Recently, the Indian Premier League drew to a conclusion. If you were under a rock then you won't be aware of this, otherwise, I am going to assume that I am telling you something you already know. Something else that you may already know is that the world's most popular spectator sport is association football. And where is the football that most people want to watch played? England, in the FA Premier League - the English Premier League. Well, the England and Wales Cricket Board wants a slice of the pie, they want to create their own English Premier League, to outdo their Indian counterparts and come closer to their footballing equivalent. The success that the Twenty20 Cup has had since 2003 needs to be built upon in a big way of England is to become the number one place to play domestic cricket. Is this possible and how should they go about doing this?
There have been many rumours flying round, since an EPL was first mentioned, but two main ones. Firstly, an initial trend in the cricketing media was to say that county cricket is not "cool", people want city cricket that they can attach themselves to. There were many problems with this. If more people were enabled to attach themselves to a team through city identity, there would be an immense saturation of the talent pool. It is fine for football to have a club in most cities and towns because 90% of English boys want to be a footballer at some point in their life, but cricket just can't get away with such a thing. If you brought in city cricket, it would have to be a rebranding issue, Yorkshire becomes Leeds, Lancashire becomes Manchester, Warwickshire becomes Birmingham. And there, in effect, you aren't adding to the amount of people that can attach themselves to a team, you are massively reducing it. My county - in cricket - it's Lancashire. I have never lived in Lancashire, old or new boundaries, but they are the first-class county that I have the greatest affinity with. If they were rebranded as Manchester for the purposes of an EPL, I could never, in a million years support them (my Dad would never forgive me) and neither could many people that live in close proximity to myself - the nearest city to me is Liverpool. Lancashire play a first-class match every summer in Liverpool, which is 40 miles from Manchester. Under traditional county boundaries, they are both in Lancashire and in cricket have happily coexisted for a long time. Generally though, the two cities are not the fondest of one another, least of all in sporting circles. You can say the same of Leeds and Sheffield (Yorkshire), Southampton and Portsmouth (Hampshire) and Cardiff and Swansea (Glamorgan, perhaps the fiercest of them all), amongst others. Regional rivalries have transcended English and Welsh sport for years and it would be a disastrous failure to ruin the unique joinings that country cricket has created. Thankfully, this idea seems to have been put on the backburner.
The next rumour, which has been a little more prominent is that, in a similar vein to above, the counties be replaced by franchises. This could, in effect combine with city cricket, ie create, say, eight completely new teams from scratch, much as the IPL did, and go from there. You have the same eight teams competing each year, and counties aren't being replaced, they are a complete non-entity for this competition. So if you are a Hampshire fan from Portsmouth, and there is a Southampton franchise created, you don't have to squirm as you watch Dimitri Mascarenhas represent a city you can't stand because he won't necessarily be playing for them. He will be playing for whichever franchise has bid the most for him, be it Newcastle, Leeds, Leicester, or perhaps it could be Ross-on-Wye if there was somebody rich enough in the quaint border village to cough up. A separate competition altogether from the County Championship and the various one-day competitions that have been assembled on any given year. The problem here, though, is that it is not the English way. Sure, the ECB want any league they eventually set up to be a worldwide success, but it won't be that if it doesn't attract domestic support. In football, there was a team called Wimbledon, in London, that was moved to Milton Keynes (roughly 100 miles away) and basically started all over as a new team, but continuing in the same division that Wimbledon were in. The public's response to this? Utter resentment, boycotts of their games were commonplace. They were nicknamed Franchise FC
. This would probably not be an insult in most countries, but in England this was a nickname stated with venom and dislike, for going against the basic principles of sporting pyramids. Whilst eight new teams in a new cricket league would not attract such dislike, as they would not be replacing anybody as such, in this country we simply find it difficult to just start supporting somebody because we're told to. We are far too traditionalist and set in our ways for that, the rest of the world can mock us for it but we believe franchises are cheap and that they will never work. Don't go there.
Having said all that, you could take a lighter meaning of franchising to be closing the shop
. By that, I mean to have a certain amount of teams in a competition, the same teams, and they stay, no relegation. This happened in country cricket for long enough - for 110 years in fact it existed as one division, and between 1921 and 1992 there were no new teams. In Rugby League, Super League Europe started as a closed shop in the mid-90s, and is introducing franchising for the 2008 season. Rather than new teams being created, though, the league is the franchise, with entry decided on commercial grounds rather than straight up promotion and relegation. Whether this will be successful remains to be seen, but such a replication in cricket, would not, I don't believe, work. The reason for this is that I don't think new teams, be it through special rebranding or true franchises being created would not work supporter-wise, and if you were to franchise the EPL through the existing counties, you would have to leave ten out, realistically. What this would then lead to is big names that are playing for small counties getting somewhat peeved at never getting to play in the big domestic competition. If eight were chosen, I'd say it would be all bar one of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Surrey, Middlesex, Warwickshire, Durham, Hampshire, Notts and Glamorgan. You may have spotted the connection, these are the nine counties with Test status if you will. A big part of franchising is facilities, you want the stadia that host the biggest international games hosting the biggest domestic games.
