As everyone seems to be calling the NHS “our NHS” these days, I think it’s about time we renamed the championship “our county championship”. We all love it to bits but, like the NHS, it’s a bit sick. The ECB focus on T20 is pushing the competition to the fringes of the season and there’s a feeling amongst many supporters and players that there are too many teams.
You won’t be surprised to learn that I instinctively dislike this argument. There weren’t too many counties (well, maybe a couple too many) when the championship was strong in the early 2000s, and I couldn’t support destroying decades of history by abolishing a handful of smaller clubs now. However, with the ECB hellbent on milking the T20 cow, and a new franchise slogathon on the way, the calendar is rapidly becoming unworkable. So what’s the solution?
Well, according to The Times, some counties will ask the ECB to implement 3 conferences of six teams, with ten matches, and then end of season playoffs to determine a county champion. Or should that be “our county champion”? I think we can all agree that this is a radical idea indeed.
My initial reaction was that the proposal is completely barmy. Not least because the conferences might not even be regional. Apparently they might be decided randomly each year so there’s a chance that Yorkshire can still play Surrey etc. What’s more, if the idea of domestic cricket is to get the best players competing against each other (to prepare them for test cricket), then a move to conferences makes about as much sense as Rowley Birkin, QC after twenty double scotches.
The obvious disadvantage of a conference system is that promotion and relegation would be scrapped. This means a plethora of dead rubbers at the end of the season – which was one of the weaknesses of the original 18 team single division championship – plus a lack of competitiveness in general. If nothing is really at stake, how will our young cricketers learn to perform under pressure?
Although I’ve sometimes thought that three divisions (with promotion and relegation) might be a good way to keep the championship interesting and competitive throughout the season, whilst simultaneously reducing fixture congestion, I’ve never considered ‘conferences’ to be an option. After all, I’m a big fan of rugby union. And ring fencing the Premiership would make life incredibly boring for my team Worcester Warriors, who seem to be fighting at the bottom of the table every season.
It was with great interest, therefore, that I discovered that one of the main men championing this conference idea is Sussex’s chief executive Rob Andrew … who is very much a rugby union man. His reasoning? Well, if you’re a rugby fan you’ll have heard the following arguments many, many times before …
Andrew believes that ending promotion and relegation will ease the pressure on clubs, give them financial stability, and afford them the opportunity to blood young English players, take risks, and play entertaining cricket without the spectre of the dreaded drop hanging over them. He also argues that the threat of relegation makes clubs sign experienced foreign imports. In rugby this often means Pacific Islanders that aren’t qualified for England; in cricket it means kolpaks.
I have to say that I disagree with Andrew on this. The county championship was actually at its strongest at the start of new millennium precisely because kolpaks and overseas players raised the standard. There was a time when division one of the championship was one of the hardest domestic cricket competitions in the world – just ask Chris Rogers. Indeed, it’s only now, when the ECB have started rewarding counties for prioritising young English talent, that the quality has been diluted somewhat. And as a result, the leap from county cricket to test cricket is incredibly large once again.
However, there is one thing that makes me approach the subject of ‘conferences’ rather than ‘divisions’ with an open mind: I’m a big NFL fan too. And whatever one thinks of American sports, it cannot be denied that conferences work incredibly well stateside. The main positive is that every team has a chance to compete. You rarely gets a team languishing at the bottom for very long – unless you’re the ‘factory of sadness’ otherwise known as the Cleveland Browns. Check out the highly amusing video below if you think England cricket supporters have it bad!
Because the NFL doesn’t have divisions (and also has a well enforced salary cap) you don’t find a handful of teams monopolising all the best talent like you do in English football. I absolutely hate it when aspiring football clubs get stripped of their best talent, and I’m very worried that cricket and rugby are going the same way. Perhaps conferences will put an end to this worrying trend? After all, talented players won’t need to leave smaller clubs in the quest for division one cricket and international honours.
What’s more, although abolishing promotion and relegation would doubtless lead to more dead rubbers, one could argue that giving every team a realistic chance to win the county championship (in part by spreading talent around the league) compensates for this. Local people are more likely to be engaged with their counties if they think they might win something for a change. There’s also the chance that the end of season playoffs might capture the imagination. They won’t exactly be the Superbowl but they might create some interest.
Consequently, although I’m instinctively opposed to this three conferences plan, and would much prefer two divisions, perhaps the idea has legs … or at least longer legs than I’d initially thought. There’s no doubt that county cricket needs a shakeup, and I’m beginning to think that any change (within reason) is possibly better than no change at all.
Of course, the best thing the ECB could do is to abandon the franchise T20 idea entirely. Then we might be able to return to a time when championship cricket was king (or at least played in the height of summer). However, because this is about as likely as the ECB dealing with the Ben Stokes saga sensibly – he wasn’t allowed to play in the Ashes because he might be charged, yet he’s suddenly allowed to play in the T20s now that he has been – we’ve got to work within imperfect parameters.