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.


11 thoughts on “Guest Post: County Cricket – The Tail That Wags The Dog

  1. d'Arthez Sep 7, 2015 / 7:01 pm

    Excellent piece. I have in the past advocated something similar: go franchise system, just like South Africa. Sure, it is nice to have 18 counties. But the problem is that the talent gets spread too thin. That is a problem in all competitions, not just FC cricket. It is also an issue in List-A and T20 cricket.

    South Africa have 17 provincial boards, and they have two First Class competitions. One for the franchises, and one for the provincial teams (and Namibia). Each franchise can pick players from its constituent provincial teams. They play a proper double round robin 4-day competition. That is ten FC fixtures a year (and would reduce the number of playing days in England by 24 days if nothing else would change). The provincial teams play a three-day competition. That allows players to come back from injury, young talent to get a go (and if they do well, they can of course be picked for franchise cricket). That is not to say that SA domestic cricket is without its problems.

    One problem is that now a lot of counties are heavily in debt, due to bidding rights for Tests and ODIs, and upgrades to the facilities. Not sure why all these grounds need to have hotels, malls etc.. Do they seriously think that Arabian billionaires will jet in to Birmingham to see a game of domestic cricket, and spend a fortune in the malls and hotels? Think again. As a consequence, most of them can’t afford a drastic restructuring of the calendar, if it adversely impacts on the bottom line. The counties which have heavily invested in upgrading facilities need the international fixtures to have the faintest of hopes to even stay afloat. So a reduced England calendar won’t be happening. That also (sadly) undermines Sean’s idea of getting the England Lion’s play the touring sides – it would cost the counties too much to pay the players for not playing a few days.

    Since cricket has a limited public profile, it is not like Arabian billionaires are jumping to buy a county (and I doubt that they would even succeed since the members would probably revolt). So the only restructuring that the counties will accept is those that improve the bottom line – First Class fixtures will be of course the first to go, since a) they are the most expensive fixtures b) they bring in the least money.

    An expanded T20 competition may help, but honestly, what do the counties earn from that? I honestly have no idea, but since most grounds are the size of a stamp compared to IPL or BBL venues, I’d have my concerns. That is also the biggest worry in trying to set up a big T20 league – an English IPL that draws 8000 spectators / game will simply make no economic sense, even though qualitatively it would greatly improve standards. Part of the problem is that cricket’s profile is deteriorating: why would you pay an arm and a leg for 3-4 hours outside, in weather that can be anything from sunny to raining cats and dogs, if you don’t know a thing about the sport? Ticket prices have to remain reasonable for the time being.

    Either the ECB modernizes the domestic game, or it will be eventually forced to modernize when half of the counties go against the financial wall. It also means the ECB need to take the recreational game seriously, domestic leagues seriously. Not rely on outdated notions of what is “proper” -get the British Asians in, respect spin bowling as an art, rather than something to help with the over-rate.

    As for the pitches, I agree. Though, I understand that due to climatic reasons it is not always something that the groundsmen can control. But to penalize a team because a ball actually turns is ridiculous. I don’t mind if the occasional 70-75 mph part-time bowler gets a few wickets on a flat wicket. Batsmen make mistakes. But it should not be the general strategy of a side to rely on such bowlers to get the breakthroughs, and produce pitches that help such bowlers.


  2. Rooto Sep 7, 2015 / 7:31 pm

    Big, though distant, fan of County cricket here. I wholeheartedly agree with most of your 5-point plan (the possible exception being a second 50-over tournament at the start of the season – might make too much cricket, which is one of the problems). Even as a fan of a little county, the way the number 18 is untouchable makes me cringe.

    Just a couple of observations.
    Firstly, you hinted at naïvety in the last paragraph, with reference to the ECB not needing to shake up the county system as they consider the future of tests. I’m showing my Outsiderness if I say that the quality of Test cricket is irrelevant to those making money from it. If we are producing a poor show with players incapable of handling bounce / surviving seam and swing / pelting it down above 85 mph, then who cares as long as the bread and circuses aspect is fulfilled. Alec Swann could tell you about the quality of the last Ashes series, but he doesn’t care. Our stadiums are small enough to find plenty of Alec Swanns to fill them. So, money continues to be made off the back of increasingly desperate ‘rivalries’ that bring in the punters. And the counties can continue to wallow in their current situation as the need for improvement ebbs away.

    cynical mode off

    Secondly, I’d have the one-day stuff in the school holidays. We shouldn’t pretend that the CC is ever going to make money, but well-organised 50-overs-a-side matches can surely make money. Today’s Surrey-Notts match is a case in point. Great finish, but why on a Monday in September? I remember as a young guy going to the Oval to see a Surrey-Northants semi (91?), which actually lasted 2 days, but I was only able to go because it was in the school holidays and I was visiting my sister in London. Great memories, but I bet today’s crowd was considerably older.

