This is the most depressed that I’ve ever been as an England cricket supporter. And I sense that many of you feel the same way. Therefore, I’ve taken some time out this weekend to quickly scribble down my thoughts on the current malaise. Apologies if this reads like a stream of consciousness…
Why am I so down in the dumps? It’s not so much that England’s Test team is bad – we’ve known that for a while – what’s upset me so much is that the debate surrounding the future is heading in completely the wrong direction. And that was always my biggest fear.
In recent days we’ve had serious observers – prominent journalists / broadcasters as well as former players – suggesting a whole host of misjudged ideas that would change the domestic (and in some cases international) game irrevocably without even guaranteeing any tangible benefit.
First we had Kevin Pietersen, who’s still pushing the same pro-franchise narrative he advocated during his playing days, suggesting that England need a Hundred-style first class competition. And this week we’ve had Jonathan Agnew proposing the abolition of the championship, too. I also noticed that Tim Wigmore, who I’ve always liked as both a thinker and writer, recommending that the Ashes be reduced to three Test series. I just can’t get my head around this latter idea. Why throw the baby out with the bathwater? England just need to get better.
Those who’ve been watching Sky, listening to the various podcasts out there, and keeping an eye on Twitter will have heard a host of alternative proposals as well. Some believe, quite rightly, that The Hundred should go (no matter how unrealistic this is). Others suggest that The Hundred absolutely has to be part of the solution (no matter how nonsensical this is). Meanwhile, some people have been giving up on red ball cricket entirely because, you know, people can’t concentrate for more than five minutes these days, apparently. The same people will then wax lyrical about the latest box set they’ve binged without appreciating the irony.
What strikes me when I see these ideas is that heads have clearly gone. There’s panic in the air, there’s still a lot of bad blood between Hundred advocates and opponents (who are spinning the narrative to settle old scores), and there’s no consensus on what the authorities should do… other than resign in disgrace, of course.
So what’s the answer?
First let me answer a slightly different question by telling you what I’d do if this was 2018 i.e. before the ECB’s franchise vanity project parked itself in the middle of the domestic calendar. I simply would’ve played more first class cricket in June, July, and especially August (when spinners traditionally come into their own) and then increased the quota of overseas players permitted. This would’ve raised standards immediately. And nobody would’ve argued with this plan.
Sadly, however, we’re no longer in 2018. And I can’t realistically see The Hundred going anywhere because it forms an integral part of the ECB’s bumper TV deal. Consequently, we’re saddled with it – the cricketing equivalent of herpes. The result is that the whole month of August is off-limits for anything other than the 16.4. And any other cricket played alongside it will be missing the best players and therefore devalued.
This obviously creates a massive problem. When the championship fixture list was announced last week, many people were hopeful that there would be significantly more red ball cricket scheduled for June, July and August. Instead, what we got was ever-so-slightly more. Many counties will play ten championship games in April, May and September and just four in actual summer. This means that they’ve effectively done very little to help England’s Test team. The Ashes recovery has basically been postponed for 12 months.
But what did people expect? We were never going to get more than a handful of games in summer because the ECB has already sold out first class cricket. The domestic schedule was hard to balance before The Hundred. It’s absolutely impossible now that August has been effectively taken out of the equation.
So now I’ll answer my original question. What would I, James Morgan, your average cricket supporter, actually do in far from ideal circumstances… other than detonating a big bomb under the franchise competition, of course?
Basically, there is no ideal solution here. Every potential measure will come with collateral damage. However, given that the Hundred has created a massive roadblock to progress, I see no alternative but to back the least worst option: the introduction of 3 divisions (rather than two) in the county championship.
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t like this idea at all. I really fear for the counties in the third tier. And I also think it will lead to more promising players leaving their home-town clubs in search of a higher standard of cricket. But bringing in three divisions is the only way I think we can raise standards and simultaneously ease some of the current fixture congestion.
Rather than trying to shoehorn in 14 (or more) first class games per county, three divisions of six teams would reduce that number to 10. This seems like an acceptable (just) compromise. In an ideal world, I’d like to see more first class cricket than this but at least the benefit of 10 games is that every single innings would count. Therefore, aspiring young batsmen would have to learn how to cash in given limited opportunities.
It’s worth pointing out, of course, that the Sheffield Shield traditionally involves 10 games per side, too. The advantage that county cricket would have over the Sheffield Shield, however, is that the top tier would be underpinned by a fully professional second (and third) tiers; therefore there would still be plenty of opportunities for talented players to make cricket their vocation.
Whereas many talented cricketers are lost to the game in Australia – they choose other careers because there are limited opportunities with so few teams – county cricket could create a logical pyramid and pathway to the international game. Therefore, at least there would be some logic to this move.
Although this system wouldn’t be perfect – and sadly I don’t have an algorithm to work out what else would go where in the season at this point – at least there would be more breathing room for both the domestic 50 over competition and The Blast. The introduction of The Hundred meant that some other form(s) of the game were always going to be compromised somewhere along the line. Bringing in 3 divisions can at least reduce this damage.
Whilst my preferred option would obviously be to set fire to The Hundred and then pour a whole oil tanker’s worth of petrol on top of it, I’ve come to accept that this isn’t going to happen. Therefore, as we can’t drive through or jump over the 16.4, we just have to manoeuvre around it. It’s a bloody sad state of affairs, of course, but when your game is run by people who don’t necessarily have first class cricket’s best interests at heart, your range of options is rather limited.
It’s all so depressing. After all, everyone could see that this problem would ultimately present itself. The ECB should have known. But I guess it’s hard to notice the bleedin’ obvious when your eyes are transfixed upon the big fat bonus you’ll collect for creating something that nobody actually asked for.