I gave my own (rather simple) plan to revive our domestic game a couple of days ago. Today, it’s the turn of Billy Crawford. Does his comprehensive plan have legs? Let us know in the comments. Cheers.
Ashes series in Australia usually end in humiliation. My childhood was defined by late nights listening to England batting collapses on the portable radio under my duvet. This one feels different, however. It is not another pasting that we will bounce back from with runs and wickets in the following year. This time, something feels truly broken.
England won one of their six Test Matches in the summer of 2021, losing three. Arguably, if weather had not intervened, they could have lost five. The team in Australia looks absolutely broken. Batsmen are not capable of basic Test match technique; bowling has been inconsistent and selection utterly baffling.
If English cricket is broke, the logic is that it needs fixing. So here is my 5-point plan to save our national summer sport. Some of the conclusions in this plan may upset a few people but we simply cannot carry on as we are if we want Test cricket in this country to continue as a credible sport
1 Divide County Championship into three divisions of six
I will begin this by saying I love the County Championship as deeply as many of you do. It needs to be cherished and preserved, not thrown to side lines as Kevin Pietersen and others would wish. However, it is unworkable in its current format. Green pitches reward average bowlers and make it impossible for batsmen to develop sound long form batting techniques. Playing it in the Spring and Autumn means that players are not experiencing the same conditions that they will experience in Test cricket.
We have to accept, though, the reality of the world we live in. The Championship will never again be the centrepiece of the cricketing summer, it attracts such small crowds and so little revenue that counties would simply go bust if shorter formats were pushed to the side to accommodate a whole summer of four-day cricket.
The volume of games also dilutes the quality, and the convoluted fixture list makes it confusing to follow for new fans. The conference structure simply hasn’t worked and has led to months of meaningless games for the teams not involved in the battle to win the title.
The simplest solution to this would be to divide the Championship into three divisions of six teams, each playing each other home and away. That would ensure ten games of four-day cricket for each team, providing plenty of opportunity for players to hone their red ball skills.
These could easily be divided to suit everyone. There would be an opening round in April followed by three rounds in May. June would provide opportunity for two rounds of Championship cricket in good batting conditions with one round in July, all working around the counties’ fixtures in the T20 Blast. There would then be one round during The Hundred to provide fans of the longer form game an opportunity to watch some cricket and to give young players the chance to test their skills. There would then be a further round at the conclusion of the Hundred at the end of August with the final group of fixtures taking place in the first week of September.
The one-day cup would be redesigned as a straight knock out competition with the National Counties entering in the first round, akin to football’s FA Cup. Fixtures would be played in April, May and early June on the Sunday following completed Championship matches, as the old Sunday League was. This would mean that there would be four day and one day fixtures almost every weekend, giving parents ample opportunity to take their children to the cricket.
I can already hear the howls of protest from the members of counties that would be stuck in the third division, losing their best players to those in the higher leagues. My own county, Northamptonshire, could well be one of them. To this I would say that this is the reality of competitive sport. After all, we do not amalgamate the four divisions of English professional football so that Wycombe Wanderers can play Manchester United every week.
A system of two up and two down would give opportunities for counties to move between the divisions. The danger of course is that counties in division three would lose members and revenue and become financially unsustainable. There is a simple solution to this which brings me to point two…
2 Use the revenue from The Hundred to support the rest of the game
Whether we like it or not The Hundred is here to stay. As a vocal opponent of it, it pains me to say this, but so far it has been a success. More people are interested in cricket because of it and that is undeniable. Social media posts are getting more engagement as are clips on the BBC website. The women’s game has also been transformed. Without the Hundred it is hard to imagine 16-year-old Alice Capsey having the opportunity to play in front of 10,000 fans at The Oval and showcase her skills in such a spectacular manner.
I have seen the evidence of its success with my own eyes. Work colleagues who have never previously shown any interest in cricket are now buying Hundred season tickets and calling me over to their computers to show me the latest clips on social media. The big question us cynics still ask is will this translate to interest in the longer forms of cricket? I know it may be only anecdotal evidence but in my experience this is happening.
Normally I quietly follow Test match scores on my work computer knowing no one else will be interested in them. This summer the England v India Test series was a hot topic, with colleagues updating each other on the latest scores from Lord’s, The Oval or Trent Bridge. I had never seen anything like it before.
