(Photo: Getty Images)
By Derek Pringle
It has taken a while but the directors of cricket around the first-class counties have begun to realise just how flawed the two-divisional Championship is, especially with regard to producing England cricketers.
This sudden realisation, which has gathered momentum recently due to Yorkshire’s proposals for a conference system, like those in America’s NFL, has been obvious to anyone watching talent drain away from counties like Leicestershire, Derbyshire and Northamptonshire these past 18 years.
But is a three-conference system, something first proposed by Lord MacLaurin in 1997, and then again by Giles Clarke in 2008, really the answer?
Yorkshire’s proposed Championship will comprise three conferences of six who play each other once home and away, resulting in an initial stage of 10 matches. But while that seems straightforward, the latter stage, of five matches, seems more complicated with the formulation of another three conferences to produce the champions.
I’ve yet to work through the detail but one of the weaknesses of the American conferences is that it is possible for the eventual winner to have won fewer games than their rivals, which cannot be right. For many county clubs, though, anything is better than two divisions.
For them, two divisions have proved toxic, pushing some to the brink of bankruptcy trying to compete with the wealthier Test-ground counties like Surrey and Lancashire.
The stigma of being in the second division has, since 2000 when the format was introduced, forced many counties into short-term expediencies, mostly in the shape of overseas players they could not afford. It is just not good for the game given counties remain the prime nursery for future England stars.
Even producing good homegrown talent in that time seemed futile, with the bigger clubs tending to poach the best produced by others. That is what happened to Stuart Broad and James Taylor, both of whom left Leicestershire for glitzier neighbour Nottinghamshire.
But therein starts a vicious cycle as counties like Leicestershire, believing they cannot compete in the Championship, are resigned to second division status. As such, any young talent with ambition they do happen to produce is already looking elsewhere.
Suddenly, any aspiration clubs like that have is limited to winning a white-ball competition which they then feel is best achieved by signing a bunch of Kolpaks. This means fewer England-qualified players getting their chance
to play meaningful cricket which then impacts on the number of cricketers being developed for England.
Three conferences, like the old one-division Championship, at least presents all counties with a chance of winning the trophy. For the teams competing I would allow a maximum of two non-England qualified players (whether overseas or Kolpak), though this may not be enforceable until after Brexit.
There is a case to limit the overseas contingent to one, the argument being that most teams, in times of strife, tend to rely on their big-gun overseas players to get them out of trouble – something Mike Procter and Zaheer Abbas used to do all the time at Gloucestershire. For the sake of England cricket, though, homegrown players need to learn to perform under pressure, hence the argument, by some, of just one overseas.
Personally, I’d also like to go back to just one division, but understand that there is no longer room in the itinerary for such a competition. Yet, you have to wonder whether even the 15 games proposed under Yorkshire’s conference idea will prove too unwieldy. The ECB have unleashed a working party to test the viability of an FA-style knockout tournament involving 41 teams. But if that is to be fitted in, alongside two T2O competitions, you have to wonder where a County Championship might fit?
Men’s cricket in England is not blessed with a massive talent pool. But to maximise what we have got, two-division cricket should be sacrificed for something more egalitarian which encourages counties of all stripes to produce their own without resorting to cheap foreign imports.
It never ceases to amaze me what some players will give up in order to fall under the selectors’ gaze. Take Sam Northeast. Last year he was captain of Kent, a post that used to hold some kudos. But Northeast, as befits a talented cricketer of 28, has decided it is time for his England ambitions to be realised, before the selectors see him as over the hill. So, instead of ploughing on with Kent, he has moved to Hampshire.
If you believe that Ed Smith, the newly appointed National Selector, and his scouts will focus on the top division it could be a shrewd move.
It is too early to tell if the change has been worthwhile, but many have made similar moves though not always with the consequences intended. James Harris left Glamorgan for Middlesex with hopes of England but so far has been ignored. So, too, Jack Brooks, whose move from Northants to Yorkshire led to glory in the Championship but not, so far, in international selection.
Generally, though, a shift of counties tends to work well, as it did for Chris Broad whose move from Gloucestershire to Notts led to 25 Test caps. Broad did it long before two divisions, his belief being that the selectors back then did not venture further west than Reading.
There are even those, like Nick Compton, who have ping-ponged between counties, Compton going from Middlesex to Somerset and then to Middlesex again, with England selection resulting after each move.
But is it really necessary to move county these days? If Smith and his scouting system possess the necessary rigour, no England-qualified player should go unturned irrespective of the team they play for.
Yet, despite that, the perception remains that runs, in theory, count for more in Division One, the bowlers there being better. Northeast knows that and having scored 17 and 4 against Worcestershire in the opening match, will realise it is a challenge he has not yet met.