Whither County Cricket?Martin Chandler |
As much as ever before, as it enters the second decade of the 21st century, England’s domestic game is feeling the cold chill of the wind of change. Tradition has always played a significant part in the organisation of professional cricket in England and, while the degree to which it has done so is an interesting discussion point, there can be little doubt it has held back the development of the national team and the quality of the County game. For many years the hardcore of cricket lovers who run the game have seemed to be prepared to accept a degree of mediocrity in our Test side as an acceptable price to pay to maintain the game’s traditions but, increasingly, there is restlessness amongst administrators, and a growing acknowledgment throughout the game that changes, of a kind that will dismantle the sacred structure, need to be made.
The reluctance of cricket to reinvent itself is most vividly illustrated by the fact that from the watershed year of 1864, when over-arm bowling was first legalised and there was a first attempt to nominate a Champion County, for an entire century the structure of the game remained essentially unchanged. By 1864 the leading fixtures in the country were the various matches between the Gentlemen and the Players, the most prestigious of which was played at Lords each July. The best amateur cricketers would take on the best professionals in a fixture which eventually did gradually diminish in importance but which, for a time, was generally considered to be greater than any Test match.
As far as the rest of the First Class game was concerned the leading counties played First Class matches from before 1864 but from then on Gloucestershire, Kent, Lancashire, Middlesex, Nottinghamshire, Surrey, Sussex, Warwickshire and Yorkshire with, briefly, Cambridgeshire, Derbyshire and Hampshire, were recognised as First Class. In 1890 a properly organised County Championship began which expanded until, in 1921, Glamorgan were the first county from outside England to join and the number involved became 17. Since then only Durham, as recently as 1992, have joined the Championship. No county has lost its First Class status since Cambridgeshire did from 1872.
As well as the Gentlemen, the Players and the leading counties there were matches involving Oxford and Cambridge Universities, both of whom fielded some very strong sides in the days before academic ability became the major factor in determining admission to their colleges. The MCC also maintained a programme of First Class fixtures and from time to time various scratch sides were given First Class status for certain matches. Touring sides from other nations started arriving in the latter part of the 19th century and Test matches, initially just against Australia but subsequently South Africa too, began in Victorian times. From 1926 onwards, with the exception of the war years and 1970, there has been at least one touring party in England every summer and after 1928, as a result of West Indies, New Zealand and India in turn all being elevated, Test matches were played each summer.
In the late 1940’s cricket, like all sports, enjoyed a peacetime boom, but once the austerity of the immediate post-war period gave way to the 1950’s, interest gradually tailed off and continued to do so into the 1960’s. There was talk, as there had been occasionally before the war, of introducing a knockout competition. The idea never got beyond the discussion stage, the traditionalists always winning the day because of the difficulties involved in resolving drawn matches, and finding gaps in the County Championship timetable in which 28 three day matches were the norm. At one point some counties played as many as 32 Championship matches each summer.
By 1963 it was clear that something had to change and there were two momentous events that year. The first was the abolition of the traditional distinction between professionals and amateurs, all players thereafter simply being “cricketers”. As a consequence the old Gentlemen -v- Players fixture, still important although nothing like as much so as half a century before, disappeared forever from the fixture list.
More significant was the introduction of the “Knockout Competition”, which in future years was to be named after a sponsor, initially as the Gillette Cup. The problem of drawn games was overcome by limiting each side’s innings to 65 overs and, with an absolute maximum of five games for the finalists, it proved possible to comfortably accommodate the new competition alongside the County Championship.
One day cricket was a great success and in its 1964 edition Wisden said “The new Knockout Competition aroused enormous interest. Very large crowds, especially in the later rounds, flocked to the matches and 25,000 spectators watched the final ..at Lords, supporters wearing favours and banners were also in evidence, the whole scene resembling an association football cup final more than a game of cricket and many thousands invaded the pitch at the finish to cheer the Sussex Captain as he received the trophy”.
There were, inevitably, grumbles about the new format and particularly that a number of counties had failed to include even a single spin bowler in their teams. Complaint was also made of the tendency for fielding captains to place too many fielders in the deep in order to prevent quick scoring, however tactics, the laws and playing conditions evolved and those concerns diminished over the years.
In addition to the introduction of the new one day game a wide ranging enquiry was launched amongst readers of the Daily Express to find out what supporters wanted to see happen to improve the game. More than 2,000 responses were received and there were a number of familiar themes. The main call was for the introduction of bonus points to encourage faster run rates amongst batting teams. Eventually, five years later, that innovation was brought in. Few mourned the abolition of the old provision for a few points for the side with a lead on first innings, which not infrequently led to tedious attritional battles for first innings points with neither Captain looking beyond that. Sunday cricket, inevitably given it was the one day of the week many could attend to watch, was also called for. Six years later, in 1969, the second one day competition, the 40 overs per side John Player’s Sunday League, was launched. Despite the success of this, or perhaps because of it, it was to be 1981 before Test cricket was first played in England on a Sunday and a number of years after that before the first County Championship games were played on the sabbath.
