As happens after every England Test series loss, an increasingly common occurrence these days, people have started proposing cutting the number of counties in English cricket to improve the development of Test cricketers.
Proponents of having fewer first-class teams are happy to concede that the County Championship used to be a much stronger competition, which would appear to contradict their argument from the outset as the number of teams hasn’t changed. Likewise, having eighteen teams hasn’t hurt the production of talented English white ball cricketers. In fact, it could be argued that England boasts the greatest depth in terms of T20 players of any country. This would suggest that the number of teams is not a key issue, although this does obviously not prevent people from suggesting it.
The first thing which must be acknowledged is that cutting the number of first-class teams would certainly improve the average quality of domestic red ball cricket in this country. In the short term. This is because it is a statistical trick. Imagine a school expelled the bottom half of its students. Even though the quality of teaching and the intelligence of the remaining children both remain the same, they could argue that their ‘average grade’ had risen sharply. The intrinsic flaw in this approach is that when a new batch of kids comes in, they are back where they started because they haven’t actually changed anything. Indeed, if the school had reduced their permanent capacity by half then there would presumably be half as many students with top grades once the original ones had left.
There are two obvious areas which could improve the number of high-quality county cricketers: Recruiting more junior players with high potential and improving the development of those players in order to meet that potential. At first glance, reducing the number of teams helps neither.
The greatest flaw with trying to adapt the Sheffield Shield format to England is the population density of the two countries. 16 million people, over 60% of Australia’s total population, live in the six cities which have first-class teams there. The number of people who live in the seventeen cities and towns which host county grounds is just 15.7 million, or 26.9% of England and Wales’s population.
In terms of developing Test players, the major effect is the number of children within each team’s catchment area. Looking at the three world-class Test players England currently has: Joe Root and Jimmy Anderson both grew up roughly 30 miles away from their respective county grounds, whilst Ben Stokes had to travel 90 miles each way to the Riverside Ground. This is one factor which restricts working-class kids from playing professional cricket, because they often need a stay-at-home parent with a car and the willingness to spend several hours a week just to attend county age group practice sessions and games.
If the number of teams was halved, that would mean many would have farther to travel and even more potential Test players would be excluded from the professional game. In that it disproportionately affects working-class children, reducing the number of teams might also be considered a diversity issue. Given the focus on that topic at the moment, both within the ECB and from Parliament, it would be a brave move for English cricket to take now.
Once they make their way through the junior teams, the issue then becomes whether these young players would get any opportunities to make the first XI if there were fewer places available. It seems unlikely that promising young cricketers such as Zak Crawley or Ollie Pope would have played as many Championship matches if there were significantly greater competition for places. Increasing the minimum standard of player comes at the expense of allowing youngsters to make their debuts early and gain valuable experience as a result.
The lack of chances to break through into a team was often cited by South African-born players as a reason why they came to England to play cricket, a situation admittedly exacerbated by racial quotas in the country. It is notable that Cricket South Africa have recently reverted from a six-team first-class competition (which ran from 2004 to 2020) to one featuring fifteen provincial teams. It would be interesting to see how those proposing a reduction in county teams explain why it apparently failed to work in South Africa.
So to summarise: Reducing the number of first-class teams in England and Wales doesn’t appear to solve any of the issues regarding developing Test cricketers, and will likely worsen some of them. It is a fundamentally self-destructive and pointless act which will be yet another step towards the end of Test cricket in this country.
The ECB are almost certain to do it then.
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