In light of England’s performances this winter, a particularly Difficult Winter some might say, it will surprise no one that people are looking for someone to blame. Whilst alcohol and team discipline have been strong contenders, it looks like county cricket will ultimately be the designated scapegoat to cover the ECB’s embarrassment.
The argument is this: County cricket is not creating world-class batsmen, fast bowlers or spin bowlers. The selectors are choosing the best players available, the coaches are doing the best they can with what they’ve been given, and therefore it isn’t the England team’s fault that they are losing.
Is It The Responsibility Of County Cricket To Develop Test Cricketers?
I don’t believe that developing players for England is a priority for county teams, nor should it be. The main focus of every county is to win their next game and ultimately to win the competition. The County Championship is a competition which has run for 127 years and winning it means a lot to the players, staff and fans.
The emergence of Test-ready players has always been a side product of the counties finding promising young cricketers to improve their own team, and then the players reaching close to their potential through training and playing in competitive domestic games. It has never been the counties’ goal.
Is It In The Counties’ Interest To Develop Test Cricketers?
There’s two aspects to this question: Does it help them win games, and does it make a profit.
It could be argued that developing Test-quality players isn’t advantageous for county teams. The current county champions are Essex, who haven’t developed a Test-quality player since Alastair Cook over a decade ago. Yorkshire have produced two world-class batsmen in Root and Bairstow and are essentially punished by having both only play in two games each this season.
So a county which develops a batsman for England gets perhaps 2 years of above-average returns from their player before their England call up, at which point they’re forced to rely on a second-string player to fill the gap. It would arguably be better for them to grow or sign a player who is marginally better than most county batsmen but not so good as to be in contention for an England spot. At least that way they are virtually guaranteed to be able to pick their first choice XI.
There’s little financial incentive to work on development either. There have been three genuinely world-class players to debut for England in the last 10 years: Joe Root, Jonny Bairstow and Ben Stokes. Durham have in recent years provided a world-class allrounder to the England team, as well as their current opener and perhaps their two best fast bowlers. Rather than getting a generous stipend from the ECB for Stokes, who is possibly the lynchpin of the whole England team, they have had their Test status revoked and massive points penalties after having to accept a bailout. Yorkshire have developed two world-class players and yet they probably have the most debt of any county. Including their planned ground redevelopment, they now owe something like £40m.
Neither county is benefitting financially in any significant way from these players. It probably costs a lot of money to find talented youngsters and train them from junior cricket through to the cusp of the England team. It almost certainly makes more sense financially to simply hire journeyman cricketers from other teams, or indeed other countries like Australia and South Africa, than to grow your own.
What’s The Solution?
Firstly, I’m not entirely convinced that debutants coming into the side are necessarily of a significantly lower quality than players in the past. It is the nature of sport that players are rarely playing at their full potential when they are first picked for the national team. Instead, they typically improve by playing against a higher calibre of opposition and by being fine-tuned by the team’s coaches. The players who are on central contracts have very little to do with their respective counties once they enter the national side, and so how can domestic cricket be to blame for them not performing or becoming better cricketers? If players aren’t improving (or even regressing) whilst in the England setup, that has to be an issue of selection and coaching.
The ECB also takes a huge role in attempting to develop the most promising young players in English cricket. Through the England under-19s, Loughborough and the England Lions teams, they get their hands on most of the promising young players long before they’re in contention for the national team. Therefore, one obvious solution would be for the ECB to fix what appears to be a broken system. Andy Flower became the Technical Director Of Elite Development at the ECB in 2014 after he was fired as coach of the England Men’s team, which means that he is ultimately responsible for both the England Lions and the ECB academy at Loughborough. If he has failed to produce one “elite” player in his four years working there, surely questions have to be asked about his effectiveness.
Even if you accept the premise that county cricket needs to do more to create world-class players, it’s not immediately clear what could be changed to make that happen. I would guess that the ECB’s plan of replacing the county youth academies with their own regional youth academies will resurface, having been shelved to placate the counties before they voted in favour of the new T20 competition. This may be the dumbest idea known to man. The national academy at Loughborough has not only failed to develop an elite player in recent years (or ever, as far as I’m aware), I’ve honestly never even heard it being credited for improving a single player. Not one. And they want to take over the county academies, at least some of which do actually work.
There are some suggestions about dramatically changing the structure of county cricket which will quite simply never happen. Some people suggest that the quality of the Championship would be improved if the number of teams was reduced to eight or ten. Whilst this may be true (I personally doubt it), this would require half of the counties to essentially vote themselves out of existence so I can’t see it happening. Likewise, the competitiveness of Division 2 might be improved if it was possible to be relegated to the Minor Counties. There are some clubs which perennially sit at the bottom of the league whilst still cashing their cheques from the ECB, but again for this to occur some teams would have to vote against their own interests. They’re dumb, but I don’t think they’re quite that dumb.
There are always murmurings about the large number of foreign players in county cricket. Commenter StephenFH did some research last year which suggested that 111 players in county squads weren’t qualified to play for England, 26% of the total number. Some people say that if you got rid of these players then there would be more opportunities for English players to be selected and develop. This might be true, but if the foreign players are better than the homegrown players they are keeping out of the team then getting rid of them would also lower the overall standard of the competition. Isn’t it a good thing that English players have to earn their place in the first XI, and have to compete against the best players available when they get there?
All of which leaves the usual tinkering around the edges that happens in county cricket. Moving more games to the middle of the season, cutting the number of games, changing the points system, redistributing teams between the two divisions, minor changes to the playing conditions and so on. Basically what happens every year or two anyway. It seems unlikely that such small changes would reap big rewards for the ECB, but it will at least allow them to reassure themselves that they are doing something.
Not that it really matters. After all, we all know it’s really KP’s fault…