    Now, I’ve not only ranted, but also drifted off the subject. So much so that I’ve forgotten my other valid point.

    Essentially, “Yes, I agree”, even though when I started reading I was ready to disagree. Well written, and more power to your point of view.


  3. metatone Sep 7, 2015 / 9:12 pm

    It’s easy for me to agree, as my team is pretty big. I think if I were a Leics fan, I may feel different.

    However, between the overplaying of bowlers and the fundamental financial problems at some counties I think something has to change.

    I might suggest going further (in the cause of battling the climate to get some spinners working) and say 3 divisions, 5 day matches. That might also reduce the number of rain draws.

    Randomly – mostly from reading about rugby grassroots but also Ronay’s article about Lewisham I wonder if the structure of modern sports has devalued the grassroots. When international players are largely being sucked into academies by age 15 (often younger) then grassroots cricket above school age no longer serves much of a purpose in the “pyramid.” Hence, it’s going to get harder and harder to get it properly funded…


  4. man in a barrel Sep 7, 2015 / 11:37 pm

    This is tough. Back in the bad old 70s, Warwickshire would play Kanhai, Gibbs and Murray. Hants opened with Ruchards and Greenidge and might get Roberts in as well to bowl. Lancs were dependant on Clive Lloyd and Farokh Engineer. Kent played John Shepherd. Essex depended on Keith Boyce and Kenny McEwan. Glamorgan had Majid Khan when they won the championship in 1970. Did playing with Clive Rice and Richard Hadlee at Notts help Derek Randall?

    Go back to the 50s and Aussies such as Bill Alley, George Tribe, Jack Walsh and Bruce Dooland propped up their county teams. Roy Marshall and Danny Livingstone plied their trade for Hampshire, knowing that this meant they could never be picked for the West Indies team, but they added to the knowledge and professionalism of the county.

    Those players were essential to the development of the teams and their players – probably in terms of culture as much as anything. They played to win and taught that to their comrades.

    Cutting that source of knowledge out of the county game has potentially deprived it of a lot of knowledge and professionalism, although a lot of the recent overseas players were not really in that kind of league.


    • metatone Sep 8, 2015 / 7:39 am

      I think the T20 leagues have changed the economics. Look at Yorkshire – big county, can attract big names and presumably pay them a fair amount. This year, in the overseas slot, they have 3 different players across the season (and one more for T20.)

      All of which is to say, if you opened up a second overseas slot, I’m not sure you’d get the quality of player that you used to. Mind you, it could be the case that done right it might be good for West Indies cricket, as you might have a career route that worked better for some non-T20 players. However, not many WI players came over on Kolpak even when they were eligible…


    • d'Arthez Sep 8, 2015 / 8:33 am

      I think we should bear in mind that overseas players often earned peanuts in the 1970s. Or were simply banned from international cricket (Richards, Rice, and a boatload of others). That kept wages reasonable by English standards. Good luck getting Andre Russell on a 5k / month contract. He earns more in an hour of IPL than he would in a season in England.

      Now there are wage caps in place. How strictly they are enforced I do not know. Certainly IPL franchises have at times attempted to work around that, to say the least. I fully understand the logic behind the wage cap – the counties are already heavily reliant on Sky monies to sustain themselves – but it poses serious threats to counties’ abilities to attract the best talent from abroad.

      That is not even mentioning the fact that the best players will be representing their countries during the English season, as the calendar is hopelessly oversaturated. In the name of making money, it is no problem for CSA to schedule a water ballet in Bangladesh. In the name of making money, it is no problem for the ECB to schedule the 62351592nd ODI series against Australia in the last ten years.

      Pray tell me why South African / Indian / West Indian / Australian / Sri Lankan / New Zealand international players have to come over to prop up the county competition, when the English international players themselves hardly play?

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Ian Sep 8, 2015 / 9:24 am

    I don’t think sixteen four day games over nearly six months is too much at all. I do agree though that switching formats is wrong and probably is what is making cricketers feel like there is too much cricket however I fail to see a way it could be avoided. The schedule is all over the place. Teams in theory play an average of 3.5 days a week across the season but often play 13 days out of 14. Other weeks they might play just one T20 or two T20s. There has to be a way of balancing this up. My suggestion is retain 16 games in Championship. I realise this is is still switching formats but I would have three groups in the 50 over and fit this in around the Championship. With a block of T20 Mid July through August. Not perfect but it never will be which is why it changes every few years.


