Viva La Franchise?

A revolution in English cricket? Not at any cost.

by Jeremy Blackmore

Ahead of a major survey of Somerset fans about the future of English cricket, Incider Managing Editor Jeremy Blackmore looks at the first discussion paper issued by the ECB review and the implications of England’s early exit from the World Cup.Viva

The inquest into England’s dismal exit from the World Cup began long before their final hopes were extinguished under the lights of the Adelaide Oval on Monday.

If few were expecting England to beat Australia in the opening game, the sight of Brendon McCullum flaying Steve Finn to all corners of the Westpac Stadium in Wellington could have left no-one in any doubt that that the visiting side were miles behind the pace set by the rest of the world.

Criticism of the England management aside, there has been near unanimity as to the cause of the nation’s descent into one-day obscurity. A succession of Sky pundits has queued up to denounce English county cricket as uncompetitive and not fit for purpose. Their remedy: an immediate move to an English Premier League.

“A no brainer,” said Andrew Strauss after the defeat to New Zealand. “The talent is spread too thinly across too many counties,” said Bob Willis calling for greater “elitism” in the domestic game with all that entails – fewer teams and a move to franchise cricket.

Change is coming. Some of it urgent and necessary to address problems faced by a number of counties who are struggling to balance the books and facing falling attendances. Contrast the fortunes of Somerset and Worcestershire for example who have announced profits with Leicestershire who yesterday issued figures showing operating losses of more than £225,000 for the year to 30 September 2014.

More than ever before the momentum is with those calling for change. England’s early exit from the World Cup helps create an almost perfect storm for their cause.

And few would argue that some kind of change isn’t essential. The ignominy of England failing to reach the quarter finals in Australia is a wake-up call for those who would claim everything in the garden is rosy.

But as we’ve argued before on The Incider, a headlong rush to copy models from other countries presents clear and present dangers that English cricket should ignore at its peril.

The review of English cricket ordered by incoming ECB chairman Colin Graves has taken on a new urgency. The first fruits of its labours, an initial paper designed to stimulate ‘discussion’, makes it clear from the outset that radical change is on the agenda. The paper puts everything squarely on the table, with nothing seemingly off limits, including:

  • a return to three-day first-class cricket
  • a single-division County Championship
  • playing some Championship cricket as day-night with a white ball
  • an FA Cup-style knockout 50-over tournament
  • a streamlined T20 competition involving eight or 10 teams, as “a dominant T20 tournament”
  • equipping all county grounds with floodlights; and
  • “halving the number of counties in financial pain”

The emphasis, according to the document obtained by Cricinfo, is on more commercial cricket: quality over quantity. Even reducing the number of summer Test matches is under consideration to allow England players to take part in a new T20 league.

It’s early days. Graves has promised consultation and it’s likely that some of the more extreme changes like three-day championship matches will fall by wayside. But England’s woes in Australia and New Zealand will undoubtedly be used to push through more radical changes than may at first have seemed possible.

If county cricket is going to be the fall guy for the national side’s failure, it at least deserves a fair hearing. Equally some of the ready assumptions and urban myths trotted out by proponents of the reducing the number of counties need to be challenged in an open forum.

In his column for the London Evening Standard last week, Matt Prior advocated a move to franchise cricket, but could only find the fact that it would “upset one or two people” as a possible downside.

Yet the argument in favour of building on the current county system is not a sentimental, nostalgic one – although there are actually strengths to be found there. In fact there is a plain, pragmatic decision to be made if we want to grow the game in this country.

Simply put: reduce the number of counties or teams and you severely limit access to cricket for thousands of fans across the country, including many young children for whom a night out at a T20 game at Taunton, Worcester or Chelmsford is a way into the sport. Take away that shop window to the game and you stand to lose the next generation of cricket fans in those counties without a Test Match ground. And with no guarantee that you’ll attract a similar – or larger – number of new fans in locations where new franchises would be based, venues who often struggle to fill grounds now.

Reducing the number of teams playing county cricket also means a loss of opportunities for young players. Australia may only have six state sides, for example, but its population is half of the UK’s.

In Australia, most of the population is centred around the five big cities (plus Hobart) – the same as the traditional state sides – making city based franchises more feasible than in the UK, where only London and Birmingham can boast similar populations and where cricket support is drawn from a wider area. And in Australia they are actually exploring expanding the number of franchises, not reducing them further.

One wonders where the next Jos Buttler would come from if the likes of Somerset were to be denied the chance to play T20.

The IPL may still attract the biggest international stars, but other franchise leagues, including the Big Bash have featured a number of former, but still marketable, international players like Jacques Kallis and Freddie Flintoff at the end of their careers. Yes they put bums on seats and it’s hard to begrudge them one last moment in the spotlight, but is their participation helping to create opportunities to prepare young cricketers for pressure games and the World Cups of the future?

No-one baulks at an English and Welsh football league with almost 100 teams. Yes there’s a top flight, but theoretically any of the sides below the Premiership can – with enough money and the right results – break through the glass ceiling and join that elite.

By contrast, 18 county cricket sides – with no means of access for Minor Counties – looks quite modest.

