Who will win the County Championship?
It’s hard to be certain, but rumour has it that Leonard Cohen was thinking of the opening day of the County Championship season when he wrote the song Hallelujah.
It is a magical time. Whether it is the return of cricket or the first signs of countryside returning to life after a long winter – and for many of us, the two events are inextricably linked – it is a time of renewed possibilities and hope. Optimism, like bluebells and daffodils, pokes through even the coldest and most barren soil.
It has become customary at this time of year to wring our hands, bemoan a lost past and worry for an uncertain future. And it’s true, county cricket faces some challenges. Not least some aspects of the media who will ignore domestic cricket for much of the year but publish that seemingly obligatory photo of a chilly-looking spectator in an otherwise empty stand on the opening day of the season as they seek to reiterate the old lie: nobody cares about county cricket.
Actually, the T20 revolution has provided cricket at all levels with an opportunity to attract a new audience and new revenues. That’s not to be feared. Attendances rose for all three domestic competitions in 2015 with T20 attendances up by more than 20% despite the competition starting a month too early. Scheduling at a predictable time and leaving a gap between matches might not be hugely popular for players, but it works for spectators. And it is meant to be a spectator sport.
County cricket is also producing players. Since 2005, when the benefits of promotion and relegation and four-day cricket had a chance to take effect, England have won five of the last seven Ashes series. They’ve won their last Test series in India and South Africa and went within an ace of becoming the first side to win the World T20 twice. Division One in the County Championship may never have been stronger than it is this year with Surrey and Lancashire back up. The first month of the season offers several Test-quality encounters at a fraction of the cost: Warwickshire v Yorkshire from April 24 and Nottinghamshire v Yorkshire from May 1 among them.
Those who suggest the county game is staid and reactionary would do well to remember it gave birth to List A cricket (in 1963), T20 cricket (in 2003), Duckworth-Lewis (1997), free-hits after no-balls (2002) and now the opportunity for the visiting captain to bowl first. Just because it hasn’t rushed headlong into every fad doesn’t mean it can’t innovate and evolve. Change isn’t always for the better.
Of course there are problems; the influx of foreign-born cricketers, the quality of pitches, the development of spinners and batsmen who can play time, while the role of the Loughborough academy needs scrutiny. Not to mention, a couple of clubs are on the brink of financial ruin.
But we shouldn’t lose sight of the good within the county game. There is much of it.
It seems inevitable that this season, like the last couple, will be played in the shadow of the on-going debate as to the future shape of the domestic T20 competition. If that is tiresome to some, it needs restating that it is a debate that will have huge consequences. Not only could it influence how many first-class counties we have and whether the ECB continue to lead the way in fighting for the future of Test cricket or decide that the future is largely T20 shaped, but it could decide whether cricket continues its slide into niche-dom or capitalises on the T20 opportunity to regain lost ground. The stakes, in cricket terms, could not be higher.
When the ECB started the review into county cricket – well, one of the reviews – there were three aims: to improve the standard of cricket; to develop a new audience and to raise extra revenue.
At some stage, though, the debate has become disproportionately based on the third criteria. We all understand that money matters. We all understand that finance is required to invest in academies and overseas tours and to ensure England’s best players are engaged on central contracts that secure them ahead of a future in T20 leagues.
But we must also remember that money is not all the matters.
Picture, for a moment, a city-based T20 competition sold to the highest bidder. It would probably involve eight sides with somewhere between two and four overseas players per team and all the England players available. Opportunities for young, unproven players would be limited. Unknowns aren’t going to sell any tickets, are they?
It would be played, on the whole, in the biggest grounds, meaning reduced opportunities for those in Sussex and Northamptonshire and Leicester – among many others – to watch the highest-profile domestic competition. And Leicestershire, you may remember, have won the competition more often than any county while Northants have feature in two of the last three finals.
It would also be played, current plans suggest, in a ‘window’ that occupies all July. Which means no international cricket that month; no Lord’s Test in its normal place. It would mean England’s Test players going into matches in August having not had any red-ball cricket for several weeks. It could only represent a huge swing from Test to T20 in the ECB’s priorities.
The T20 Blast does not need a radical overhaul to make the best of its product © Getty Images
And it would be shown on subscription TV. Again, allowing little chance for those yet to fall for cricket’s charms to stumble upon it. Yes, short-term it would plug county finances; long-term it may well condemn them to irrelevance.
Those non-Test clubs continue to have an important role within the game. The likes of Northants and Leicestershire have, despite their financial troubles, produced some of England most important players in recent years. And if we disenfranchise those clubs, are we also disenfranchising working-class kids from smaller towns and cities whose family may have little interest in the sport? How will they ever be exposed to the game? Cricket could easily become irrelevant to vast sections of the nation. Some would argue we are there already. The game must become, once again, a sport for everyone
Evenings watching T20 at Hove or Taunton or Chelmsford can be as inspiring and enjoyable as any matches anywhere in the world. No, it is not the MCG or Eden Gardens with a capacity crowd. It doesn’t offer the same flood of cash in gate receipts or the same visual spectacle.
Instead if offers intimacy. It offers a sense that the players are still part of your community, that you are right in the action and that you are part of something special. You can pick up autographs or selfies and feel a genuine connection with the club you can then join. It feels like your club. It is your club.
It’s not better or worse than the IPL or the BBL. It’s just different.
And different is fine. Lots of the rest of the world has never embraced our beer, our health service or our tolerance, either. It doesn’t mean we should change them. Sometimes we can be unashamedly different.
There are, no doubt, things we can learn from the Australian model. Not least the long-term view taken towards growing an audience before trying to milk the product. But let’s not pretend that everything that works there can work here: the climate is different, the holidays are different, the population density is different and, unlike India and Australia, the UK has little record of embracing franchise teams in sport. And let us not pretend that the Blast fails to attract the best overseas players. Look at those who participated in 2015. It is as strong a list as ever.
And there’s no doubt that playing in the IPL and BBL can benefit England’s players. We don’t have to denigrate others to promote our own. They are fine competitions which suit their localities just fine. But let’s not go mistaking paradise for the home across the road, either.
There is a middle way in the T20 debate. With a little compromise on all sides, a two-division T20 competition could be formed offering something close to what broadcasters desire – a streamlined competition offering more digestible narrative – but also offering hope and relevance to every first-class county.
Broadcasters would focus predominantly on the top division – probably consisting of eight teams – but those in the lower division would have an incentive to join them. Every game would carry relevance. Two-up, two-down with the final place decided by a play-off could ensure that.
Some clubs want the top division to be selected, in its first season at least, on the grounds of ground capacity not playing merit. It is a temptation that must be resisted if the competition is to have integrity and if the smaller counties are to be persuaded to agree to the development.
It’s possible that such a competition would earn a little less in broadcast fees. And it’s possible that the rebranded competition might not be perceived radical enough to excite the attention of the mass market cricket seeks.
But if it is well marketed, if it is available free to air on some platform or another, it is played at times that spectators can predict and does not ask too much of their time or their money, there is no reason it should not thrive. It’s already a great game; the argument is really only about the packaging.
There’s so much good in county cricket. So much that contributes to the money the ECB makes and, increasingly, holds in reserve rather than giving it back to the counties that produced the players to allow them to sell their products. So much we should be celebrating at the start of another season. It would be nice if all those than ran it believed in it as much as many of those who watch it.
Let’s dare to be different to the rest of the world. Let’s dare to do it our way.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo
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Source: ESPN Crickinfo