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County cricket at a crossroads

Viva smallIn the latest of our series examining the ECB’s review of English cricket and the debate over t20 franchises, Dan Kingdom mounts an impassioned defence of county cricket and argues that any attempt to contract the game could do untold damage.

Nothing changes, it seems. Another four-year cycle. Another World Cup. Another England failure. And, yet again, in many quarters county cricket is being derided as the reason for England’s abysmal showing.

The issues centre on wanting greater ‘elitism’ as Bob Willis puts it. Getting the top players playing against each other on a more regular basis. In effect, reducing the number of counties. While this argument has some merit, we would be heading down a dangerous road. As the song goes, you don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone.

And this is the case with the county game. Currently it does an excellent job. Two divisions creates competitive cricket. There are plenty of star overseas players. It takes cricket around the country – most people are within an hour of a county ground. It gives young players, who may be ignored in a more condensed system, a chance to shine. It has healthy, historic rivalries that are always fantastic occasions. In recent years, it has produced Joe Root, Jonathan Trott, James Anderson, Andrew Strauss, Marcus Trescothick, Gary Ballance, Graeme Swann and others who have gone on to have immediate success in international cricket. Clearly, the step up is not that big.

Yet people want change. Counties reduced, players condensed etc etc. But we’d see the soul ripped out of the game. Graeme Swann and Jonathan Trott may never have got the chances they did. The ‘smaller’ counties would be forced out of existence, despite the fact that James Taylor, Jos Buttler, Stuart Broad, Harry Gurney, Alastair Cook, Ravi Bopara, Graeme Swann, Luke Wright and many others were products of those academies. Then there are guys like Chris Jordan and Moeen Ali, who didn’t start with ‘small’ counties but whose careers took off with them.

You can go back further as well. Some of England’s greatest ever players – Gooch, Botham, Cowdrey, Underwood, Gower to name a few – primarily played for non-test match counties. If they didn’t exist, would those players have been discovered? Would they have been inspired to play cricket in the first place?

What I am saying is that the ‘smaller’ counties bring a lot to the game. They are vital, in fact. They ensure that cricket is taken to the masses. Without them, cricket in England would be a poorer place.

In reality, the possibility of losing counties in the immediate future applies only to t20, with many pundits calling for the introduction of city-based franchises to the English competition. They want us to follow the Big Bash model.

But it would reduce access to the best format for spreading the game. It’s not the one we should limit access to. It’s the one that gets kids interested. Jos Buttler grew up watching Somerset play t20. If Somerset didn’t exist in that format, would he have taken up cricket professionally? You would lose cricket’s main marketing vehicle in vast swathes of the country. For example, Somerset effectively represents Devon and Cornwall as well. Take t20 cricket away from Taunton and the entire south west could be lost to the game. It is only a small step from franchise t20 to franchise cricket in all formats.

If anything, we should be expanding. While the county system does a good job of taking the game far and wide, there are still many areas of the country that cannot access live cricket easily. While I know this may never happen, why aren’t we taking the professional game to Sheffield? Or North Wales? Or Stoke? Or Reading? Or Exeter? Or Plymouth? Or Sunderland? Or Luton? Or Middlesbrough? Or Norwich? Or Ipswich? Or Hull? Or Blackpool? While we have some very large cities, much of our population is spread thinly across smaller cities and large towns, unlike Australia (to whom English cricket is often unfairly compared). Why not play a few games a season in these regions? It is not much to ask. Each county could play at outgrounds outside the county, in areas which are home to supporters of that county. In an age without free to air cricket, spreading the game like this is more important than ever.

Everywhere else, expansion is the name of the game. The Big Bash added two new teams when it moved to city-based franchises, with plans to add more teams in the future. The Caribbean Premier League will include a St Kitts and Nevis team this year. The Indian Premier League has, albeit unsuccessfully, attempted adding teams, but many of its teams play at outgrounds. And many of the same pundits and journalists who want a franchise t20 league in England are against the contraction of the World Cup. Hypocritical?

Some of the statements made by pundits relating to franchise cricket are literally unbelievable. Matt Prior thinks there will be ‘fewer dead rubbers’. Ed Smith thinks we cannot attract international stars. A glance at this year’s line-up, which includes Sangakkara, Jayawardene, Dilshan, Maxwell, Finch, Corey Anderson, Afridi, Ryder and Sammy, blows that theory out of the water. I even read an article a while back which seemed to assume that Brendon McCullum and Mitchell Johnson would suddenly be facing each other at the Rose Bowl if we introduce franchises.

