ENGLISH CRICKET - EDITORIAL
Editorial by "Wombat".
Anyone that follows English cricket will be aware of the endless debate over the structure and quality of the cricket played in this country, and will be aware of the problems that are caused by the differing requirements of the national side and the counties.
The biggest strengths of cricket in this country are the amount of cricket played, the number of professional players and the commercial sucess of the game. Is there anywhere else in the world that cricket is a professional sport below test level?
English cricket is improving. England currently rank third in the world, when a few years ago they were competiting for the position at the bottom of the pile. The improvement has been gradual, and began with the introduction of four day cricket. Before that time the counties barely played any proper first class cricket at all: three day cricket was mostly about fannying around for two days before reaching an agreed declaration on the third, and then launching a run chase. That's not real cricket.
The points system is the county championship is still a weakness. A team only gets three points for a draw, and that isn't much of an incentive when compared to the twelve points for a win. A much larger number of points could be offered for a first innings lead in a drawn game, and extra points would certainly be deserved for close results in a draw or a defeat. It's still very common to see county sides fold very easily in difficult situations, and that's no preparation for test cricket.
The game would be more competitive if the bonus points system was competitive as well. At present both sides can score bonus points at the same time, and it would be better if the points went to one side or the other. The only way to deny bonus points to the opposition would be to score them for yourself.
Central contracts mean that the top players now get some time to rest between games, and time for coaching, training and practice. Technique doesn't improve in the middle of a match and new skills aren't acquired during competition. The best players in the country are now following regimes that are suitable for professional sportsmen. The rest - they aren't. The last couple of years has seen the formation of an English Academy that should correct the problem for the youngest and most promising players, but most players are still playing too much and developing too little.
The standards in English cricket are improving. Some of the reforms have not yet had time to work through, and some haven't yet gone far enough.
International cricket is extremely successful in financial terms, and generates a large surplus, most of which is distributed to the counties, but the counties are not lame ducks financially. Press reports often give the impression that county cricket is not well supported, and that grounds are usually empty of spectators, whereas is in fact they regularly draw good crowds. Gate receipts are low because cricket fans are mostly members. They don't pay at the gate. Members are where counties draw most of their income.
A lot of people follow county cricket. The counties want to play a lot of cricket, because that's where they get their marginal income. Members pay subscriptions to support their team and to be able to watch them play. There is a belief that the quanity of cricket played is essential if membership income is to be maintained. But there's a question to ask. Does all the cricket available to the members have to be the county side itself?
We've given up the Sunday League, which was brilliant for spectators but poor for cricket, but did Sunday League cricket need to be played by the best players in the county? Could it, or something like it, be played by a mixture of county players, veterans, youngsters and the best players from the county leagues? You can bet that most members would like that sort of mix. That might maintain revenue and interest without over-stretching the playing resources.
County cricket as it stands in not good preparation for test cricket. It leaves too little time for player development and is not sufficiently competitive to hone the skills that are needed at the higher level.
The idea of dividing county cricket into two divisions with promotion and relegation was supposed to be to make the game more competitive. In fact the effect is the exact opposite. At the start of the season, half the players in the country are playing for counties that cannot win. How is that competitive?
Half the teams are basking in the higher status that they earned last year, or the year before. Their status doesn't depend on what they're doing today. How is that competitive?
The benefit of divisional cricket is that there are a few more games each season that actually matter, because teams that would have been in the middle of the table under the old system are fighting over promotion and relegation. About half the time those teams are playing each other. The rest of the time one team has something to play for and the other doesn't. Is that good competition?
In the county championship, and in the one day league as well, it has always been the case that a team could finish top one year and bottom the next, or bottom and then top. This has been taken away by the new structure.
The culture of English sport in almost all sports at almost all levels has long been very negative and all about the fear of failure, about not trying too hard (so that failure is because the other guy was taking it too seriously). That's not how you win. It's not how you go about playing your best.
Promotion and relegation is about trying to force players to compete for fear of failure. This is a very English idea. Cricket fans in Australia are probably falling off their seats laughing. If you want players to compete you need to reward them for success. The penalty for failing is that you don't get the rewards of success. Doing your best and failing to win: that's just sport. Real failure is not doing you best. Or not trying.
