Friday, 31 July 2009

Another cricket revolution

About a year ago the ECB appeared determined to go toe-to-toe with the IPL with its own version of an overhyped twenty over tournament overpaying a plethora of foreigners. There was money everywhere if the number twenty was said twice it seemed; who cared about nearly 135 years of history of the County Championship. That much history surely guarantees its old hat credentials.

It was initially undecided whether to follow the IPL’s template to the breach of copyright and invent some city based teams or to discard the unfashionable counties as 8 or 10 teams were all that could apparently be supported by such a model (such a model being the IPL, obviously).

At around this point Lalit Modi’s legal team must have been on the blower as a competition containing all 18 counties, and possibly a few guests XIs too, was hastily put forward as the preferred option much to the disbelief of most cricket, television and finance experts. As a follower of Derbyshire, one of those unfashionable counties already at a massive financial disadvantage to the Test-hosting teams, it was something of a relief that none of the first-class counties would be missing out though there was immediately a nagging doubt as to whether this pipedream would ever take place, and that if it did it would surely be some kind of unmitigated washout.

Sure enough the proposal of the English Premier League was finally laid to rest back in April when the loss of the Stanford deal, no doubt coupled with the overarching uncertain economic conditions (for they must appear in every news story) led to the ECB finally realising that one IPL was actually more than enough and that the naturally cynical English were unlikely to have gone for it in a very enthusiastic manner anyway. It’s certainly tougher to envisage the razzamatazz of the Chennai Super Kings when you relocate it to Grace Road; more like the razzamatazz of trying to light a Superking on a gusty Thursday in early May.

The ECB still weren’t done with hair-brained schemes though; the short-lived plan to run both a league, now to be named the P20, and cup in the twenty over format finally died last week, handily buried in the news surrounding Flintoff’s retirement and the build-up to the Lord’s Test match.

After all this ongoing talk of a domestic cricket revolution on these shores, the rough outline for the 2010 county season was announced yesterday, again conveniently on the eve of an Ashes Test match. This incendiary press release maintains the status quo in a 2 division, 16 four-day game County Championship; there will still be one Twenty20 tournament, enlarged and renamed the P20 for no reason other than stubbornness one assumes, and what appears to be a welcome return to the Sunday League.

This means that the Friends Provident Trophy, which had been pretty much the FA Cup of cricket for most of its history under a variety of sponsorships, will be the one making way for more flexibility in the schedules and yet more Twenty20. I’m sure the bookies favourite for the chop would have been the Pro40, a league with no point except for filling the Sky Sports schedules every evening until the Premier League is back on. However, the Pro40 has been given a reprieve and what appears to be its old slot back on a Sunday afternoon.

In my eyes the FP Trophy had been devalued since they stopped allowing all the minor counties in and brought in the group stages a few years back but this was hardly an irreversible step. I’ll be quite sad to see it go, there’ll be no big day out at Lord’s for the counties to aim for, but don’t be fooled by the ECB’s supposedly progressive outlook; Friends Provident’s sponsorship deal was up after this summer and I can’t imagine it’s the best time for renegotiating contracts or trying to attract new sponsors just at the minute. Lest we not forget that the ground-breaking Twenty20 Cup only came about in the first place because their hand was forced by the demise off the B&H Cup due to the ban on tobacco advertising.

It’s no great surprise that the revolution threatened over the past 15 months has failed to come to fruition in England; that the counties themselves make the final decision leads to the most consistent use of the phrase ‘turkeys voting for Christmas’ in the national press. Also in the length of time that the ECB has dithered over the decision the world has changed.

First up, it has to be a good thing that the primacy of the Championship has been maintained; whether 16 games are required is debatable but a necessity with 18 first-class counties. Although the infrastructure isn’t currently in place I would advocate a move towards including the minor counties with promotion and relegation, with 2 divisions of 7 or 8 playing four day cricket and another playing 3 day cricket to allow a greater level of semi-professionalism, before the remainder of the minor counties could continue in a similar vein to now. The obvious argument against is that it would make planning investment for the future much trickier, but with promotion a club should be able to budget to manage for a year or two on lesser funding. It also gives the opportunity of a proud and wealthy Cumbrian, say, to invest heavily in their county set-up and make significant progress within the game, and surely increases competition.

The return of the premier one-day tournament to Sunday afternoon is an excellent idea, and it seems the ECB may have listened to the fans who actually pay on the turnstiles here. The only stakeholder I can’t see being happy with this is Sky which is currently able to show several Pro40 games a week; this will surely hit TV revenue? It would be nice to see the Beeb throw its hat back in the ring, though this is more likely a purely nostalgic pang of mine.

Interestingly the format of the games in the ‘new’ Sunday League have yet to be decided with talk of 2 innings 40 over games gaining the early publicity. I assume this is an attempt to guarantee close finishes but to me the more ways in which the format is convoluted, the more compromised it is as sport; and that’s before you consider any possible implications of no one-day domestic cricket.

I’d probably plump for a straight 40 over competition as it’s popular with the fans and is close enough to ODIs for me to require the same skills and tactics. 2pm starts without the need for floodlights would do away very early starts and late evenings for fans from out of town, too. One thing which I think is worth considering is rearranging washed-out games on a midweek evening; it may also be a way to fulfil the Sky deal as they could then maintain their level of coverage.

Personally I’d maintain the FP Trophy as a straight knockout 50 over competition, meaning a maximum of 5 or 6 extra games even if you made the final; certainly fewer than the group stages of the current format.

Which brings us to the already much maligned P20. From what I can interpret it appears we’re looking at a north and south group, presumably playing each other home and away, with the top 4 from each proceeding to quarter-finals. Basically the number of group games will increase from 10 to 16 for each county and the main other amendment will be an attempt to play most games between Thursday and Sunday, as crowds have probably proven to be better around the weekend. Whether additional group games will spread the crowds too thinly remains to be seen. That a 3 hour format should take up the entire calendar through the long daylight hours of June and July doesn’t seem like the greatest use of midsummer either. One good thing which the counties have started recently to do is take Twenty20 to outgrounds; something which should be done far more in all forms of cricket.

So another English domestic cricket revolution has come. Will anybody notice the difference?

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