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A ‘pivotal moment’ for English cricket by Jeremy Blackmore

ECBA new, wide-ranging review of cricket in England and Wales has been promised by the incoming chairman of the ECB. The news comes amidst an impassioned debate about the future of T20 in the county game. Jeremy Blackmore examines the latest developments and what it might mean for the future of county cricket.

Debate about the structure of the English county cricket season is as traditional as afternoon tea and rain delays.

Yet it’s ironic the ECB’s efforts to establish the most settled pattern to an English summer have precipitated renewed and fevered speculation about the domestic game.

Two years ago, an extensive survey of cricket fans confirmed what everyone already knew. The fixture list was far too complicated and unpredictable. People needed a slide rule to work out which games were taking place when.

What marketers call ‘customer insight’ was clear: keep things simple and we will come (or at least we’ll know when we can).

So a new structure to the season was introduced in 2014, with the most radical change to T20 since its inception. To give fans the certainty they craved, the shortest form of the game was to be played predominately on Friday nights.

Appointment to view, long a fixture in sports like Rugby League, was in: “Friday night is T20 night”.

The ECB’s message is simple: it’s never been easier to plan a summer of cricket.

Early signs suggested the changes might be beginning to pay dividends with an overall increase in the numbers of people attending T20 games in 2014. But wider concerns about declining membership and worrying low attendances at many grounds have forced the incoming ECB chairman Colin Graves to promise a root and branch review of domestic cricket with everything seemingly on the table.

No-one should underestimate the importance of this. Somerset chairman Andy Nash has described it as no less than a “pivotal moment” for cricket in England and Wales.

Big Bash

The issue has certainly gripped the cricket world in England over the past four weeks. The source of such impassioned debate in the depths of the off-season? It lies 17,000 miles away in Australia, home of the apparently hugely successful Big Bash competition.

The sight of sold out stadiums, packed with children and high viewing figures on free-to-air television has been intoxicating. Its heady mix of entertainment and crowd participation has turned the heads of many on a cold English winter’s day.

This though is far more than a temporary Twitter generated storm. The debate has been thoughtful and wide-ranging. There may be major disagreements as to the ‘what’ and the ‘how, but there is equally wide agreement that lessons can be learnt from the Australian model.

A number of English county players have called for a Big Bash style competition in the UK with a limited number of city-based franchises, even though, ironically, many of them could miss out on a chance to play if the number of teams were cut. Others in the game have called for a franchise competition to be staged in addition to the existing Nat West T20 Blast or for the ECB to start again with an FA Cup style knockout tournament, involving the Minor Counties.

A ‘top to bottom’ review

The ECB has sensibly failed to join the rush to franchises or nail its colours to any particular solution. After all, a sizeable number of existing fans prefer the status quo, albeit with the addition of some of the bells and whistles the Big Bash offers. But the ECB recognises the need to see what more can be done to make the game more attractive to a new generation and wider audience.

Yorkshire Chairman Graves, who is set to succeed Giles Clarke at the ECB in May, has promised to “reinvent and rejuvenate” cricket during his five-year tenure. His bold vision is to “reclaim cricket as the national summer sport”.

He has pledged to initiate a “top to bottom” review of the game, telling The Daily Telegraph that he would start with a blank sheet of paper.

He told CricInfo: “I have promised nothing to the counties. I would describe myself as a cricket lover, not a traditionalist, and while the counties have generally been very successful, we have to look at what they bring into the game.

“We have to make the counties more sustainable. Whether that is 18 teams or 21 teams, let’s see. The fact is, county cricket brings in very little money and costs a great deal. Obviously the counties produce the players which is very important, but we have to look for new revenue streams.”

Acting for the good of the game

Somerset’s Chairman Andy Nash has issued a statement in the past few days, greeting the Graves review as a welcome opportunity to make lasting changes for the good of the game.

Nash said: “English cricket faces some tough challenges. The domestic schedule is far from optimal, after more than ten years we still haven’t found the right formula for T20. In regard to the 50 over game, whilst it is attractive at international level, it is not a popular format with fans at County level.

“While at Somerset our loyal and passionate fans have supported us in great numbers, most counties face declining membership and worryingly low attendances. This has been a key contributory factor to the financial crisis gripping a number of counties at present. This situation simply isn’t sustainable and changes are needed and what fans want must be uppermost in our thinking.