TEST GROUND COUNTIES
The argument that is currently fashionable is that the number of first class counties should be reduced because "only five or six counties are actually competitive". This is an old and dirty argument dressed up in a pretty new frock.
Those counties that have the benefit of hosting test matches have a huge financial advantage over those that do not. They get to keep lots of the money they make by hosting test matches. That's all that makes them "bigger" and "better". They don't produce more international cricketers. They often have more, because they acquire them from other counties, and they can afford to hire the most successful overseas players, but they spend the extra money on themselves and not on developing the game.
The "test ground counties" have long been seeking to promote themselves as an elite within the game and discard the "lesser" counties. The actual agenda is that if the other counties are discarded then the remaining counties could keep all the money from international cricket and make a huge profit without making any more effort than they do at present. This is about soft living, not hard cricket.
CLUBS & SECONDS
One of the reasons why other countries (Australia, especially) produce so many capable cricketers is there's a steady progression up the scale, which eventually lands a player at test level. Success at the level you're playing means you'll be seen and considered for a chance at the next level up. It's a situation that's changing in this country, but only slowly. The current second eleven competition doesn't have a great reputation among county players. Many think the playing conditions are not close enough to the county game to be much help to a player looking for a place in the first eleven.
County seconds need to play under conditions similar to the county firsts, and the competition needs to be structured so that it draws the most successful club players from league cricket (so as to create a steady progression from the lowest levels of the game to the top). A large number of fixtures aren't needed: if each game isn't a big event then the players aren't being tested under pressure.
There are still club/league games, the county age group sides, the county boards and the minor counties. That's quite a lot of cricket available to a player who isn't in the first eleven, even if the 2nd XI is reduced is quantity so as to improve the quality and make it accessible to all the players who can earn a place.
If you've got too many teams to schedule all-play-all, then the way to deal with it is to divide the league into regional divisions and then match the best teams in each division each the best in the others. That produces a LOT of games where the results really matter, because you first have to win your division and then you face the best teams from the other divisions. Teams go head to head for the title at the end of the season - using the traditional English aproach the championship is usually decided in a game where only one of the competing teams is involved.
In the Twenty20 cup this season we saw three regional divisions. Four divisions would actually work better, but with eighteen sides that would mean different numbers of teams in different divisions (not that much of problem, really - the NFL got along okay that way for years). Maybe it would be worth diverting some money to develop the game elsewhere - by inviting a couple of overseas teams to join. Or Scotland and Ireland.
A divisional system really needs to qualify two teams from each division, so that if the two best teams happen to be in the same division they can still both make it to the deciding game. But sending six teams to the playoffs is not a problem: the top two get a bye week and you play only two quarter finals. That would reduce the season to between ten and thirteen games and free up another dozen or two dozen days for rest or training. That's got to make a difference.
Four divisions, on the other hand, allows the option of two conferences (presumably north and south) with two divisions in each - making it possible to reduce the fixtures list still further if that's wanted.
Lancashire vs Yorkshire for the Northern Division title, anyone? Surrey vs Sussex for the South?
At the same time as the playoff series, the other teams could play a plate competition with an age restriction and maybe with only home players allowed. That would make sure young players get a chance in the side.
Best start it just after the end of the college year, since so many promising cricketers still go to university. And - why do they do that, anyway? Are they not holding back their cricketing careers by missing most of the season during the most important years? How many promising cricketers are lost to other careers this way? Can English cricket not manage to organise an academy that allows guys to develop their game and study in the off season? Or to postpone their college days until the end of their playing careers?
This year we saw the Twenty20 competition for the first time. I think most of us us expected it to be something silly, but it actually produced a lot of really good cricket. The limited-overs game has developed over the years, and players approached the 20-over competition as if they were playing the final twenty overs of a longer game, batting with wickets in hand. The result was good cricket, and more of it. The 45 and 50-over versions seem rather tame in comparison.
With practice in the 20-over game, maybe we'll see more players capable of finishing a game in the longer versions. Bowlers who can bowl "at the death" and batsmen who can sustain a charge of ten to fifteen runs an over for ten overs. Be good to see a few of those in the late middle order for England, wouldn't it?