To those who follow and support the domestic game, merging counties to create franchises, or paying smaller counties not to participate, is an overly simplistic idea, ignoring long-standing tribal loyalties. A franchise T20 competition would rely on cricket fans to travel long distances to support manufactured teams playing in the grounds of their traditional county rivals. Kevin Pietersen recently proposed on Twitter that Northamptonshire fans would merely have to travel to Lord’s to watch a Middlesex franchise play instead. Few took him up on the offer. Equally people in Sheffield and Hull may be far less inclined to support a Leeds franchise than Yorkshire.

Not long ago, the county system produced an England team which was number one in the world in all three formats. Two-division cricket has brought an undoubted new competitiveness to the domestic first-class game, which has helped capture the imagination. Just look at how many people were glued to the Lancashire v Middlesex relegation battle on the closing day of last season.

The key is to harness that county system and make it more competitive across all three formats – not to restrict access.

Many exciting players, those who can take a game away from the opposition, are already there – and all products of the county game – the Roys, the Billings, the Stokes, the Vinces, the Hales – most sadly missing from most of England’s recent ODI sides.

To see Buttler and Woakes batting at Adelaide on Monday was to catch a glimpse of what might have been. The two youngsters displayed the kind of attacking freedom, unshackled from management concerns about data and par scores which seemed to leave many of their team mates frozen at the crease.

Contrast that with the joie de vivre of this Irish side – many of whom, like Joyce, Porterfield, Dockrell and the O’Briens, have played county cricket.

That obsession with clipboards and spreadsheets and an extremely muddled selection policy seem far more culpable than many of the brickbats which were thrown at county cricket in the wake of Monday’s defeat.

The charge that England’s players are not used to playing in front of full houses belies the fact that even England’s big guns Anderson, Broad and Bell – no strangers to the big occasion – appeared to freeze in the World Cup.

Ironically it’s at the smaller non-Test grounds like Taunton, which would likely lose out under a franchise model, where players are most likely to get a taste of a big match atmosphere in front of a sell-out crowd under the current T20 tournament. It’s more often some of the Test Match grounds which are half empty on a Friday night.

The question remains whether England’s cricketers play enough limited overs cricket? England have always prioritised Tests. Players nursing niggling injuries are often patched up to play in Test series and then rested for ODIs in an already overcrowded calendar. Test results are celebrated and remembered; one-day results quickly forgotten.

So, the ECB’s proposal to scale back international fixtures to allow a quality domestic tournament involving England players makes sense. At international level, I would go further and introduce a triangular ODI series involving the two touring sides rather than two separate mini-series. That would give the tournament more meaning with the prize of a one-day international final at Lord’s in front of a packed house every summer.

At domestic level, counties have already compromised and moved to a 50-over format, the Royal London One-Day Cup to mirror the conditions players face in the World Cup. The previous 40-over competition had proved more marketable and popular with county supporters, yet the sacrifice was made for the greater good.

More can be done to champion the tournament as the premier one-day competition in England. With the next World Cup being staged in England in four years’ time, we should market the Royal London Cup as a stepping stone or building block towards 2019.

So what remains to be done about the shortest form of the game? Colin Graves has said there is no reason why a new T20 competition akin to the Big Bash could not be a success in the UK, but as we’ve seen there are clear risks in copying the Antipodean model.

So if not franchises then what?

There are a number of options, but the simplest would be a two-division structure with promotion and relegation, giving sides everything to play for each year. The current regional group structure does have its advantages though with local derbies providing nailed down full houses.

Yes, having T20 played in a block would be preferable for players who could then focus on one form of cricket at a time. It might also make it easier to attract overseas stars for longer – although plenty of big names are still playing in the Blast this year. However, let’s not forget that it was the results of extensive public research which led to the new ‘appointment to view’ approach, with record audiences last summer on Friday nights.

Unfortunately unlike the Big Bash, with which the Nat West Blast is often unfairly compared, the English tournament faces far more unpredictable weather. The last time we played T20 in a block in England, the tournament was severely disrupted by rain, skewing the outcome and leading to falling spectator numbers. Last year the number of people attending matches went up.

We should certainly await this result of this year’s competition, which is expected to attract one million spectators, before making change. Maybe the timetable can be condensed slightly. There is certainly no reason though to start the competition so early that the round robin stages end before schools break up for the summer holidays.

Making game days more family friendly with better marketing, more involvement of English players and friendlier stewarding and so on, would all help and are all positive things we can and should learn from the Big Bash.

Colin Graves is an experienced, clever man and has the support of the counties to carry out this review. We wish him well. However we have only one chance to get this right. Let’s take time to take stock over the coming months, to consider all options and implications and not be rushed or forced into a hasty conclusion we would regret at leisure.

As one county chief executive told ESPNcricinfo about the discussion paper: “T20 and Test attendances might be down in Yorkshire, but actually they are growing elsewhere.”

Talking about franchises, another senior figure at a non-Test hosting county told CricInfo: “If that happens, our county ground will be a car park within five years.”

Tomorrow, we launch an exclusive survey to give you, the readers of The Incider, the opportunity to have your say on the franchise debate and possible changes to English cricket. We look forward to hearing your views.

ECB Review timetable:

  • Feb to June 2015: Conversations with counties and other stakeholders.
  • July to Sept: ECB executive devises strategy
  • Oct: Strategy presented for consideration
  • Nov to Dec: Strategy finalised
  • Jan 2016: Strategy launched