“For too long we’ve played formats and a schedule to the ECB’s drumbeat. This is going to change and I welcome the decision to hold a root and branch review – this time by the ECB executives – many of whom bring experience from other major sports and cricket overseas to bear.”

Moving T20 towards appointment to view last year saw crowds rise with attendances topping 700,000 for the first time. If there was a note of caution – the average attendance fell – crowd numbers are still expected to hit the one million mark in 2015. Not bad for a product that’s supposed to be broken.

Opposing arguments

Despite this, those advocating change argue that the English T20 remains uncool, less competitive than the Big Bash and importantly that it is failing to reach new audiences and attract the best overseas talent.

A laudable and far-reaching debate has been raging on CricInfo over the past two weeks, expanding on many of the points covered by Dan Kingdom in an excellent blogpost on this site just before Christmas. George Dobell and David Hopps at CricInfo are to be applauded for their efforts in curating such a thoughtful discussion and giving the topic the serious attention it deserves.

Our view at The Incider is that we already have an excellent product in the NatWest Blast and we should back it and build on it.

pivotal

No, it’s not perfect. Without doubt there are things we can and must learn from the Big Bash, particularly when it comes to marketing, involvement of England players, fans’ access to players, stewarding and pricing – i.e. making the match-day experience as good and exciting as it possibly can be so people will want to come back. But we would be foolish to ignore what does work and the existing support base in the counties.

When it comes to some of the criticism of the English Blast competition, people often aren’t comparing like for like. To take one example, Australian T20 can be played in a block over the school holidays because good weather is virtually a given. As George Dobell argued on CricInfo, when the T20 was last played in a block in England and Wales, bad weather severely disrupted the tournament and attendances promptly fell.

Similarly, as Dan mentions in his blog for The Incider, the population in Australia is predominately centred around the urban centres of Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Perth and Adelaide, making city-based franchises much more viable. In England and Wales, only London and Birmingham have populations of a similar size, with cricket drawing much of its existing support from rural areas.

Centring T20 cricket solely on a handful of major cities in the UK risks alienating thousands of existing supporters as well as denying access to large swathes of the country where youngsters might never get into cricket as a result.

And do away with the existing counties and the history that comes with them and you instantly lose the traditional rivalries and the nailed-down full houses that derby matches like Somerset v Gloucestershire or Yorkshire v Lancashire consistently deliver.

Views of county executives

It’s something that even many of those at big Test match grounds recognise.

Richard Gould, currently Surrey’s chief executive, and formerly of Somerset, insists that an 18-team T20 tournament can work. He told CricInfo last week:

“I’m not in favour of reducing number of county teams that play. We’ve got so much history within our clubs and also if you look at the number of teams that we’ve got, yes we’ve got 18 teams playing in England, but if you look at our population it’s 60 million, twice size of Australia. If you look at the number of football teams there are something like 130 to 140 professional football teams in the UK.

“I think there’s plenty of scope for a decent number of teams and it’s also good for development of our players, we want lots of opportunities for our young developing players to play at the highest possible standard. I could see us going to a two-division at some stage in the same way as we have with the championship, but I’m not quite sure how the franchise model would add, particularly on the city-based franchise, because much of our cricket is played outside of the cities.”

Gould also defended the quality of T20 in England, citing Surrey as an example of having a side already boasting a number of international quality players.

“The IPL is the best quality out of all the competitions because they are largely made up of international players, but we’ve all got a responsibility to provide a platform for our domestic players to develop and grow and perform, so I don’t see a great difference in quality between Australia and England.”

Gould also argued that the diverse nature of counties and grounds in England and Wales was a virtue.

“There are some unique game days. If you got to Hove, or if you go to Taunton, or if you go to Chelmsford, capacity crowds, albeit smaller grounds, but great atmospheres. A great deal of variety in there. I’d like to celebrate that. It makes it for me more interesting.”

Hampshire chairman Rod Bransgrove however is a longtime supporter of a city-based franchise competition to supplement the existing 18-county NatWest T20 Blast.

Bransgrove spoke to The Daily Echo in Southampton this week about his hopes for the Graves review: “I like to think we’ll have a competition that gives the market what it wants as opposed to what we want to give the market, which tends to be what has happened in the past.

“I can’t see it happening until at least 2017 but we don’t want to be held back by the past. I envisage the current T20 tournament staying and reducing the amount of County Championship matches, perhaps by replacing the two divisions with three pools of seven to include qualifying minor counties, as I first suggested a few years ago, to give us a more symmetrical fixture list.”

