I’m a reasonably contented admirer of Lord Palmerston when it comes to my Victorian history. So much more interesting than Peel, Gladstone and the others around that time. A bit of the old Gunboat Diplomacy…. Without going all FICJAM on you, I commend his response to the Schleswig-Holstein question to you…
“Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it.”
I feel much the same way about the English cricket summer. For Schleswig Holstein read what to do about Leicestershire? It is a question that, simply, cannot be answered. We have inherited a long, historic structure of 18 counties we would not replicate now if starting a competition. There are variances in size. A solution cannot be found that will satisfy all parties.
“We want less cricket” say many of the players, but like their peers in other sports that won’t be matched by “we’ll take smaller salaries” which is the logical consequence of a reduction in productivity in these modern times. “We want a T20 series with all the stars, in a block, with franchises” say the progressive looking so and sos who see and smell a quick buck. But the counties see their golden goose being taken away after building up the audiences the past couple of years, each time those calls for T20 to be “sexed up” reaching a crescendo after the Big Bash concludes and our retinue of shiny toy merchants, probably including me, want to see us imitate it. The ECB have elongated the season so that the county championship starts in the first rather than the latter weeks of April, and that it finishes a lot closer to October than I might recall it doing so in the past. Then there’s the tricky old issue of the other competition. The not 20, not timed, format. 40, 45 or 50 overs. Played in a block or throughout the season? Played when? Where? How? Who cares? Why?
From 1905 the County Championship had 16 clubs. Number 17 came in 1921, number 18 in 1992. In 2000 we went to two divisions with three-up, three-down. This was too much sporting meritocracy from those who wanted “long-term planning” and was reduced to two-up, two-down. We’ve had the Sunday League, the B&H Cup (55 overs for a long time, 50 when it finished and with a mid-season final) and the 60 over cup which had that first Saturday in September final. There were play-offs in the 40 over comp, some other odd formats based on where you finished in the county championship for the 50 over comp. We’ve had short season T20s, 16 game pre-qualifying T20, and 14 games (where it doesn’t seem to matter that this is disjointed, but the sanctified County Championship does). The County Championship has been three days, three and four days, and now all four day cricket. It was never everyone home and away in the 18/17/16 team days (Can’t vouch for the latter back until 1921). There were fixtures a week in the CC for the entire Summer, until recently when they were bookended by and large at the ends of our season. We’ve had two universities, then six, then lord knows what. We had a pure knockout cup, and one with group phases. We’ve had leagues in limited overs. We’ve had absolutely bloody everything.
I am the first to rail against the “sport as a business” mantra. The sport needs to sustain itself as a whole. It needs to provide an outlet for talent to grow and develop before it reaches international standard, and it needs to do that in as cost-effective, but long-term way that it can. Those two ideals rarely coalesce. I’m reading “Barbarians At The Gate”, a book about the leveraged buy out of RJR Nabisco in the late 80s, and it’s plenty of making lots of money, but absolutely eff all to do with long-term growth. It’s short-term wealth and share-prices, and long-term well…… we’ll deal with that when we get there. That’s the times we live in now, kicking the can down the road, and hoping to get through another season. I said in a Tweet a few days ago that you can’t solve the glorious beast that is county cricket. Once we get that through our heads, then we can deal with what we have.
The one part of the equation that never seems to get called into question is the players side. We see many a survey complaining about their workload, that county cricket loses its meaning, that it’s a treadmill, flitting between format. OK. So they’ve said they want to work the system into blocks. They have their wish, supported by Director Comma, another of those brought up on the system of county cricket, but not so keen to laud its qualities once he got to the international limelight – see also Atherton, Mike. It does have considerable qualities. The standard, by and large, isn’t all bad. Overseas superstars didn’t come over here to experience our cold Aprils, our magnificent May ambience, or the leaf-fall of early Autumn. Mr Rabada isn’t coming to Canterbury for early season high jinks. It is a great school of learning, even now, when the top stars don’t come along. The T20 competition, much maligned, although not the unmitigated success some of its key plaudits would have us believe, isn’t a bloody disaster either. It seems we’re more interested in dressing up a competition to flog overseas (a la Big Bash), than one that works. And the Blast has posted increased attendances. Friday nights worked. There were good games, with good players, and crowds seemed to like it. It’s not for me, but then that’s not who it is aimed at. Matt Dwyer, the ECB’s recruit from Australia to get participation levels back up, said this in an article for All Out Cricket:
The Big Bash is unashamedly about attracting kids and their mothers: it’s not for you and I, it’s not for the traditionalist.