But cricket in this country is not perfect, far from it. Players at all levels are overcoached by England. At the highest level, young fast bowlers are having their natural actions coached out of them. Look at what’s happened to Steven Finn and Jamie Overton when they received international call-ups.

This problem exists among kids as well. I myself have seen coaches attempting to change youngsters’ natural bowling actions, without giving a reason. As though they are following a manual without any regard for what works for the bowler. This leads to a lack of trust in the coach-player relationship.

I also read a story (on AllOutCricket’s website, last four paragraphs: http://www.alloutcricket.com/cricket/blogs/kp-the-maverick-reject) about a young leg-spinner who, at a trial, was bowling incredible legspin. Batsmen had no idea. Kevin Pietersen was there and took a special interest in the kid, who clearly had bucketloads of natural talent. But he didn’t get in, due to his weight. Pietersen had no idea how such a talent could be ignored. He was never seen again. This ‘fitness first’ culture must stop. If a guy is talented, give him a go, whatever his weight.

This leads back to the senior team’s supposed reliance on ‘data’. We have got to allow players to express their natural talent. When David Warner or Shikhar Dhawan walk out to bat, are they thinking about numbers?

And, to state the obvious, cricket needs a greater presence in state schools. It is our national summer sport. Get kids playing it.

Even when these kids do, they face problems. I have witnessed first-hand bias from coaches towards private school children. Perhaps it is because they already know them, perhaps it is because they have been coached more. But it should be a level playing field. I’m not sure it is at the moment.

At the top, the pitches are an obvious issue. Too many are slow and low. In t20s especially, this doesn’t produce exciting cricket. And due to the ECB’s regulations, groundsmen are reluctant to produce bowler-friendly tracks for championship matches. England have a weakness against spin. But how can they learn to face it when pitches with a decent amount of turn are punished?

Finally, England players should be allowed to play more domestic cricket. There was a round of t20s on a Friday night last season where England’s test players were withdrawn due to a test match the following week. This is madness. Just a few t20s a year would help – after all, most of Australia’s big stars don’t play much of the Big Bash.

And with the current 50 over format, it is very hard for England’s test players to play that form of the game. Most of England’s World Cup squad were unable to play in the Royal London One Day Cup in 2014 due to almost all of the group stage being played while the tests against India were taking place. It would be beneficial for England’s top players to be able to hone their skills in domestic cricket more often. Of course, this is difficult with the current international calendar, but it is doable.

But, taking everything into account, county cricket is not responsible for England’s World Cup failure.

It is not responsible for the team’s inability to play well under pressure. It is more of a mind-set issue in big tournaments. Outside them, and in test cricket, England can play perfectly well under pressure.

It is not responsible for Ian Bell’s inability to score ODI hundreds. He scores them in test matches just fine.

It is not responsible for Alex Hales and Gary Ballance’s lack of game-time in the lead-up to the tournament.

It is not responsible for the lack of Jonathan Trott and Kevin Pietersen in the squad.

It is not responsible for Alastair Cook’s horror run of form and the decision to replace him with an equally out of form Eoin Morgan.

It is not responsible for James Anderson and Stuart Broad’s inability to perform at World Cups. The former’s World Cup record, especially, is shocking but he produces the goods just fine in tests and non-World Cup ODIs.

But it is responsible for some of our best performances. Joe Root, Jos Buttler, James Taylor, Moeen Ali and Chris Woakes have been bright spots of the last few months. These guys, in the main, have just come out of county cricket. It is these players, along with talented youngsters like Hales, Ballance, Sam Billings, James Vince, Jason Roy, Adil Rashid, Mark Wood, Chris Jordan and Reece Topley who we should build the team around. As CricInfo’s George Dobell recently said, county cricket is the solution, not the problem.

Change is coming to English cricket, there is no doubt about that. And YOU can have your say by filling in The Incider’s survey about English cricket’s future here: https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/SZF6Q5H (before the end of March). Together, we can fight unnecessary changes and help create a system which caters to everyone. It’s a long road ahead but we will ensure that Somerset and England prosper in the future.

  • If, like Dan, you’d also like to contribute to the debate by writing a blog on franchises or any other aspect of the ECB review, please get in touch with us at info@thein-cider.co.uk. We’d love to hear from you.

Once the survey results are in, we’ll post them in full on The Incider. And if we get a large response, we’ll share the results with the ECB to let them know how you, the fans of Somerset cricket, feel about the future of our domestic game.