A revolution is underway to save county cricket.  It’s almost time

A revolution is underway to save county cricket. It’s almost time

A revolution is underway to save county cricket.  It’s almost time

Warwickshire - Alex Davidson / Getty Images

Warwickshire – Alex Davidson / Getty Images

It’s August and there won’t be a ball thrown in a County Championship game for the whole month, until September 5th. Not long ago Scyld Berry wrote on these pages – and I agree with every word – that county cricket doesn’t have a consistent audience because it’s so ‘friction’. Perhaps another reason is that in five weeks of summer when schools are on vacation, and young people might just be tempted to look at it and learn to love it, there just isn’t any. With Test Cricket limited to subscription television, most youngsters have no chance of learning about the game first class or starting to enjoy it. To the extent that any of the youngsters are exposed to cricket, they are at slogfest, although this year’s waning interest in T20 cricket suggests that even that novelty, unsurprisingly, is fading.

Scyld, in justifying the label of “attrition”, gave the example of a team that ground 280 for a few wickets on a day of 96 overs, and compared it to the style of the English team this season, under the example of Jonny Bairstow, hopping at four or five and providing high-class entertainment. It is, in fact, the kind of attitude towards the game that persuades potential viewers to find something else to do; and provides more grist to the mill of the group that is currently examining the future of the County Championship, led by Sir Andrew Strauss and Rob Key, who presumably want to further reduce competition.

Some of the so-called “thoughts” leaked by this group are disturbing for two reasons: its sheer dullness and its hidden motives. It is rumored that the already reduced league, just 14 games per team per season, could be reduced to 12 or even 10 games. Or, some league games could be played overseas in March – after all, it would be absurd to expect anyone to want to watch them, right? This brings us to the unspoken reasons: to free up more space in the national season to schedule endless slogfests, to pay homage to England and Wales Cricket Board’s depressing obsession with white ball cricket.

A growing number of supporters across the country have had enough of this negativity and are preparing to try and do something about it. An action group was recently started by members of the Lancashire County Cricket Club and has been taken over by members from a number of other counties, including Essex. Northants, Somerset, Surrey and Yorkshire. The action group distributed leaflets to members during a recent game, asking them to be signed and returned as expressions of support. One of the organizers told me last week that “we have so many signatures on the flyers that we haven’t finished counting them.”

An overview of the game during the LV = Insurance County championship match between Lancashire and Kent - George Wood / Getty Images

An overview of the game during the LV = Insurance County championship match between Lancashire and Kent – George Wood / Getty Images

The group has a website that anyone who shares their goals – saving first-class cricket from what they consider its slow, or not so slow, death at the hands of the administrators – can log in and register as a supporter. At the end of last week they had over 3,000 and are looking for 10,000. The organizers point out that 15 of the 18 first class counties (the exceptions are Durham, Hampshire and Northants) are owned by their members; that these members were simply not consulted on the future structure of the championship; and that if enough of them object, the counties simply could not give the green light to further slaughter first-class cricket: if they are owned by their members, they must follow the wishes of their members. “The Hundred was imposed on cricket fans,” says the campaign. “Let’s not repeat it here.”

It is undoubtedly time that members and other supporters, who pay handsomely to watch cricket every season, don’t have to constantly put up with the amount of serious cricket they can watch being cut down without being given a say: and if not. do you want that reduction, it shouldn’t happen. Our test team is going through a purple spot, but a swallow doesn’t make a summer; next year he will face the Australians again and we will see if the amount of serious cricket played is enough to maintain the current pyrotechnics against such an impressive and serious team as that. If the team that is reviewing the league thinks the problem is over and that they can scale the league to allow for more Mickey cricket, they are almost certainly wrong. Most importantly – and this is what the Lancashire group and those across the country who are now backing its initiative realize – if you continue to marginalize county cricket, it will eventually kill Test cricket.

Full Jonny Bairstow - Action shots via Reuters / Jason Cairnduff

Full Jonny Bairstow – Action shots via Reuters / Jason Cairnduff

But to get back to Scyld’s point: I have no doubt that the nature of the championship cannot continue like this if it wants to attract a new audience. There must be more, not less, matches: to give players more first-class gaming experience and therefore to provide better players Test; to ensure that famous cricketers appear regularly for their counties, to give the game greater public appeal; and to allow for more outdoor matches, to encourage a wider audience. More should be done in streaming first-class matches, and in particular in advertising its existence to young people. Ideally, each team would face each other once, making 17 league games: and the first two could play a final. Again, to encourage people to enter the park, a revival of the tourist game is needed; and the first-class status of the university parts should be restored, which should never have been abolished.

But how, I hear skeptics say, do you fit into all these games? Simple: you do the same to make the game more exciting, which is to return to three-day games with 120 overs a day. The pace of play is absurd; a fare higher than 16 per hour is pitiful. Insisting on a higher speed would require more bowling spin; and the endless self-inflicted delays during play as players (and referees) roam must be eradicated, through a punishment system of fines and suspensions of offensive captains, if necessary. In living memory, an extra 120 or 130 day was quite normal. Of course, those were the times of exposed wickets: let’s bring those back too. And once you have this reformed, action-packed, fast-paced game, for heaven’s sake, market it properly to get people into the park, especially during the school holidays.

Counties must take the campaign to save world-class cricket seriously; because it’s really about saving yourself. They have treated more traditional members and supporters with almost mocking contempt for the past 30 years. If the game we know and really love is to be saved – and it can be – that attitude must be thrown out with some of the other crazy ideas that now haunt us and which, if imposed, are bound to do enormous damage to cricket by undermining the bases of its support. The counties must defend the ECB.

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