He stipulated that the existing counties should share in the wealth that any new competition would bring, but added:

“What’s been really noticeable in Australia is the people are buying into the teams, which are attached to cities rather than states.

“That’s how I would perceive it working over here; it’s the model that has also worked well at the IPL, with all the counties sharing in the wealth that a properly conducted T20 tournament would achieve.”

Graves’ own view is that the existing T20 Blast “works only so far and can be better”.

He told The Daily Telegraph: “We have lost our way a bit in Twenty20. We have to look at that and other ways and means and ask if we can do a second T20 [competition]. I don’t know. That is why I want to look at the schedule we have and ask how can we do it better?

“You look at the Big Bash and see the crowds they are attracting and it is great but when you look at the figures they are losing money on it but we will look at everything.”

Television coverage is key

If there’s one area county executives do seem to agree on, according to a CricInfo survey is the importance of having a presence on free-to-air television.

Somerset Chief Executive Guy Lavender told CricInfo: “Free to air TV, even if it has to be a highlights package whilst the Sky deal remains in place. Did you watch the darts? The BBC’s coverage attracted a peak of 3.1 million viewers over the first weekend of the competition. I expect it was enormous for the final! We have got to get more people watching T20 cricket.”

Many of the county executives also want at least some T20 during the school holidays. This year the round robin stage will inexplicably stop just before the schools break up. That’s something which could easily be addressed, while keeping the current Friday evening schedule. Matches would need to simply start in June rather than May as they will this year.

Somerset bucking the trend

While he understands the speculation about franchises and more T20 competitions, Nash says he refuses to “join the chorus”, calling for the Graves review, led by new CEO Tom Harrison and his team, to be allowed to carry out its work.

“They are a talented and experienced team and will consult widely but they won’t be simply giving in to those who shout the loudest. They will recommend what they believe to be in the game’s best interests as we aim to own the summer and become unarguably the nation’s dominant and favourite sport between May and August.”

Nash added in his message to Somerset supporters: “I’m unashamedly a glass half full person and I view the likely changes at the ECB and Somerset’s County Ground very positively. We’ve an opportunity to make lasting changes for the good of the game and I’m privileged as your chairman and a member of the ECB Board to be involved and play my part. I’m looking forward to the coming challenges immensely and an even better brighter future for English cricket.”

It is to be hoped that the Graves review has taken some of the heat out of the franchise debate and will calmly and carefully consider all the options. There is much to be gained, but much to be lost by rushing headlong towards a perceived utopia.

It is to be hoped that what fans had to say only two years ago will heavily inform the ECB’s thinking. We should always aim to attract new fans, but we can’t afford to squander the goodwill among those who already support our domestic game.

In the meantime, Somerset fans can do everything they can to support their team in the competitions they play in this year under the existing structure.

We continue to buck the trend in the West Country and the size of Somerset’s supporter base is a counter argument to those who would see us merge with Gloucestershire and play at Bristol.

Let’s continue to turn up on Friday nights and get behind the lads in 2015 and make our voices heard.

As we always do.


 

Click here to see the ECB video for 2015!

“Last year after talking to fans we made some changes to our fixtures calendar.

The feedback was so good, that we’ve decided to keep things the same for 2015, making it easier to plan a summer of cricket.

So kicking off the cricket calendar will be the LVCC. The classic county comp starts on 12 April and rounds off the cricket season at the end of September with over half the games starting on Sunday, so you can get behind your team from day one.

Next up is the Nat West T20 Blast. Blast off is Friday 15 May. England players will also be available to play for their counties on June 5, 6 and 7 with finals day on Saturday 29 August. And since over 700,000 people joined the party last year, we’re sticking to playing most games on a Friday night.

Then we have the 50 over game in the form of the Royal London One Day Cup. “The roads to Lord’s” opens on Saturday 25 July and runs right through the school holidays to the final on Saturday 19 September.

Plus we’ve got some cracking international fixtures this summer with England returning to home soil. From 21 May England take on New Zealand in the first of two Tests, followed by 5 ODIs and 1 T20I, all before the end of June.

Then from 8 July until 24 August it’s the big one: the Ashes with the Aussies over here defending the urn. After that we’ll take them on again in a T20I and 5 ODIs from 31 August to 13 September.

Then it’s our turn to defend the Ashes as England Women battle the Aussies in 3 ODIs, a Test and 3 T20Is, all getting underway on 21 July.

As you can see, one big summer awaits in 2015. So start planning now!”