those cricketers who have genuinely been a success at International cricket (Root, Broad, Anderson, Cook, & Buttler to an extent) have generally been whipped out of county cricket and thrown into the international set up long before they have started to pick up bad habits. On the flip side, those that have had to genuinely make their way in county cricket before elevation to the England side, have more often than not failed (Matt Prior & Paul Collingwood are the two notable exceptions). So why is county cricket currently failing to produce cricketers that can cut it on the international stage? I believe there are two major points that need to be addressed here:

  • We play far too much County Cricket and even worse, we mix and match the formats sometimes from day to day
  • The pitches we play on are so alien to those that are played on the international arena that the first time many of these cricketers face a non-seaming, spinning pitch is on their international debut

These I believe go hand in hand, the current format means that we start the season in April when there is likely to be green tops (and nothing for the spinners) and then we flog our cricketers until late September, which means there aren’t going to be too many 90MPH bowlers left charging in at that stage.

In particular, the two areas that concern me most are that there are simply no incentives for an up and coming county cricketer to want to bowl fast or to bowl spin, as the counties are preparing pitches for 70MPH trundlers who can get the ball to nibble both ways (no offence to the individuals, but a little part of me dies every time I see a Jesse Ryder or a Darren Stevens 5 wicket haul). Indeed, this is my major bugbear and this is where the Counties are just as blameworthy as their paymasters. The fact that it is far easier to stick with an old pro bowling slow accurate seaming deliveries on a green pitch than to prepare a good track and to put faith in a raw quick or a young spin bowler, hence the lack of these talents available to the England team. It makes me so angry that Scott Borthwick has had to reinvent himself as a number 3 batsman to even get a game (I remember the first time I saw him bowl, I said that he would get at least 50 England caps) or that Will Beer and Max Waller can no longer get a game in the four day format. These were the bright young hopes of English spin and county cricket has ruined them.

No wonder Lyth et al failed to make it at international level, it was probably the first time they had probably ever faced a left armer bowling at 90MPH or a decent test level spinner. How can you attach blame to them for that? You simply can’t. The question should be why had they have never faced this type of bowling in the first place?

The simple answer is that the quantity of county cricket is directly of detriment to the quality being played. We need a mandate from the ECB that divides the season into:

  • 3 divisions of four day cricket playing 10 games a piece
  • A window for the England Lions to play against each of the touring teams thus exposing them to international cricket
  • A strictly enforced pitch inspection team encouraging a fair contest between bat and ball and not penalizing pitches that turn
  • A summer window for a T20 tournament, whatever the format
  • Two knockout 50 over tournaments at the start and end of the season

This is very much my opinion and many will disagree, but this is the only format in which I can see County cricket raising the quality of it’s top divisions whilst reducing the workload of our county players. Three divisions are absolutely necessary to do this, as it will strengthen the talent available for the top division and there will be less games but of a higher quality as a result (mostly the two teams that come up from Div2 normally go straight back down again), especially if the England management team only look to pick individuals from the top division. I appreciate that this will make it hard for teams in the third division as many of the top teams will hoover up their best talent; however the standard at the bottom of the current Division 2 is as poor as I can remember, which is another reason why the promoted teams struggle so much the following season. I would prefer a stronger Division one and Division two, comprised of 6 teams each, rather than keeping the status quo pandering to those teams who have hardly won a game of four day cricket in the past couple of years.

I would start the four day season in May (after the first 50 over cup), when hopefully the pitches would have dried out a bit from the winter with a window between the first and second games to allow a full strength Lions team to play the touring opposition. The four-day competition would potentially go on until the 20/20 window in late July/early August and would then wrap up in early September (I would imagine the last couple of games of four-day cricket would end up here as it’s impossible to schedule them elsewhere unless we start in April, which I am totally against). We would then wrap up the season with another 50 over knock out tournament. The other law I would like to bring in is that the pitch inspectors would have full power to dock points for overly green pitches or those that are not a fair contest between bat and ball. Although it is exhilarating to watch 16 wickets fall on a day (it has happened to me twice this year), it is not conducive to high quality cricket and encourages teams to pick medium pace dobbers, rather than players that can make things happen on a flatter pitch, which is the very thing I am trying to get away from.

So why are we still stuck with the status quo? Well that goes back to my point raised in the first paragraph about the way the ECB tippy toes around the problem.

Nick Hoult’s piece in the Telegraph last week showed how the ECB had again allowed the county chairmen to walk all over them in negotiations and had needed to water down their vision of reshaping county cricket to such an extent that is practically obsolete from the original version and achieves precisely nothing. So what are Tom Harrison and Andrew Strauss actually doing apart from basking in the glory of a home series win and selling new commercial deals (Hydration breaks – please give me strength)? They are certainly not doing that which they should be doing, which is creating a platform that can allow England to produce high quality international players whatever the format.

I have the horrible feeling though, that I am simply being horribly naïve. Why bother to pick a fight with the county chairmen, when you can carve up international cricket in a way that allows you to make the most money? Why bother lowering the price of international cricket to engage fans or allow FTA coverage when you can sell out highly inflated hospitality boxes to high worth individuals? Why bother taking the time out to clearly set out a plan for the betterment of England team, when the MSM will buy any bullshit that’s on offer and tell you it’s gospel?

The stated aim to reach the pinnacle of International cricket by reshaping county cricket is simply a smoke and mirrors job to occupy the chuntering masses. It’s the money stupid and don’t you ever forget that.