More than 20 years after Lord MacLaurin’s drastic shake up, English county cricket appears to be set for another major overhaul.
When Lord MacLaurin, at the time the chairman and CEO of one of Britain’s most successful supermarket chains, Tesco, was appointed chairman of the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) in 1997 English domestic cricket was in a shambles and it showed in the performances of the national side. By the time that he announced he would step down in 2002, the County Championship and the one-day league had been divided into two divisions, an effective central contracts system was in place for the international players and the ECB Academy had put in place the foundations of a competitive and successful national side. As a result, Lord MacLaurin had overseen a rise in board income of almost £30million, with £7million a year being pumped into grassroots development.
Now the ECB has seen fit to look into the re-structuring of county cricket again. To this end it has appointed a so-called working party made up of England cricket director Andrew Strauss, Glamorgan chief executive Hugh Morris, Yorkshire director of cricket Martyn Moxon, Ashley Giles, director of sport at Warwickshire, and Wasim Khan, Leicestershire’s chief executive. The group met for the first time last week.
The ECB’s brief to the group is to evaluate four areas: The two-divisional county structure; what other cricket will be played during the six-week window earmarked for The Hundred; the volume of T20 Blast games to be played during the county season; and the role of the minor counties. (Officially there are 39 counties in England but only 18 play first-class cricket; the other 21 are the so-called minor counties.)
When analysing recent comments made by Strauss and Khan on the matter, two clear pictures emerge.
Firstly, there is a strong view that the current two-divisional county structure does not offer enough opportunities for England-qualified players. In a recent interview with Wisden, Strauss said: “The challenge for the group looking at the domestic structure is to work out the positives and negatives and which outweighs the other. We should always be open-minded about how we can make the domestic structure better and my focus is how we can develop young England players and make sure they get an opportunity to play.”
It is important to view Strauss’s comment against the backdrop of the work of the ECB’s cricket committee. Strauss and Khan also sit on that committee and are involved in drawing up the new County Partnership Agreement (which will replace the old Memorandum of Understanding between the ECB and counties, a similar document to the one in South Africa between Cricket South Africa, the franchises and the South African Cricketers’ Association (SACA)).
Putting the aims of these two committees together, and if media reports about their workings are accurate, it could be the death knell for the internationally qualified Kolpak player. (Players who qualify by way of UK ancestry or an EU passport look likely to escape the chop, for now…) this would be a pity, as the Kolpak player has no doubt lifted the standard of English cricket over the past decade and contributed to producing better international cricketers for England.
Secondly, the other three areas the ECB’s working party is to investigate clearly show a shifting bias towards white-ball cricket. The Hundred is a monstrosity that should never be allowed to take root. The only reason the ECB would want to look into the number of T20 Blast games is to see if there could be any justification for their eight-team, city-based T20 competition, something the counties have vehemently opposed up to now. The only way the ECB would be able to incorporate the minor counties would be through, guess what, more white-ball cricket.
County cricket has always been viewed as the cradle and ultimate custodian of first-class cricket. If the ECB itself is beginning to chisel away at its foundations, then one really starts fearing for the future of first-class cricket around the world and, ultimately, Test cricket.
The ECB needs to think much wider than just England if they are to implement some of these suggestions.