There was also a call for limiting first innings in County Championship games either by time or overs. This was first experimented with in 1966 when in some County Championship fixtures the first innings was restricted to 65 overs, and later on longer limits were tried. The 65 over rule was an experiment that did not work and was not repeated. Opening batsmen were under pressure from the first over and middle order batsmen rarely had an opportunity to build an innings on decent pitches. The later, higher, limits on first innings were also experiments that did not last.
Almost universal amongst the Express’s respondents was the call for leading overseas players to be allowed to play for counties without having to go through the five year residential qualification period that then existed. This did of course go through, but despite the overwhelming case in its favour it was still to be another five years, and 1968, before immediate registration of overseas players was to be permitted.
The rank and file cricket watcher/Express reader also expressed concern about deliberate pad play and again this was acted upon, eventually, the LBW law being changed in 1970 to remove a batsman’s immunity from being LBW to a delivery that struck him outside the line in the event that he was not playing a shot.
Further popular ideas to improve the game by preventing time wasting were limiting bowlers’ run-ups to 15 paces and increasing the number of balls per over to 8 or 10. This latter idea was never trialled, and although for a number of years run-ups in the 40 over game were limited to 15 paces, that rule was never tried in the First Class game and was, after a few years, abandoned in the Sunday League as well.
It was a mark of the game’s conservatism that despite the success of the Gillette Cup it was to be 1969 before the Sunday League became the second limited overs competition. There was not such a long gap, just three seasons, until in 1972 the third one day competition, the 55 overs per side Benson & Hedges Cup, was introduced in order to provide counties with a second Lords final to aim for each year. The Gillette Cup, by now 60 overs per side, remained the premier one day competition, but not by much, and the Benson & Hedges final was almost on a par with it.
After 1972 English seasons took on a familiar look. The County Championship would begin at the end of April and would share the early weeks of the summer with the zonal stage of the B&H. The format there was for four groups of five teams. The First Class counties were initially joined by two representative Minor Counties sides and a Combined Universities team. The four groups would then produce eight quarter finalists and, amongst the succeeding rounds of Championship matches, the later rounds would be played culminating in a final at Lords in July. Throughout the season the Sunday League would run and, from July, the Gillette Cup would begin and that would culminate in its showpiece final on the last weekend of the season at Lords.
The one day competitions worked well for many years but there continued to be worries about the Championship which was poorly attended and generally considered to be of a poor standard and not “fit for purpose” in terms of producing Test match players. In an attempt to improve the Championship some four day matches were introduced in 1988, and all matches were of four days duration from 1993. Finally, in 1999, pressure to divide the Championship into two divisions was finally successful and the competition as we know it in 2010 began as the new millenium dawned.
Despite the boost given to the game by one day cricket by the 1990’s the attraction had begun to wane and less people were attending matches. The formats and playing conditions of the three competitions were tinkered with but none of the changes prevented the general downward trend. In 1998 the ECB suggested for the first time a different, reduced form of the game but the counties rejected it. In 2001 a further attempt was made. This time the ECB, anticipating the traditionalists’ arguments, made the wise decision to invest in some market research.
The research consisted of 4,000 people being interviewed, face to face, for 15 minutes about their attitudes to the game. Around two thirds of those spoken to had no interest in the game and, worryingly, the majority of them were children, young people aged 16 to 34, women, ethnic minorities and those from lower income households. More promisingly for the ECB however, of those who responded in such negative fashion around half said that given the opportunity they would be prepared to rub shoulders with the white, male, middle-class cricket followers if it were at a game that would be completed in under three hours on a weekday evening, with a series of side shows and other distractions. Despite this overwhelming evidence the counties were far from convinced, but eleven of the eighteen were persuaded by the case for change and the first 20/20 Cup was scheduled for 2003.
Having already spent GBP200,000 on research the ECB shrewdly decided to spend another GBP250,000 on marketing. The game had seen nothing like it before with advertisements for the tournament appearing in the nation?s newspapers and, in a most inventive ploy, customers of a leading supermarket being encouraged to exchange their loyalty points for tickets.
What the ECB most desperately wanted for 20/20 was something that money could not buy and, by Act of God, they got it. The games were scheduled for early June and the sun shone all over England and crowds flocked to the matches in their thousands. In another sensible move the ECB ensured that the initial group matches were organised on a regional basis to create local derbies. No fewer than 15,000 supporters turned out for the Roses clash at Old Trafford and as many as 15 of the 45 group games sold out completely. The zonal games of the old Benson & Hedges Cup had, in its final season, attracted a total of 67,000 paying spectators. The same stage of the new competition saw that figure increase by 350%.