  6. Mike Sep 8, 2015 / 10:29 am

    Honestly, we should just burn it down and start again. Nothing about it makes any sense whatsoever.

    It’s not completely broken and some counties are doing brilliant work, seemingly much better than the central ECB centre of excellence at first glance.

    But let’s face it, cricket in this country is run by and for fusty old committee men who only care about hteir own little fiefdoms. Nothing will change.

    The problem is, not enough people care, we do, but htere are too many other vested interests, deep seated and hard earned support for counties etc for things to change.

    There is room in the sporting calendar for cricket, May, June, July and with the broken start to the football season August too, cricket has a pretty free run but there is no coherent narrative, no coverage and no one cares.

    You have to give people a reason to care, domestic cricket in this country too frequently doesn’t.

    It should be doing all it can to plug its self in to schools, into local clubs, to be on tv/VOD platforms…etc.

    I like a mix of the suggestions above, heresy though it sounds I quite like the idea of a tiered system for FC cricket with the county structure existing beneath an FC franchise system, although that could be pretty flawed too I suppose

    As ever, I’m sure FC cricket will trundle on in this country for the foreseeable as it ever has.


  7. Mark Sep 8, 2015 / 10:36 am

    Your Twitter follower is the one who is wrong. County cicket is the worse I have ever seen. The problem is the system is broken and not fit for purpose. We don’t need all the first class counties anymore. The sad fact is that cricket is dying. Not enough people are playing it and therefore the number of counties should be reduced. That of course opens up a can of worms because no turkey is going to vote for Christmas.

    In a sense 3 divisions will in effect over time complete this purpose because the same teams will slowly die out at the bottom of the third division. The big problem regards the ECB and the counties is the ECB is the people the counties voted for. Graves, and Clarke before him were voted in by the counties. (Or at least enough of them) so they are going to be very reluctant to piss them off or weaken their voting block.

    Quality of pitches is a must and I share your despair at the medium pace 75 mph trunderlers who just pitch it up and let the movement do its work. As you say is it any wonder players coming into test match cricket have not seen any fast bowling? Good flat pitches with pace and consistent bounce is what sees off most mediocre cricketers. Fast bowlers, spin bowlers and good batsman all flourish. The average disappear very quickly.

    Should county cricket be run as its own business for its members or should its only real function be to produce talent for England? If it’s the later thenECB has to organise it in a way that creates said talent. I do wonder how much longer cricket at county level can survive. Very few people seem to go. Less is more in my book, and we need less cricket but better quality.


    • Zephirine Sep 8, 2015 / 12:36 pm

      Should county cricket be run as its own business for its members or should its only real function be to produce talent for England?

      That’s the question, isn’t it. It all comes back to that.

      County cricket shouldn’t exist only as a feeder for the national side, but the national side is the only part of the sport in this country that consistently makes money (“a commercial animal” to quote Tom Harrison) and is the bit that Sky wants, so it’s the cash cow. Giles Clarke’s power base was his ability to farm the cash cow to make money for the counties, and indeed vice versa.

      None of it’s viable. Colin Graves is interesting because he seems to have put so much of his own money into Yorkshire that he was almost its owner… is that the future, heading for the football model?


  8. Rohan Sep 10, 2015 / 10:21 pm

    Great article Sean B. I agree with many of the points, but in particular the one regarding 90MPH plus bowlers. I love cricket, bowling, fielding, great batsman, but the one thing I love watching above all else is truly fast bowling. I think it must be something to do with starting to watch cricket in the very late/early invites and seeing all those great West Indian quicks on TV, they were truly awesome.

    It is a real shame that there is such a dearth of this greatest of arts in English cricket. Yet if you look at Australia at the moment, they have a surfeit of 90MPH plus bowlers. They probably have more injured, than we have in total. This validates your point about our potentially 90MPH plus bowlers playing too much and pitches not suiting them. Aussies play less domestic games and have a simpler, more high quality format/combination of the various forms of the game. This is more akin to what you are calling for. It is no surprise that this results in them having a much greater selection of quicks. I am all for changes that could see us develop some faster and better quick bowlers, who are not ground into the dust………..

    Just to add a caveat, however, I think Loughborough, according to what we hear from some in the MSM, has also negatively affected many of our young quicks. So your suggestions will be one part of solving the problem, but more might be needed alongside this.

    Anyway great stuff and many thanks for taking the time to write this!


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