DEC debates the future of county cricket: Part One

DEC debates the future of county cricket: Part One

With the ECB changes throwing county cricket to debate, DEC throws the floor to four of its writers to give their take on the events.

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Pic: Tony Marshall/Getty Images

Although the ECB has abandoned attempts to change the structure for 2016, the longer term future of domestic cricket is undecided.   The ECB has declared that there will be a period of consultation before any changes are made. So they could do worse than make a start by reading the views expressed here by four of DEC’s brightest and best writers.

Firstly, let’s summarise the changes originally proposed by the ECB.

What were the proposals?

The ECB proposed cutting the number of championship matches from 16 to 14 in 2016 to enable 50 over and Twenty20 cricket to be played in blocks in peak summer and to allow more time for practice and preparation. It was part of the ECB plan to win the 2019 World Cup.

It wasn’t clear how a 14 game county championship would be organised. Longer term, there was likely to be a move towards a top division of 8 teams each playing each other twice. There were no plans to introduce a city franchise T20 competition though it was not ruled out.

The proposals were presented to county Chief Executives and Chairmen. The majority of Chief Executives opposed the plans but the Chairmen voted in favour.  After a backlash from many Chief Executives and members, the ECB had second thoughts.  ECB Chief Executive Tom Harrison announced that there would be no changes for 2016.  “The focus over this autumn and winter,” he stated, “will be on establishing a shared vision to help make the best decisions for the long-term and developing a widely accepted schedule for 2017 onwards.”

Further background information:

  • – Aggregate NatWest T20 Blast attendances this year were up by 17% on 2014
  • – Finals Day attracted a record crowd of over 24,000
  • – Broadcast viewership for Finals Day was the lowest ever, 10% down from the previous lowest in 2013 and well under half the highest recorded viewership back in 2005
  • – Most players, in the Professional Cricketers’ Association annual survey, would like to see the T20 Blast played in a block format. 83% of respondents see the county championship as the premier competition but, overall, they would like to see less cricket played to reduce fatigue and cut down on excessive travel.
  • – Players value least the Royal London One-Day Cup – 30% of professionals playing it don’t think it is important and opinion is split on whether it should be conducted over 40 or 50 overs.
  • – The idea of easing fixture congestion by starting the English season in March with matches played abroad (possibly in the Caribbean, the UAE or Spain) has been mooted

Our Panel of Deep Extra Cover Correspondents

Melissa Jane Kerr is an aspiring cricket presenter.  She is  typically based at Trent Bridge watching Nottinghamshire whilst trying to catch a tan between overs.

Ed Syers is a student journalist as the University of Sunderland. Suffering from the disappointments of supporting both Durham cricket club and Sunderland football club, you’ll have to forgive him he seems a bit down.

Bradley Adams  is 17 and writes for Deep Extra Cover, primarily about Surrey. He’s a traditionalist and much prefers red-ball cricket over the likes of the IPL. When he’s not reporting for DEC, he’s probably bowling off-spin for Farncombe CC.

Kevin Harper writes for Deep Extra Cover but doesn’t cover a specific county. When not writing for DEC he is often found at the Ageas Bowl marvelling at the shot making skills of James Vince.

The discussion is chaired by Terry Wright who is a Bear of both the Warwickshire and Birmingham varieties.

 

Terry: Panel, were you in favour of the ECB proposal to reduce the number of games in the championship from 16 to14?

Bradley: I can see the logic to some extent – this was clearly proposed in order to try and cut down on the amount of cricket to make things easier on the players. However, this is far from the problem with county cricket. Though it may not bring in the big crowds like t20 matches do, the Championship is still the biggest part of the season. Young players still want to play Test cricket and this competition is the only thing that can prepare them for it, and fewer games hinders those players’ development.

Melissa: Yes, cutting the championship makes little sense at all. 4 day cricket is supposed to be the next tier down from Test level. I don’t see how reducing the number of games helps players or teams. Providing playing limited overs in a block is approved, the travel schedule should be short enough to facilitate the full 16 matches.

Kevin:I think the ECB are right to avoid changing the format of the County Championship but I would like to think they do something about the craziness of the schedule. I accept that the logistics of these things and the ability to please everyone are never easy but when players are being so outspoken I think you have to take notice as without them we have no sport.

Ed: I agree that something ought to be done, but the ECB seem to be trying to fix the one form of the game that isn’t broken. Reducing the championship season by two games? I’m sure that isn’t necessary. For a start, whichever team doesn’t play Yorkshire twice is at an immediate advantage!

Terry: What about the proposal to play the white ball competitions in blocks?

Ed: Having the T20 as a block during the holidays is a great idea, the competition played over the course of a month is one of the factors that make the IPL and Big Bash such a hit.

Melissa: Yes, I agree with that. The idea to play limited overs in blocks is a logical one with a range of benefits including marketing, player availability and fitness prospects.

