Terry Wright, Melissa Kerr, Bradley Adams, Kevin Harper and Ed Syers resume their discussion about the future of county cricket. If you missed Part One, it’s available here.
Terry: If we had a Big Bash style tournament , should it be city-based?
Melissa: Cricket isn’t city based so, sense would suggest, no. The likes of Yorkshire having to decide between Leeds, Sheffield, York, Bradford etc as their nominated city is a huge headache. The reason the Big Bash is successful in Australia is because the densely populated nature of the states forms natural ‘cricket centres’ at the already established Test grounds. In the UK, where regions such as The Midlands are home to 4 deep-rooted counties comprising Warwickshire / Birmingham Bears, Derby, Leicestershire and Nottingham, the city-based suggestion becomes more complicated. Assuming the franchises are set up at Test Grounds, this comprises just ten teams; the population of these cities equates to less than a quarter of the population in England and Wales – significantly lower than the Australian system which benefits from pre-ingrained and urbanised populations.
Much of the hype surrounding the city-based franchise idea stems from the assumption that it will maximise TV interest and therefore expose cricket to the same interest as is enjoyed by other T20 competitions and potentially even city-based football games. The reality however is that reducing cricket to a city system isolates smaller, struggling counties and will surely have a knock-on effect for the rest of the game whereby players will only want to sign for franchised counties which automatically causes conflicts of interest.
I think having North and South leagues playing weekend fixtures in a block across the summer holidays with full TV coverage, innovations like the flashing bails and well marketed games will do enough to improve English T20, without cutting out counties or applying foreign formats.
Kevin: Couldn’t agree with Melissa any more. The other thing I would add is we are very patriotic as well as traditional in this country. We’re almost tribal and unlike in places like India where people turn up to see cricket whoever is playing we tend to only support our own in this country. I’m not so sure people would necessarily take to city based franchises particularly if the traditional county game continues to run alongside it.
Ed: I still shiver at the sight of ‘Birmingham Bears’, and I’d struggle to cope if city-based franchises became a thing. I think the biggest issue is alienating the supporters who live away from the city. As a Durham fan, I’d feel slightly aggrieved if I suddenly found myself having to travel to Leeds every week to see my local T20 team, and I certainly wouldn’t feel the same love towards them. This is, of course, assuming a city-based franchise set up would result in fewer teams, though that might not be the case. But if counties were to simply nominate a city within their county to represent them, one has to wonder what the point would be.
Bradley: Without trying to sound too melodramatic, it’d be the death of county cricket in my view. The real appeal of the way things work at the minute is that fans don’t have to travel to cities in order to watch the game. Restricting T20 cricket to the ten Test grounds would likely result in the smaller counties not being given a look-in, with perhaps the potential of only one or two of each sides’ players being loaned to these franchise sides. When you consider that Northants have been at two of the last three Finals Days, and with four sides with non-Test grounds reaching the quarter-finals this year, it’s extremely difficult to justify their omission. As Melissa suggests, bring in flashing bails and other appealing features of competitions like the Big Bash and the IPL, but don’t switch to a city-based franchise tournament because it simply isn’t needed.
Terry: What about the idea of starting off the season abroad in March?
Bradley: The concept of overseas county games seems utterly baffling to me. If the ECB are in any way trying to promote match attendance, I can’t think of anything more illogical. Unless these matches are going to be given television coverage, which is unlikely given how little the Championship is shown currently, I cannot see any benefit from this move. The Champion County match being played in Dubai? Totally fine. Anything that’s a part of the main county season, however, needs to be played in England and Wales.
Melissa: I disagree with Bradley on this. I’m quite positive to the idea of playing a few matches abroad. Though it’s a big ask for fans to travel to see their teams, with the unpredictable nature of the weather in the earliest part of the season I think it could definitely be a solution. It would make big demands of teams in terms of skills as they would, initially, be unfamiliar conditions for some county players. Given that teams such as Notts, Warwickshire and Hampshire already partake in preseason tours to Barbados this suggestion isn’t too radical a change.
Terry: Do you think counties should go back to their members and supporters before deciding whether or not to endorse the proposals?
Kevin: I think the counties need to interact with their members regarding the proposals and the majority of the time they should be looking to deliver what the members want but I think there has to be some room for movement for the greater good of the game as a whole.