At present there are two or three international touring sides in the country in each season. They play most of their games against county sides. Most counties use these games to rest their best players and field teams that are usually around half and half between their 1st and 2nd Elevens. The games are usually only three days, and tour sides rarely lose. They're rarely even stretched. They get easy games which help them get used to the conditions and play themselves into form.
When England tour overseas, their warmup games are usually against respresentative teams. Opposing players can make names for themselves. England often lose. Players often put themselves out of the international side by losing form in warmup games.
Games against the tour sides could be used to fill the gap between the county game and the national side. Ditch the worthless county games. Send the touring sides to play against respresentative teams, like England A, the Academy side and the under-age teams. Even divisional teams, if more selections are needed. Set them against the players who want to prove they're good enough, and give those players a game at a level above county cricket and only one step below the test side. That way you get to add a handful of games pitched at a higher level without doing anything drastic to the existing comnpetitions.
At present the profits from international cricket are shared out between the counties. Is there an incentive for the counties to develop players for England? The most important players for a county are the solid professional players who are available every week and don't get selected at the higher level. A player of moderate ability is worth more to a county than a player who is exceptionally good. Are the incentives in the right place?
Why not dish out some of the cash to the counties that provide the players for the national side in relation to what they contribute? Split it between to the county of origin and their current county, since players always don't stay with the county that discovered them, and because you want individual counties to develop players according to their own strengths (a county with strong spin bowlers is better placed to develop a young spinner, for example but a young spinner isn't going to get into the side - successful spin bowlers have very long careers).
A current bugbear among cricketers and commentators is the number of players in the domestic game who are qualified to play cricket in this country through EC passports, but who are not qualified to play for England. The thrust of the argument is almost invariably that these players should not be allowed to play, but the law is that someone holding an passport from another country in the EC cannot be barred from following their profession in this country. So the argument is utterly pointless.
The thing that cricket has the power to change is the rules for qualifying to play for England, so the only purposeful debate on the subject would be whether the regulations of cricket should be changed so that all players who are qualified to play domestically are qualified immediately (or promptly) to play for England (or Wales, Scotland or Ireland). Or a new international side respresenting Europe.
And then see if a player who declines selection (because he's actually an Aussie or a South African or whatever) can be disqualified or suspended, or forced to register properly as an overseas player.
The purpose of allowing overseas players in county sides is to improve the quality of the competition. Better players should mean better cricket, and this country does not produce enough good cricketers to fill eighteen county sides. Many county sides have poor balance, having odd mixtures of whatever players happened to come their way. And that's before England hack into their lineups by picking out the best players and taking them away.
The argument against overseas players is usually that they take up places in county sides and make it more difficult for young players to break through. That's hardly a realistic argument, that a player with the ability to play for England could fail to force his way into a county side. There aren't any county sides that good. They're all stuffed with home grown players that don't look like ever being good enough to ply at the highest level.
On the other hand, there are alternative ways to use overas players to improve the competition. Players who are able to help develop the game should be more than welcome, whether they do so by promoting the game or by bringing useful skills and coaching qualifications.
Overseas player could also be used to bring parity to the competition. The need for parity in sporting competitions is not widely recognised in this country, but if you want to get the best out of all your players, and maximise the following for the game, then you want all teams to be able capable of winning.
So let the weakest sides sign overseas players to plug the gaps in their lineups. Allow the rest to retain the guys they've already got, or go without. Encourage them to use their overseas stars to develop their own players and their support, and be part of the fabric of the game, rather than just using them as hired guns for the day. Put the restriction on signings instead of the number of overseas players in each game and let the losing teams recruit more often.
Why is it that non-EC overseas players wanting to play football have to be current internationals to gain a work premit? But to play cricket they can be anyone?
A downside of the current arrangements with overseas players in the county championship is that many of the better players from other countries are gaining experience that wouldn't be available to them otherwise. That's making the game more difficult for England, that opposing countries are able to select up-and-coming players who are already familiar with English conditions. It would be better to restrict overseas players to the top echelon, who already have the necessary experience.