Bradley: I believe it’s the best way of scheduling them. It means that players aren’t constantly switching between formats, you can have big name players sign for a particular competition – raising interest even further – and as Ed mentions, playing the T20 in a block during the holidays will increase cricketing interest from the younger generation.

Terry: So how do you assess the relative importance of the three county competitions?

Melissa: County Cricket should remain the most important aspect of the domestic structure. The longest format of the game allows the many facets of the sport to be played out in full, and benefits player development and skill going forward.

T20 is the most easily engaged with aspect of the game and facilitates strong financial rewards for most clubs. T20 is hugely marketable and could help cricket become a global sport so I see great importance for the shortest format.

This season’s Royal London One Day Cup (RLODC) has been a great example of One Day cricket, there has been great drama and some excellent cricket played but last year was a different story. Given England’s World Cup woes and a less than perfect end to the ODI series against Australia, it seems we need to maintain an interest in One Day cricket for the benefit of English cricket as a whole. We learned from New Zealand how much reward there is to be had by investing in each format separately but seriously.

Kevin: I think the County Championship and NatWest T20 Blast are of major importance. The Championship primes players for the higher echelons of the game while the T20 provides significant revenue for the counties to remain competitive. I’m less sure what part the 50 overs plays. I accept Melissa’s point about maintaining an interest in the 50 over stuff but I’m not sure we need to play as much of it as we do. More and more now the 50 over format is just becoming an extension of the 20 over game in the way it is played so I would be inclined to revert back to a knockout 50 over competition to free up some time in the schedule.

Ed: From a cricketing perspective the priority has to be red ball cricket. That’s what the sport was built on, and Test cricket is quite rightly, in my opinion, seen as the pinnacle of international cricket. But we have to accept that counties need the T20 competition in order to compete financially, and it’s a brilliant spectator sport when it comes to entertainment value. By all means improve the T20 Blast, but as a traditionalist I don’t think it should be done at the expense of the four-day game.

As for 50 over cricket, it’ll be interesting to see how England’s change in strategy in this summer’s One Day Internationals will impact the RLODC over the next season or two. There’s no doubt in my mind that a successful and exciting England team would do wonders for domestic 50 over cricket, and let’s be honest, it could do with a bit of a boost.

Bradley: The County Championship is still the most important competition that we have. Again, I’m in agreement with Ed that Test cricket is the biggest part of international cricket, and I think the Championship is a huge part of ensuring that it remains that way for the foreseeable future. T20 cricket’s value can’t be discounted, however, because it brings in the biggest crowds and therefore the most money. I still struggle to see the importance of the 50-over game. It’s hard to disagree that there have been some absolutely fantastic games of cricket played in this year’s RLODC, but I don’t particularly care for the format as much as I do the other two.

That said, as an England fan, I want to see us win a World Cup. Kevin makes a good point about how the 50-over game is essentially played as an extension of the 20-over format – just look to the ODI series against New Zealand at the start of the summer for an example of that – and so playing huge amounts of 50-over cricket in the domestic game is becoming less important. Only 56.9% of players see the RLODC as a “high quality competition” according to the recent Players Survey, and it’s difficult to look beyond reducing the amount of games played in that format if the ECB want to reduce the schedule. Though I’m not currently sure how it would work, I’d welcome a 50-over knockout competition.

Terry: How far do you see the prime aim of county cricket as supporting the success of the England team?

Ed: Without a doubt, county and international success go hand in hand. A competitive county game breeds better players, and facing international quality players on a weekly basis bridges the gap between club and country. If we don’t protect the quality of cricket on a domestic level, how can we expect to produce world class players for the England team? But it’s about more than just the quality of players, the ECB must also realise the importance of increasing interest in the sport. A better competition will breed higher attendances and viewing figures, and as participation in cricket increases, so will the quality of the England team down the line.

Melissa: Yes, there’s no doubt that the health of the county circuit benefits England’s success immensely. Having access to in-form players who are seeing out weekly fixtures across the summer is a definite asset to the England administration. However, when players are forced to miss county fixtures on International Duty there is a clear sense that England caps trump everything, sometimes to the detriment of county. Players need somewhere to hone skills and win the selector’s eye; county cricket is that arena but more importantly it is a competitive league showcasing the best of the English game in the areas of the country it is most loved. The amount of international and Kolpak players signing on each year suggests it’s more than just a pre-tour net session for would be England players.

Bradley: In 2015, you could repeat the old saying “Strong Yorkshire, strong England”.  But it  would probably be more appropriate to say “strong counties, strong England.” High-quality county cricket is the best, and only, way of ensuring that England have players always knocking on the door to break into international cricket. Presumably, it’s one of the main reasons these guys play county cricket. As others have mentioned, however, interest levels at county level need to be raised or else we will run into long-term issues such as a dearth of young players.