The upshot of this, whichever one of the above is disappointed, would be that ten counties would be left out. Let's look at a couple. Sussex, for a start. Three times county champions in the last four years. Though that might not impact upon Twenty20 in itself, they would be justifiably fuming at being left out of English cricket's biggest domestic shake-up seems as they've been the most successful county in recent times. And you have players like Luke Wright and Matt Prior, who perhaps aren't box-office in the truest sense, but that people have heard of - if you want to draw people in, you need to give them names that they know.
Then there's Essex - Alastair Cook, abysmal in Twenty20, comparatively at least, but a well-known member of the national team, fresh, young and marketable, attractive to the female audience that cricket has traditionally struggled to crack in this country. And Ravi Bopara, who, if reports are to be believed, turned down the IPL. You have Somerset with Ashes hero Marcus Trescothick, as well as Justin Langer (though overseas players are a different kettle of fish) and Ian Blackwell. There is Kent. Their biggest names are Robert Key and Geraint Jones - not huge but Key could realistically be playing for England again in the near future, and Jones will be remembered fondly by the casual cricket fans who attributed the whole of the Edgbaston 05 victory to him catching Kasprowicz. It is the casual cricket fan that the ECB wants to attract here, because the likes of me and you will probably watch the EPL regardless (Twenty20 sceptics aside). The major point with Kent, though, is that they are currently the reigning Twenty20 champions! I could go on through the rest of the counties - most of them have a name or two that casual cricket fans will have heard of.
If we leave these counties out, then two things could happen. You can't very well play for Kent for most of the season then join Lancashire for the EPL, it wouldn't sit right with fans or players of either side, so if you're Robert Key, you want to go where the money is, you join an EPL county for the whole season. The net result is the same eight teams then begin to dominate in all forms, as that is where the stars are, it is where the big names want to play. The alternative theory? If you're Simon Jones of Worcestershire, the IPL will certainly have you. Your own Premier League doesn't want you but the Indian one will - and there begins the process of the ECB shooting itself in the foot.
So what would I do? Because unquestionably, eighteen teams would be too many, new teams is not the answer and a closed shop could have damaging effects on the English game as a whole. I have pondered this somewhat extensively, with two main ideas. These ideas centre around an eight-team EPL which all teams get the chance to participate in. The options are between there being a qualifying tournament on a yearly basis, or promotion and relegation.
I decided upon promotion and relegation. Qualification on a yearly basis doesn't allow for a great deal of planning and basically means that what we have is a restructured Twenty20 Cup, which seems a little pointless. If we want this to be an English Premier League, then we should do it properly and have it function in the same sort of way as Premier Leagues in football and rugby. I would, early next season, hold a preliminary tournament, which would be similar to the group stages of the Twenty20 Cup. We could continue with the regional groups, or seedings based on performances in this year's competition. I would stick with the current regional settings - I have made one or two decisions here that have put the interests of fair competition high up, if the EPL is to be a success it needs to be commercially viable, obviously, and the best way to do this is stick with the regional format. This allows for derby fixtures, like the Roses match and Surrey V Middlesex. This qualifying stage is a one-off, but still needs to be accomodated into the schedule, teams would need to play each other twice as they do now. I say play this in April. Time can be created in the calendar by getting rid of the Pro40 League, which is the most pointless thing to have happened in cricket since Ian Blackwell played for the Test side. This should not, though be a one-off, we should stick to three competitions, First-Class, 50-over and Twenty20, to mirror the international game as much as possible. With this qualifying stage crammed into April, we can have the top two in each group qualify for the Premier League, and the two third placed sides with the best records, that would give us our eight in the same way the Twenty20 Cup's quarter-finalists are decided. So far, all that's changed is that we've moved the dates.
Now is where it changes. Because in June, when the Twenty20 Cup would ordinarily run, the first English Premier League can get underway, with its eight qualifiers playing each other home and away. The top four can then qualify for the semi-finals, and from there we have a final. And this can occur every year. Beneath the EPL, the remaining ten counties should split into two conferences, with lines drawn geographically, and they should similarly play each other home and away. Then, the bottom two in the EPL and the two conference winners can play-off for the right to play in the EPL the following year. It's promotion and relegation, modernised enough to keep people interested, as only football can get away with a first placed wins
format in this country. The format is easy, and the conference games should be hard-fought, coming as they do with the chance to play in the EPL the following season.
So, we have an EPL, with eight teams, which may or may not change each year, four go into the semis and from there two fight it out to be champions. One of my favourite things about the Twenty20 Cup is its finals day. Three matches in the same ground on the same day, with the winner taking the trophy. It is a day that has been hugely successful in the past and can continue to be so, I would stick with it. I know that there is potentially more money to be made from three separate events, but the spectacle of a finals day has been such a success that it can continue to be a great commercial prospect, especially when combined with a further glamourised competition. Pop acts can continue to appear, and it should be held in the final weekend of July. This keeps it away from the football season, and therefore it can be domestic cricket's new crown jewel, with all English sporting eyes focusing on it.