Melissa: Yes. The ECB should provide online and postal surveys for each club and these should be filled out and sent to HQ for a full and realistic reflection on the feelings of club members and fans. It is obviously impossible to please everyone and different counties have different concerns but giving fans a valid point of access to the debate is an essential aspect of this entire process.
Ed: Cricket, like many others, is a spectator sport. Any decision made which impacts the sport must surely be done with spectators in mind, and so the idea that a county with so much influence could overlook the views of their members seems highly unrealistic to me. Whether this would involve a talk in or something more complex, I’m not sure, but certainly there should be some discussion with members. The most important thing is that the ECB give the counties plenty of say when it comes to format changes, which isn’t necessarily a given.
Bradley: I absolutely agree with the others on this. Yes, the counties need to do what they consider best for the game and for themselves as a club, but a huge part of that is the satisfaction of the fans. Club members are obviously the biggest group of supporters a county has, and wide disapproval over changes from them creates more problems than it solves, no matter how beneficial the counties think any proposal would be.
Any other views?
Melissa: I’d like to conclude with a more general overview of the current system. Cricket does need to change and adapt to survive in the modern era. However the soul of the game should be preserved.
The current county structure is flawed and the majority of feedback from within the counties suggests this stems from the travel commitments and fatigue from a season where all three formats are played simultaneously. The game will become stronger if players are given focus on individual formats in a competitive way. Limited overs blocks and a full 16 game Championship are, in my opinion, the best way to safeguard this.
For too long cricket has been described as unmarketable or unattractive for TV but the reality is that the unpredictable nature of the current game, (see Ashes Series, NZ Series, World Cup) ensures there is drama and skill to win and captivate audiences.
What cricket needs is a fair chance on TV and in ‘real life’; a sensible schedule, proper coverage and money used to benefit the game not the gamekeepers.
Bradley: It’s easy to point out flaws with the current county system, but for the most part, it works, and I don’t feel that any radical changes are needed. A few tweaks, such as the adjustment of the 50-over competition, are necessary for the long-term development of the game, but the biggest issue is scheduling, rather than the amount of cricket. I believe I heard one player say that he was either playing or on the road for all but three days this June. That’s unsustainable no matter how you look at it. Players like Glen Chapple, who is still playing into his forties, and many others who are approaching that milestone, will become a dying breed unless we fix the schedule. No one wants to see careers cut short, but I fear that is what will happen to our young players if the ECB don’t fix the scheduling of the season.
Television coverage is a huge way of increasing awareness and interest in the game. The BBC radio commentaries do an absolutely fantastic job of bringing the county game to the existing fans, but no non-fan would suddenly gain an interest in cricket from listening to these. I’d welcome seeing any sort of county cricket being made available on free-to-air television, and I’m certain the game would be better off for it.
Kevin: I keep hearing how much better we are going to be in one day cricket by playing more of it. I don’t agree with that at all. I believe we will improve in one day cricket if at county level we play in the same conditions they do at international level. Obviously we can’t do anything about the strange weather we get in this country but so many times over the course of a season I go to 20 over or 50 over matches and watch it played on a used wicket and we have to get out of that mindset. One day cricket should be played on the flat wickets players will encounter at international level so that batsmen can hit through the line of the ball with confidence and bowlers have to think on their feet rather than having a wicket which is going to help them then when they get to the top level they have all the variations they need to perform in that environment.
I really do believe poor wickets in the county set up is a major reason why our one day cricket is poor and we really do need to address that moving forward if we want to be a serious force in the international limited overs game.
Terry sums up:
So there we are. We’ve got a great range of views with a fair amount of agreement on most topics. There’s unanimous support for retaining a full quota of 16 championship matches and also for playing T20 cricket in a block. There are differences of view about timing and the exact structure but there’s not a lot of support for a franchised Big Bash-style T20 tournament, city-based or otherwise. As for the idea of starting the season abroad, Melissa and Bradley will have to sort that out between them.
Not surprisingly, there is agreement about the need for consultation with spectators and members – but also an acceptance that their views need to be set alongside what the players have to say. Looking at the big picture, there is a clear view that county cricket needs to be better marketed and promoted and that some free-to-air publicity would make a big difference.
A big thank you to our four expert observers. Maybe we can re-convene the panel as more emerges about the options that the ECB may put on the table.