Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Does it need fixing?

The explosion in 20:Twenty cricket and the Kolpak controversy has brought forward a run of people all telling us what is wrong with county cricket. Some of these have some merit, but are tinkering around the edges, whereas others are just plain crackers, reversing the positive changes that took place years ago. To my mind, the questions that need to be asked are What is Wrong with County Cricket? And what can be done to fix it?

I started thinking about this at the end of the last county season. It was the most exciting in years for most of the counties. In Division 1 five counties were still in with a shout of the title for the last round of matches, whereas relegation was only confirmed for Warwickshire along with safety for Kent and Surrey in the penultimate week. In Division 2, Somerset and Notts showed their class (and in Notts case continue to show their class) while Middlesex and Essex were both highly competitive.

The performance of Notts was despite losing Ryan Sidebottom to England. Supposedly a county journeyman who wasn’t quick enough to play for England under Duncan Fletcher, he graduated to become England’s player of the year and leading bowler. Proof, if ever it was needed, that county cricket produces players of international standard.

But what of the other counties. Worcestershire were quickly relegated, but the flooding at New Road meant that the season was about survival off the pitch rather than on it. For the counties at the wrong end of Division 2, however, there was little to play for and little interest in their performance. And herein lies the rub. Once you are out of the promotion challenge in Division 2, you are back to the bad old days of single division cricket where players were just playing out the season from July onwards.

Clearly the logistics needed to set up a first class county set up means that relegation from Division 2 is a non-starter. It would also push counties down the short-term fix route of more and more Kolpaks rather than building for the future with their own youth players.

Reducing the number of counties would also not address the issue at the bottom of the pile. The Kolpak ruling means that there are more county standard players to go around, a situation which would be further improved by removing the restriction on overseas players. The game would be improved by more of Jacques Rudolph or Jacques Kallis with less Jacques du Toit. If the ECB structures their handouts to reward those bringing through their own players, while still allowing counties to strengthen from a wide pool of overseas talent would improve the current standards of cricket while encouraging the development of young players.

However, the Kolpak argument doesn’t help to make the bottom end of the 2nd Division more competitive. For that we may have to look to other sports. Rugby and football have both benefited from the play off system in that it keeps more teams interested for longer. It has an inherent unfairness in that it reduces the season to a single match, but if the second promotion place was to be decided by play-offs, 2nd to 5th would be involved in post season action with 6th to 9th much closer to the possibility of promotion to the end of the season.

This would necessitate two extra weeks at the end of the season in Division 2. This could be created by reverting FP Trophy to a knock out competition and a more formal structure to the county structure. Alternatively, it could also be created by having a less even structure to the leagues. A ten team top division, with eight in Division 2 would add two games to the top division by removing off weeks. It would also allow all of the teams to play together at the same time rather than having one team finish early.

In the end, very little is wrong with the county game. Kolpakkers generally raise the standards of a team and removing the restrictions on overseas players would raise them further by allowing higher quality players into the game. However, expanding Division 1 to ten teams, and creating play-offs in Division 2 means that more teams will remain interested in the season for longer, playing higher intensity cricket and becoming better prepared for the international game.

I commend my recommendations to the blog!!


Chrispy said...

Those are some really good and well thought out suggestions. The idea of having playoffs would not even have occurred to me. I think you are right that two divisions has increased the interest of more clubs for longer and that this is the problem at the bottom of div 2. I personally hate the idea of having playoffs in football, whereby the side that finishes one point off of 2nd ends up losing out to the 6th placed side which amassed 15 points less than them over the course of the season. It is inherently unfair and purely designed for financial benefit.

The idea of having ten teams in the top division does have merit and would balance out the play offs in div 2. However, what of the sides who lose a home game each season and the associated revenue? It may cause the richer in div 1 to become richer while the poor remain poor (as there is a two home game inbalance), a problem well evidenced by the FA Premier League. It would though allow three teams to be promoted instead of two (as happened a few years ago), which would make the play off idea seam less unfair as the third promotion slot essentially would not exhist without the play offs (which negates the unfairness argument somewhat).

