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!!