Though it’d be nice to see more England players available for county cricket, with the compact nature of the international schedule and the perfectly reasonable mentality of wanting to represent your country, it’s not something that’s going to change drastically any time soon and I think we need to fully accept that fact.

Kevin: I think we’re agreed that supporting the England team is  the most important part of the county system and we shouldn’t get away from that but the county scene still provides wonderful drama and stories. We should be proud of that and let everyone know about it. In an ideal world I would like to see England players available more for their counties, particularly in T20, but I accept England rules the roost.

Terry: Should the views of members and spectators be given more or less weight than the views of players?

Melissa: Members and fans have every right to express their opinion on their sport. Without spectators showing up or tuning in, the game loses a hugely influential and important aspect. Fans’ views should carry reverence in the discussions going forward but players have to be on-board and heard before any changes can be made. Cricket is a demanding sport; asking players to spend 15 weeks on the road, putting excessive strain on their bodies whilst performing at their peak level surely entitles them to have an input into the way the game is structured. They have to see out the overs each day after all.

Kevin: I’m in complete agreement with Melissa on this one. The views of members and spectators absolutely have an important place  but at the same time the spectators are not the ones traipsing up and down the country for a week on week slog for six months. I think fans and members want to see the best quality cricket that they can and players want to play the best cricket they can play so there needs to be a compromise on both sets of views somewhere but that shouldn’t be a problem.

Bradley: While you can’t give the views of spectators more weight than the players who have to play all this cricket, their views certainly shouldn’t be ignored and should be taken just as seriously as those of the players. At the end of the day, fans are the people that invest money into the game through ticket sales, and if they aren’t happy with how the county game is played, they’ll simply stop investing money. I appreciate that it’s difficult to listen to all of those who are “outside cricket,” especially if their views differ drastically to those of the players, but without the fans, county cricket would have more issues than it needs.

Ed: This goes back to the importance of maintaining interest from supporters. If people stop watching cricket, it won’t matter how competitive the county game is. So yes, I do believe the views of members and supporters should take priority, but it goes without saying the views of players can’t be ignored. It was interesting to see that the majority of players want to see a reduction in cricket over the course of the summer, and I can’t necessarily blame them. The perfect situation would be for the ECB to find a balance, although that might be easier said than done. 

Terry: The pattern of the season will stay largely unchanged for 2016.  Looking further forward, what structure would you favour?

Melissa:  I’d like to see the season start with 50 overs played in April, focusing on Thursday, Friday, Saturdays and Sundays. T20 should be played in the school holidays from late-July and into August with Finals Day played on the Saturday of the August Bank Holiday. County Cricket should begin in June into early July with final fixtures concluding in September as per the current system.

I think the broadcast rights should be un-monopolised, with Sky covering T20 fixtures but limited overs and County being distributed to other channels.

The number one absolutely non-negotiable change I’d like to propose is a sensible, logical and considered organisation of the calendar structure with regards to travel. Teams like Somerset and Durham spend an obscene amount of time doing motorway miles when they need rest between games. The organisers need to consider geography in the logistics. Play neighbouring counties together and blocks of North / South fixtures to minimise time on the road.

Kevin: I would definitely keep the Championship as it is. I would make the T20 in a block but unlike Melissa I would bring it forward in the season so it is played out in full before the football season begins so that it gets sole major coverage in the press and other media outlets.

I would make the 50 over competition a knockout competition which means we can split the current four week block into individual weeks for each round to be played giving players a good chunk of practice time for that particular format but most importantly some rest days from the arduous Championship schedule.

Bradley: The T20 Blast absolutely needs to be played in a block, preferably from the second week of July through to the middle of August. It gives young children more opportunity to attend matches, as well as, in theory, T20 cricket being played in the best weather of the season. A knockout format in the 50-over competition would reduce the amount of games throughout the season, giving players a break. Ideally, it’d revert back to being played in line with the Championship to allow time for rest and travel, as well as the potential of giving better opportunity for fans to attend matches. The Championship needs to remain mostly as it is; the only thing I’d change is the Sunday starts for the first half of the season. In my eyes it doesn’t encourage attendance and therefore interest in the game, which is an absolute must.

Ed: I certainly agree with the idea of having the T20 Blast in a block format over the summer, particularly as it would probably result in the best possible attendances for counties. Certain other factors would have to considered, such as the dwindling daylight in August, but I see no reason why we can’t fit the competition into, say, a five week spell starting in July. As for the One Day Cup, I just can’t see how there would be space to squeeze that into a block as well. This year saw every group game fitted into a one month spell, but for me, I’d go back to the old days of playing the matches in line with the championship season, perhaps May to September. I wouldn’t be against reducing the amount of games in white ball cricket, but I don’t think the County Championship should be changed. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.

Part Two is available here.

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