Today, Steve Connor has an idea that would breathe new life into the Championship and maybe, just maybe, provide an international alternative to the IPL.
I’m writing this in a short lull between various T20 leagues ending and the Big One, the IPL, starting. This comes a week after learning that something called Major League Cricket will be starting in the US in the summer and attracting a surprising number of big names.
If you’re a fan of short T20 tournaments you are being very well served at the moment. And I’m not here to moan about the amount of franchise cricket. I genuinely enjoy T20 as a format. I follow the Blast, the Hundred (sorry) and I’m even starting to get into the IPL.
But when it comes to all the other leagues SA20, PSL, ILT20, CPL etc – I just can’t summon up much enthusiasm. Even when it’s the middle of January and I should be desperate for cricket I lose interest. There’s no sense of jeopardy or connection.
With the overload of T20 cricket around the world, I do wonder if people are craving something a bit different. So, I’d like to indulge in a bit of wishful thinking.
I think English cricket should, as they say, lean into its strengths a bit more. It seems to me that we have something unique in this country in the County Championship. It is probably the leading first class competition in the world – in terms of support and profile. Arguably, the Sheffield Shield or Ranji Trophy are a higher quality, I don’t know. But I wonder if there is scope to focus more effort on the Championship as a point of difference to endless T20. Anybody can put on a T20 competition. And it seems like everyone is trying. But not everyone has the foundations of the county structure in place.
I’m not naïve enough to imagine the humble Champo would overtake the IPL, but I do think there’s more that could be done to attract audiences bored with junk food cricket. Something more appealing to cricket purists. A haute cuisine alternative for the connoisseurs.
There are various ways in which this could be done. But to me the biggest, most effective change would be to allow more overseas players in the County Championship. Let’s say, 4 per team in Division 1.
Obviously the biggest names in white ball cricket still wouldn’t fancy swapping the PSL or IPL for trudging around the county circuit for months on end. But there are plenty of exceptional red-ball players that don’t get franchise gigs – we’ve already had Marnus Lasbuschagne, Mo Abbas, Kemar Roach, and Shan Masood playing Championship cricket recently to name just a few.
They wouldn’t even need giant contracts. The multi-million £ franchise gigs get the headlines but the number of players actually earning them is really quite small. Jarrod Kimber has talked recently about Chris Green – an Australian making his first class debut for New South Wales at 29. Having been on the franchise circuit for a number of years he’s settled for a solid salary in Australian state cricket. Not everyone can be Kieran Pollard. I imagine a few Test players would earn as much on a solid county contract as they would being a back-up batter for MI Cape Town.
So, imagine 40-odd overseas Test-standard players lining up across Division 1 fixtures. 8 per game. This strikes me as something that could draw interest both domestically and overseas. There are a few quirks of scheduling and politics that work in the favour of counties. Firstly, Pakistan players being shadow banned from the IPL means their players are looking for opportunities elsewhere. Secondly, the BCCI seems happy for their players to play overseas red-ball cricket as they don’t see it as a threat to the IPL. Already we’ve seen the likes of Pujara and Ashwin playing in England. Thirdly, the English summer means fewer clashes with other major cricketing countries’ domestic seasons.
The knock-on effect would be to improve the standard of first class cricket in England. Some of the reasons that I’m starting to be more interested in IPL is the increased presence of English players, but also it’s clearly the best standard of domestic T20 in the world. So, I’d love to see the Championship become the best first class cricket going. And with the presence of some high profile overseas Test players it could, in turn, develop some proper domestic and international support. It could create a standard of compelling multi-day cricket that’s arguably a cut above some Test matches. And even if just a small proportion of T20 fans fancied something more satisfying, the Championship could be there to step in.
My suggestion might also raise the standard of Test cricket, particularly as the Future Tours Programme looks sparse for some countries. It would give opportunities to some great red-ball players that only have 20-odd Tests lined up in the next 5 years. Counties might also be more willing to give overseas slots to Irish or Afghanistan players if they have 4 available.
Yes, there is a risk of fewer opportunities for English players. And in the recent past there was a period of English talent being frozen out by pretty average Kolpak players. But if the standard is higher then it might drive English players to get better (and be the ones that make it). What’s more, teams in Division 2 could benefit from picking up those pushed out elsewhere.
So would it be commercially viable? As I said at the start this is wishful thinking. Maybe money could be freed up by the ECB, or some contracts even funded by overseas boards. But equally, whilst I don’t think fans would flood through the gates, having hours and hours of multi-day cricket happening provides a lot of (the dreaded word) ‘content’, which might appeal to TV companies or streamers. Even though cinemas are filled with superhero movies, there’s still some money to be made staging Shakespeare.
Is it really so fanciful that cricket fans could be served with two outstanding domestic tournaments happening at the same time? Maybe. But I can dream.