This is all well and good, of course, but what difference does changing a name and converting to a league format really make? Not all that much, I would argue. You can call it the Twenty20 Cup, the English Premier League or the Happy Shopper Trophy, but it is stars that get people through the turnstiles, and it is stars that get people to switch off Big Brother and switch on the Cricket. Where are we going to find these stars?
The first thing the ECB therefore needs to do is set up the English Premier League as an independent entity. This way, it can negotitate its own TV deal, whilst still being under the ECB's controlling arm, this is the same as what happened when the football Premiership was created. A big TV deal is absolutely crucial - the average attendance in the Twenty20 Cup so far has been just over 7,000 - this is the same as what the third tier of English football averages, and as such is not enough to fund big names. To draw a comparison, the IPL averaged 58,000 in its first season - sure, it is likely that this will drop off a little as the novelty wears off, but the EPL will never be able to compete in terms of attendances, as there is no cricket ground big enough to come close to that. So they would need a bumper deal off Sky - or maybe a rival company that is prepared to pay their way - in order to pay salaries that compete with the IPL. It is unlikely players would play both, on top of their own domestic season and international committments, so it would be one or the other. The last thing England needs is a poor man's IPL, with cricketers retired from the international circuit coming over for a bumper pay day. It needs the big names, for the big names it needs the big money. If the ECB can persuade the TV companies, and the potential sponsors, that they can bring in these big names, then they can get themselves a handsome deal, which should be filtered to the counties to bid on the stars.
This issue becomes complicated, of course, because we are using existing teams who already sign overseas players, and because the ECB allows only one overseas player a year. As the EPL, in my vision, is being set up as an independent body, it can therefore have different rules, and should allow four overseas players per team. One of these must be the overseas player that a county has signed for the season, therefore allowing for each county to sign three more players each. The best way to do this, from a commercial and a competitive point of view, would be to allocate each team equal funds, and then have a draft in the same way as the IPL. Hopefully then, we would see Ponting, Sangakarra, Lee, Steyn, Yousuf. The EPL is at a huge advantage here as the English domestic season doesn't tend to clash with too much internationally so if your team isn't touring England - great, come and play EPL! This could be a really big factor. Even if the IPL can offer a player that bit of extra money pro rata, they could make more overall through being more available more often to play in England.
Would it be a success? If the ECB came up with a solid business plan, and got the sponsors and the TV companies to back it, and so could subsequently attract the stars, then there is phase one. This would then achieve another objective, it would keep the likes of Kevin Pietersen and Andrew Flintoff happy. They are as big, in box-office terms, as anybody else in world cricket, and as such could expect nice handsome payments from their counties, with the TV money provided by the ECB. This would then deter them from playing in the IPL, and as such would not hamper the England team at all. Of course, there are real barriers here in the central contract system. Workarounds would be needed, perhaps whereby for the duration of the EPL players central contracts don't apply and they are paid by their counties. This, of course, assumes that a break in the international season can be found for the EPL, which would mean it would have to be shorter than the IPL was. This is a difficult challenge, one which I admit is very hard to find a solution for. 14 games are required from each team in my EPL model (that is excluding finals day), this certainly would not allow England players to play in each game. What an EPL definitely does need if it is to be a success is box-office English stars, players whom kids would be happy to wear the name on the back of their EPL replica kit, Flintoff, Pietersen, Broad, Panesar. There is no point having some of the world's best cricketers and then your second-tier Englishmen. This is the biggest challenge the EPL will face, accomodating it around the international calendar, especially as next year there is the Twenty20 World Cup and the Ashes, and the following year the Aussies visit for an additional one-day series. These aren't contests which are going to be compromised.
As such, I feel that the ECB need to work hard at finding a solution - the league going ahead without England players would probably make your Pontings and your Steyns lean towards India. If you slowed the season down, the overseas players may find it more likely to conflict with their international commitments. Nonetheless, these are challenges that sharper business and scheduling minds than mine can surely find solutions for. English cricket cannot compete financially with India if it was to go up against it pound for pound, but the timing of the English season is a real strength that should not be underestimated, as is the appreciation and tradition for the game in this country, as well as the fickle nature of the British public when it comes to celebrities and big names.
There are barriers ahead and difficulties to overcome. That being said, the EPL is well worth a try - the worst it can do is be the Twenty20 Cup with a new format, let's not forget that that is a competition which has changed the face of cricket. Without the Twenty20 Cup, there would not yet be an IPL, and now it is England's turn to try and seize back the initiative. If they are to do this, they must overcome these aforementioned barriers, but if they do do it, a lot of money can be brought into the domestic game, the fans can see superstars for a dozen or so games each summer, and Kevin Pietersen might just be placated. No mean feat.