Here we get into the debate of TV coverage, which is a very separate topic and one with a life of its own. T20 in a block is for the players, it is not for the fans. As many point out, if a team has 7 home games in two blocks spread over, what, three weeks, at £20 a pop per ticket, how are families, who they want to attract, going to be able to watch all of them without a significant reduction in ticket prices. Those same ticket prices that counties depend on, and can be spread out more easily over fortnightly periods by and large, for their core revenue? I could make the flippant point that it isn’t about the international team, as we don’t choose our international T20 team on merit, but it’s about a route by which counties can better self-fund. They still need the revenues from the test and other international arenas, but it’s a way for them to contribute better. It’s damn easy for Yorkshire or Lancashire or the KPs to bang on about “franchise cricket”, but they have no plan for how those below that amazing height are going to keep the international cricketers, test cricketers of the future gainfully occupied.
I’ve seen mention of a pooling of resources, but that over-arching care for all attitude left these shores in all sporting formats long ago. Football fucked over its have-nots by making the Premier League for the benefit for the 8 or so clubs who would only get relegated if they left Tim Sherwood in charge too long, and pooling the perpetual vast revenues among themselves. Those smaller clubs who tried and dared became like Icarus. They got to the sun, paid out mightily, got relegated, went bust. Rugby union has its big club teams, and I’ve no idea of the strength beneath that level. Rugby leagues big prizes seem to reside in the big four clubs at the top of the game (Leeds, Wigan, St Helens and Warrington, I’m thinking). It’s business, not altruism. There will be a point where a Yorkshire franchise, perhaps run by similar people who run Yorkshire might say “hang about. Why should a Derbyshire be getting a cut of my hard work?”. The fact the county championship has 8 test venue counties and Somerset says a lot. It’s probably already happening. I’ve heard it said about my county side, that it isn’t really even a cricket club. It’s a successful conference facility running a cricket team.
Which leads me on to the Championship. Many of us profess to love it. That it’s just a wonderful thing. And it is, and I do. My fellow author isn’t so enamoured. Or so he’s told me. But do I support it? Do I hell. Why not? Because I have a full-time job, and a wife and dog to spend time with when I’m not there, and my wife isn’t a cricket fan. Any days I do go are on my annual leave, and I’m not taking too many of them in the summer for that. When I have gone, I’ve been the benefactor of free tickets. I’ve bought my own food and beverages. Great, at last season’s Middlesex v Yorkshire Day 3, I saw the newly crowned champions, a magnificent fightback by that North London mob, a Toby Rowland-Jones hundred AND I got to meet Mr Declaration Game and Mr Wigmore. A tremendous day out. I hardly contributed to the coffers though. I have stumped up some entrance money in the past, of course, but it’s not going to cover the hourly rate of a jobbing county pro, let alone the top boys. It is not economic. It will never be economic. I’m inclined to say leave it the hell alone. A messing about of the format is going to achieve nothing except annoy some bloody loyal followers of the sport. The sort this lot can’t get shot of in the chase for the Big Bash Street Kids.
I’ve done 1600 words, and I’m no nearer the answer. And nor are the people on the ECB committees and such like. Nor are any of us out there. There is no answer. Like the Scottish football league trying to do all it can to make it interesting, when it’s really only about two teams once the blue lot get back to the top of the pile, there’s no real point. It is what it is. A Big Bash type league isn’t going to do for cricket that the Premier League and all its bombast has supposedly done for football (our recent European club form is lamentable, our national team is pure Championship level in world terms), and deep down, people, you really all know it. You really do.
Me? Leave the County Championship as it is, even moving to three-up, three-down, but not fussed. A pure knockout 50 over comp. Even invite Netherlands, Ireland, Scotland, Denmark whoever to play in it. If it’s 18 teams, then one preliminary round, drawn at random, then a straight knockout with the Final played in June. T20 – well the Blast worked for audiences so I wouldn’t mess with it. This one I’d invite the national teams as well, have 21 teams, 3 pools of 7, each pool winner and second going through and the four best remaining records go into a Wild Card round, a la NFL. The four best records get home draws for the QFs, then there are home semis for the best record, and a Final. But it’s just a pipe dream. They want an 8 team tournament to get the mythical “best players”.
Of course, the national team lays over the top of that, like the hippo on the silentnight bed. Writing about that will be another 1000 words, and it’s late, it’s Friday, and Lord Palmerston is probably right. I’d forgotten about them.