Essex, Sussex and Somerset are trying to persuade the ECB not to reduce the number of T20 matches next season. Essex in particular have been vocal in their opposition – they claim they’ll have to make redundancies if their home matches are reduced from eight per season back to five. So what is the solution? Everybody agrees that the Friends Provident matches had less meaning this summer. Players were complaining of burn out and interest in T20 cricket seemed to be reaching saturation point. But on the other hand, nobody wants the smaller counties to suffer. The likes of Worcestershire are already feeling the strain of financial hardship, whilst Sussex’s relegation from division one of the county championship last year undermined hopes that smaller counties can still compete with the big boys. It’s all a bit of a pickle.
Ultimately, Essex’s protests are likely to be ignored. They are just going to have to grin and bear it. The future of the smaller counties may look bleak – observers such as Michael Atherton are already predicting that clubs like Worcestershire will eventually become feeder clubs for larger counties – but there is simply too much cricket being played. Instead, we believe that county cricket can be saved from bankruptcy through broader reforms. In fact, our solution is simple …
English cricket needs to address why the public only seem to be interested in the twenty over form of the game? Essex claim they take more in one evening of T20 cricket than they do in three entire seasons of championship cricket, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be this way. Although the public now seems to have an almost insatiable appetite for vacuous in-your-face entertainment, the English people are not idiots. If cricket was promoted in the right way, the subtleties of the game can still charm like they did in years gone by. After all, cricket remains an intelligent and fascinating sport with players that are accessible and generally personable – a far cry from the over-hyped and predictable soap opera that Premiership football has become.
In our opinion attendances at matches are dwindling for two primary reasons (a) the ridiculous price of match tickets and (b) the absence of cricket from free-to-air television. Put cricket back on the box and there will be a resurgence of interest in the game. I’m not saying that all cricket should be on the BBC or Channel Four – Sky do a good job and their money is both welcome and helpful – but cricket needs to be accessible.
The absence of Sky’s annual windfall would surely hit the ECB coffers hard in the short term, but if more people become interested in cricket then the resulting increase in sponsorship revenues and attendances will eventually make up the shortfall. Cricket’s authorities don’t realise it but a huge opportunity is staring them in the face. Premiership football is now entirely predictable and therefore its status as the national sport should be vulnerable. Other than the top five clubs, there is a glass ceiling on what every team can achieve – a limit imposed solely by money. Meanwhile footballers have never been so distant from the fans nor more disliked for their morally dubious lifestyles and pay-packets. The public gradually seems to be waking up to this fact – which is why the popularity of sports like darts is on the rise. Darts has its appeal, don’t get me wrong, but it isn’t half the sport that cricket is.
Cricket is a sophisticated and multi-dimensional game. The problem is that the public have simply forgotten about it. If the game was back on free-to-air television, the sport would sell itself. Interest in the domestic game would rise and more people would watch and play cricket. At the moment the ECB are so fixated on counting the pennies that they are missing the bigger picture. Cricket is a great product. The ECB should have more faith in it. If cricket became the national sport once more, stadiums will be full and financial concerns would dissipate.
An interesting post James, but think the argument’s too simplistic. County cricket has been dying for a long time – the championship has never had any meaningful crowds for a generation, and the counties only have themselves to blame for killing the T20 goose. You can’t blame Sky for the state of the county game – the rot set in a long time before they arrived, and there was never that much county cricket on free-to-air anyway. I do agree though that ticket prices are driving many fans away, especially the occasional watchers – hope the poor crowds at all games this season act as a wake-up call for the counties and the ECB.
What would help the county game is a format everyone can understand and be able to follow – the current system is a dog’s breakfast only the most hardened aficionado can keep up with. Play all the championship games in the week as they’re watched only by diehards anyway, and keep the weekends for 50 over games (as long as that remains the format at international level) and T20 (which could also be played on a Friday night, a time when there’s less competition from other sports).
The subject was too big to cover in one article, so yes I agree that my argument is essentially an emotional and simplistic one. However, I think the overall point is valid. Of course, I agree that the current structure is a dogs breakfast. The competitions don’t seem to have any meaning any more.
Interest in cricket (and therefore attendances and county coffers) could rise if more cricket was on free-to-air TV and it was an affordable day out for families. Yes, county cricket hasn’t attracted big crowds for a while, but it wouldn’t be hard to increase crowds significantly (even if full houses are unlikely).
When I was a young lad growing up in Worcestershire, the Sunday League games at New Road were jammed packed every weekend. These were the days when test matches were on the BBC. If you watch a pro40 game on Sky on a Sunday, the crowd is generally one man and a dog. Is this all coincidence? Maybe it is, but I think not. Meanwhile the NatWest trophy used to be a big deal. Many of the big ties were shown on BBC2, The semis used to be a huge occasion played in front of full houses. The competition used to mean something. Maybe it’s time to reintroduce a straight knock-out competition again?
Another thing that doesn’t help is central contracts. I’m not arguing that these are a bad thing (far from it) but it cannot help county cricket that the big gun England players are rarely available to play in front of their home fans.It may not be possible for stars like KP and Broad to play in all their counties matches, but a restructuring of the county game would allow more meaningful matches, in more meaningful competitions. County cricket was never particularly glomourous, but not all the glamour has gone – totally.
However, restructuring county cricket is only half a solution. It would be meaningless unless grass roots interest in the sport is rekindled. This can only be done by making all forms of cricket more accessible – through reducing the price of tickets and putting TV back on free-to-air TV. We need to create a positive cycle. At the moment the spiral is downwards.
Robin Martin-Jenkins in the September edition of the Wisden Cricketer states that nearly all the problems of fixture congestion, practice time and numbers of available players would be solved by the removal of two counties. My vote would be Derbyshire and Worcestershire – It will never happen though!
Worcestershire will inevitably return to dominate global cricket (they won’t be content with winning domestic honours, they’ll eventually win the champions league too, and then become a new Test playing team – and the first English side to beat Australia down under). As a Hants fan, I can therefore see why you’d like to see Worcs erased from the map. Too much competition for you eh?!
My vote would be the abolition of Leics and Northants. Both Northampton and Leicester are mainly rugby towns, so the cricket won’t be missed :-) Worcester on the other hand have a terrible rugby team, and no football team to speak of, so it’s mainly a cricket town.
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