I have to disagree about cutting the FP Trophy back to a pure knockout cup again whilst the 50 over game still exhists internationally as the new system is about right now and gives players, especially youngsters, good sustained exposure to the ODI format, which was not always true in the past. T20 needs to be expanded, though only slightly to match demand. The obvious cutting competition is the Pro40 which is bringing nothing to the party in terms of development. It's exciting and draws crowds, but if we were to rebrand 50 over and Championship cricket and stage matches at weekends and in the evenings (later start times with floodlights) then more people would show up to these matches.

Overall some good thoughts on what is a difficult subject. My thoughts on kolpaks remain the same, there are too many of them blocking English kids from getting a chance. A change must be made, financial rewards and penalties may be the only soluion.

Richard Lake said...

Chris - thanks for the response

My system would remove some of the inherent unfairness of play-offs by giving the highest placed team home advantage and the win in the event of a draw. Thus teams finishing lower in the table would have to play imaginative cricket to usurp the team that played better than them over the season.

The lost revenue from one CC home match I would guess pales into insignificance in comparison to the 20:20 revenue. And the ECB could easily compensate to ensure that teams don't lose out. Indeed, having one less game, but the other games more meaningful may lead to similar numbers of spectators, albeit with one game less.

I agree about Pro-40, which I would make Pro-50 at the drop of a hat. And I prefer that system to the FP trophy as it rewards merit rather than geography.

I disagree with you about Kolpaks, but will come back to that on a later post

Chrispy said...

I agree with you about the rewarding of geography. It is quite rediculous that four teams face Scotland and four Ireland, when there is a Southern Group of Middlesex, Sussex, Essex, Kent and Surrey! Similarly when it comes to T20, yet again Hants will not have a chance in the group of Essex, Middlesex, Surrey, Kent and Sussex. The T20 should be expanded and made into a league format, possibly in two tiers to aide competitiveness throughout the season and avoid the nothing to play for syndrome. As for the FP Trophy I think culling the geographical unfairness, but retaining the knockout stage would make for the best of both worlds and would be a sort of hybrid Pro50, FP Trophy competition.

Two groups of 10 based on the current Pro40 leagues plus Scot and Ire (one group of from div 1; 1,3,5,7,9 and from div 2; 2,4,6,8,10 and the other group of 2,4,6,8,10 from div 1 and 1,3,5,7,9 from div 2. Then each year the groups could be reconstructed with odd placed finishes in one group and even placed finishes in the other - this to be decided by play offs between the matching finished teams in each group (ie 5th vs 5th), bar obviously the finalists (1 and 2) and losing semi-finalists who would play each other (3 and 4)).

As for kolpaks I don't mind the odd one, but when you are facing a bowling attack made up exclusively of ex South African Internationals you have to wonder what that is doing for English bowlers. And my big problem with Hants at the moment is that they keep on picking Greg Lamb, a Zimbabwean kolpak, over the U19 spinner Liam Dawson. Lamb is a one day bowler, nothing more, whereas Dawson could be a very good bowler for years to come. Lamb is essentially blocking Dawson's progress. I have less of a problem because he is Zimbabwean and it is good that they get to play their cricket over here.

But do we really need half of the South African side, past, present and future clogging up the ranks? I doubt it. Northants and Leics take it into overkill territory. I think each side should take to the field with at least 8 English players. Whether they do that by allowing one, two or three overseas players I don't mind, but we need sides to be playing young English talent against these quality overseas signings in order for them to progress, not sitting in the stands watching them and wondering what might have been.

Tim said...

Some great thoughts there Richard: play-offs are intriguing. I think the best compromise is to ditch the Pro40 and replace it with an extra Twenty20 BUT played in September-October (it is possible) after the end of the CC.

More money for counties? Yes
More time for rest and preparation between matches? Yes
More cricket at watcheable times (hopefully incorporating my previous suggestion!)? Yes