Initially the ECB managed to resist the temptation to cash in on the runaway success by maintaining the same number of fixtures for 2004. The only significant changes made were to create a quarter final stage which, sensibly, ensured there would be fewer group matches in which the result was irrelevant. In addition, not wanting to push their luck with the weather, the matches were pushed back to the first half of July. By 2005 however the temptation to expand became irresistible and each county was given eight group matches instead of five which, in 2008, increased to ten and then, this year, to sixteen.
As far as the other competitions are concerned 2009 marked the last year of a traditional one day final at Lords. It seems bizarre that the first great success of limited overs cricket, the Knockout Cup, has been consigned to history. It is difficult to think of another major sport which doesn?t have such a competition and it seems particularly perverse given that the ICC Cricket World Cup maintains the same format. Equally bizarrely a 40 over competition, with a national league, has been retained despite there being no ICC tournament that plays 40 over games. The answer can only be that the ECB is allowing itself to be dictated to by its paymasters at BSkyB. Television wants a match every day and a competition that has been meaningless for some time has been allowed to continue for that purpose. It is not good for the game and the sooner the Clydesdale Bank 40 in its current form is put out of its misery the better.
Relatively free from interference over recent years, some tinkering with the points system this year apart, has been the First Class game. Four day cricket and two divisions has, it would seem, been a success. The standard of cricket in the top division is high and the matches are competitive. Crowds remain low, and will inevitably remain that way, but interest is high and the need for a domestic First Class competition of as high a standard as possible, to produce future Test players, must remain paramount. If BSkyB wants to have cricket on its screens every day then what is there to prevent it serving up championship matches to its audience? There are many of us who would be delighted to see more First Class cricket on television. Personally I am far from convinced about day/night matches but, in the interests of reaching a compromise with BSkyB, who clearly want to show play in the early evening, I would have no objection to the Championship experimenting with that in order to give the company the evening coverage that they demand.
Should the two division structure be replaced and the number of counties reduced? This is, generally, the stumbling block upon which all real advances founder. The “mire of mediocrity” that Graeme Wright referred to in his editorial note to the 2002 Wisden has, certainly in the case of the first division, been removed and perhaps matters can stay broadly as they are for the First Class game. There may be a case for expanding the first division. This would enable, say, twelve counties to play each other only once, thereby reducing the workload on players. At the same time the leading sides could be guaranteed a place in the top flight without fear of relegation while, at the other end of the spectrum, ambitious teams from outside the top echelon would still have an opportunity to establish themselves. The second division could, as times progress, take in sides such as Ireland, Scotland and Holland and perhaps even overseas teams from further afield such as Zimbabwe, Bangladesh and Afghanistan.
That County Championship apart I would have just one other competition for the traditional counties that being a return to a straightforward knockout cup involving the 18 First Class counties and however many other teams justify inclusion. The existence of just one such competition would underline its importance and create something akin to the early Gillette Cup. English cricket desperately needs a competition where supporters will remember, from one season to the next, who are its one day champions. My preference would be for a 50 over contest, but if the majority prefer 40 then so be it. The priority must be to remove the often meaningless zonal games which some counties seem, from their team selection, to use as practice matches.
What then of 20/20? There has undoubtedly been too much of it this season. The 144 games this summer have not killed the goose that laid the golden egg but they have certainly left it suffering from indigestion. Crowds generally (but not everywhere) have been down although the recession, as well as a surfeit of the game, will have played a part in that. The fact that 20/20 has been good for the game cannot be disputed. One day cricket brought about a great advance in fielding standards throughout the world and, when further improvement might not have been thought possible, it has certainly taken place. Batting too has been revolutionised with shots like the reverse sweep, the scoop, the ramp and the switch hit filling further pages in the coaching manuals and thrilling the crowds.
England is ideally placed, being the only Test nation in the Northern Hemisphere, to take advantage of the interest in this new form of the game, not only in our own backyard but the world over. For me the answer is obvious. Base nine teams around the Test match grounds and introduce franchises and an IPL style auction. Even without a formal or informal alliance with the IPL it surely cannot be beyond the expertise of the marketing arm of the ECB to create a product which will allow the game to reach new audiences and cash in on the appeal of the new format. The traditionalists will be happy too. Those of us who look back more often than we look forward care deeply about the County Championship and I would hate to see the prospect of Lancashire winning it again becoming an impossibility. I would also hate to see the likes of Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Northamptonshire, the three who seem to receive most nominations to be the sacrificial lambs, disappear completely but so long as there remains a second division they can get out of if their team is good enough then I can live with the changes I suggest and, of course, they would start the knock out cup at the same level as the First Division counties.
As for 20/20 I have learnt to like, if not love, the shortest version of the game. As to who succeeds at it I really don’t mind and if the final pits the Manchester Super Kings against the London Lions I shall look to see who my favourite players are appearing for and support them – or then again perhaps I will just sit back in my favourite armchair with my 1982 Wisden and watch my video, recently transferred to something called a DVD, of “Botham’s Ashes”.