The question is, however, if The Hundred is to become a permanent fixture then how can we use it to the advantage of the game we all love? The answer is simple. Milk it for all it is worth and use the money generated to safeguard the rest of the game. The ECB must be willing to let go of their baby and open up to private ownership of Hundred franchises. The money generated by this sale must, and I cannot emphasize this enough, be split equally amongst all 18 counties, otherwise the three-division structure simply will not work and many counties may go out of business.
As The Hundred continues to grow, and hopefully becomes the second biggest franchise competition in the world behind the IPL, all revenue from it must be streamed directly to the counties. This way we can achieve the best of both worlds, a glitzy, exciting franchise competition to draw in new fans and the protection of the county system that so many of us cherish.
3 Reform the ECB
To do this we will need a complete root and branch overhaul of the ECB. The governing body as it is is simply not fit for purpose. The decision of Tom Harrison and his fellow ECB officials to award themselves £2 million in bonuses at a time when counties were struggling to stay afloat in the pandemic and England players were taking pay cuts was truly disgusting.
Put simply, English cricket will never work whilst its current leaders are at the helm. Those with the game’s interests at heart must replace them. How this could happen is another matter. Only a government takeover of the game could forcibly remove Harrison and co from their positions but, without wishing to make a political point, one can hardly be filled with confidence that they would do any better.
4 Harness the full power of the media
Cricket needs to be visible to be viable. The 18 counties have led the way in this area in recent years with live streaming of all matches on YouTube. This has been a huge step forward for the game, with the sizeable streaming figures for matches showing how much public interest there still is in county cricket. Somerset, for example, recorded 250,000 streams per match in the 2021 summer.
The ECB needs to harness the full power of the media going forward. The early social media posts from The Hundred were cringingly naff, akin to a stuffy teacher standing in front of a class of teenagers, trying to sound “down with the kids”. There are signs that it improved as the tournament went on and the addition of YouTubers and musicians for the live broadcasts is progress, but there is still a long way to go.
The in play clips of Test match runs and wickets on the BBC website are a significant step as well. Clips such as this are increasingly how young people watch sport these days, and cricket must be at the forefront of this if it wants to capture the interest of the next generation.
However, there has to be something for new fans to graduate to beyond social media clips and this is where my final point comes in…
5 Make the game accessible for all
Cricket has an image problem. Put simply, it is seen as a sport played by posh white boys. It has not always been this way. Of the 11 players who began the 2005 Ashes series, the last England team to truly capture the public’s imagination, 8 were educated at state schools. Of the team that played the second Test against Pakistan in 2020, only 2 were. Of course, these numbers are slightly skewed by players who were offered scholarships but it presents a depressing picture none the less.
Cricket has also disappeared from many state schools, despite the laudable efforts of Chance to Shine and other organisations. Not only is playing the game beyond the reach of many working-class families but watching it is also becoming increasingly inaccessible. The decision to sell live Test cricket in this country to Sky Sports in 2004 has had such obvious far-reaching consequences for the game that it is not necessary to state them again.
What is talked about far less, though, is the cost of actually going to watch a game of cricket. In 2002 when I attended my first live international cricket match, a ticket for the first day of the Lord’s Test against Sri Lanka cost £20 for and adult and £6 for under 16s in the Compton Lower Stand. Next summer a ticket in the same stand for the Test against New Zealand will cost £70 for adults and £20 for under 16s. That is a rise of 250 % in 20 years. The most expensive tickets are now £160 for a single day’s play.
Cricket is now the preserve of the rich and privileged, another playground that the working class are not invited to. The recent racism crisis in the game has its roots in this inaccessibility too. The work of Ebony Rainford-Brent and others to bring the game to ethnic minority children in inner cities is incredible but it is sad that it is needed.
Those that run our sport have played lip service to creating opportunity but lacked the will to leave their own privileged bubbles and enact policies that would give everyone the opportunity to enjoy cricket. Until this changes, the game will always struggle to have the mass appeal of football, or even rugby.
“Cricket for All” cannot just be a slogan on a T shirt, it must be the core of ECB policy, otherwise the game will become as irrelevant to the mass of the population as polo or fox hunting.
So, there it is, my five-point plan to fix English cricket. Feel free to add your own suggestions in the comments. I may even send a copy to Tom Harrison. I won’t hold my breath for a reply though.