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PART ONE: COMMENT
NOTES BY THE EDITOR
Some years have passed since the baby and its bathwater appeared in these Notes. Contrary to the warning of the saw-sayers, the time may have come to throw them both out. It is not only that the water is cold; the baby is old and should have been lifted out long ago.
Which is a long-winded way of saying that the time is approaching to reform the first-class county structure, as opposed to merely meddling with the cricket and the fixture list. Not that a little meddling would go amiss: the passing of the Benson and Hedges Cup this summer provides just the opportunity for fewer games, less travelling and more preparation. But I would like these Notes to open a wider-ranging, longer-term debate, aimed at revivifying professional cricket. And however loath I am to say it, I believe the county system runs counter to a positive future for English cricket at the highest level.
What we have at the moment is a Victorian institution that resisted reform in the 20th century and struggled into the 21st on subsidies rather than public support. It isn’t that the counties haven’t changed. A number have become like businesses rather than members’ clubs, which is not to say they have become more businesslike. To be commercially viable, they have to satisfy their dual market needs. Because professional sport is essentially in the entertainment game, they should be able to attract and entertain an audience; and, such is the framework of English cricket, they must provide the right players for the national teams that generate much of the ECB’s income. This is a well-rehearsed argument; it hardly requires repeating any more than the fact that many counties no longer seem capable of fulfilling these conditions. The system survives on a confederacy of mediocrity.
It is easy to understand, to sympathise even, with resistance to radical reform. There are livelihoods and grand traditions at stake. But if 18 counties cannot pay their way without subsidy, and if they fail the needs of the national team, do we need so many? What happens if the subsidy dries up? If nothing else, it might be prudent for county cricket to reform its structure before circumstances force it to change.
Some 60 per cent of the ECB’s revenue comes from television. Government and lottery funding are essential for many projects, in particular the much vaunted National Cricket Academy. Cricket, compared with other sports, does well out of the lottery. This suggests that it still has a place in national life, but that place depends on the profile of the national team. Unlike football clubs, the counties have little national reference; rather, for much of the population and the media, county cricket drifts along in a backwater. Without the annual injection of more than a million pounds each, most counties would be further up the creek without a paddle.
Changes have been introduced in attempts to improve standards: among them, four-day matches, two divisions, pitch penalties and smaller-seamed balls. But they have not brought spectators to first-class cricket and they have not provided the core of players able to step up to international level. Some
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