Richard Edwards talks to a selection of county members about where they see the future of domestic cricket and what needs to be done
There has been no shortage of people willing to express their views on mooted plans for a second T20 competition in an already congested summer – but one voice has been notable by its absence.
The members who make up the hardcore of county support in the domestic game have struggled to be heard above those vocal proponents or opponents of an idea which could simultaneously revolutionise and polarise the sport.
Next week, in the Royal London Cup, Kent and Yorkshire will clash in an increasingly rare meeting at the St Lawrence Ground. At one of English cricket’s most traditional and historic venues, though, mutiny is in the air.
And if the ECB’s current chairman decides to take the opportunity to watch his former county in the Garden of England, he will be assured a lively reception.
“We’re not like football fans but if he came down to Canterbury he would get a shredding – an absolute shredding,” says Eddie Allcorn, Kent member and regular blogger on the county’s website.
“No-one is really sure about the future, particularly when it comes to T20 franchises but if this competition does get the go-ahead then I think then it would be the time for cricket supporters in this country to unite and do something about it.
“As it is, at the moment, we’re the silent majority and we’re being sidelined by what the ECB think is best for English cricket.”
That, apparently, is a headlong rush to mimic some of the world’s most popular and lucrative T20 competitions.
Back in July, the news broke that plans were well advanced for the introduction of a new city-based tournament that could change domestic cricket as we know it.
The plans still have to be rubber-stamped by the counties – many of whom remain deeply dubious about the move – but what’s clear is that the oft-discussed debate over franchises in the English game has moved a considerable step closer.
Robin Viner, the president of the Midlands Club Cricket Conference is perhaps uniquely qualified to comment on the dilemma facing some of England’s most historic sporting institutions.
Worcestershire, one of the four counties that Viner holds membership for, were founded in 1865 but could find themselves marginalised by a new competition which is influenced by financial imperatives rather than 151 years of tradition. Little wonder that he believes franchise cricket could tear the domestic game apart.
“I think there’s too much tinkering with domestic cricket, there always has been,” he tells The Cricket Paper. “Making the County Championship a 14-game season rather than a 16-game season is ludicrous. There has to be some sort of T20 competition – like it or not, and a lot of the diehards don’t like the format – but I think we have to be very careful.
“I don’t think a county like Worcestershire will take too kindly to being disenfranchised. A county like Warwickshire and a county like Middlesex won’t have a problem. Would franchise cricket work here, though? I’m not sure.”
Most counties regular liaise with their membership, with Kent, for example, holding meetings with supporters who routinely attend every day of County Championship cricket.
Allcorn tells The Cricket Paper that that meeting was cancelled last week, leading to speculation that Kent’s top brass – outspoken opponents of any move to introduce franchise cricket – had been told to maintain radio silence while the future of a muddled domestic structure is discussed further.
“As things stand you either have Kent not playing in the middle of the summer, which opens up the question of whether people should buy a membership in the first place,” he says.
“The other thing that members can’t get their head around is the fact that we could have the absurd situation of three-quarters of English cricketers twiddling their thumbs if clubs bring in expensive imports to play in this tournament.
“What does that do for team spirit? Team morale? How will this pan out. Obviously this isn’t going to happen until 2018 at the earliest and I would expect people to renew for next season.
“But if it gets to the point where either they’re not sure what’s happening or we do go down the franchise route, then how many will renew those memberships? Not many would be my guess.”
The issue facing cricket’s diehards is the fact that there is no outlet for them to express their views and no platform on which to make a protest.
When supporters of Liverpool walked out of Anfield on the 77th minute of their Premier League match against Sunderland in protest at season ticket price hikes back in February it gained global coverage.
Just five days later a statement from the Fenway Group, the club’s American owners, announced a dramatic climbdown.
“The three of us have been particularly troubled by the perception that we don’t care about our supporters, that we are greedy, and that we are attempting to extract personal profits at the club’s expense. Quite the opposite is true,” it read.
There’s a growing feeling in the shires that the accusations refuted by Fenway could be levelled at the ECB, with their desire to push through a new T20 competition having more to do with a desire to match the popularity and financial clout of Australia’s Big Bash rather than giving supporters what they want.
In order to make the competition a reality, ECB will need to get the backing of 12 of the 18 counties and 26 of the 39 recreational cricket boards that form the membership of the ECB. No easy task.
Emphasising the fact that his comments are his own views, rather than those of the body he represents, Viner believes that the current options on the table bring with them more questions than answers.
“Each county will try and communicate with its members and, by and large, the communication between the counties and their member-base is pretty good,” he says.
“There are fans forums every year and this matter will be raised at each and every county. A lot of the die-hards will not like franchises and a lot of the newer people on the block probably will.
“I think there are quite a few options. Take Warwickshire as an example and it’s pretty straightforward. Warwickshire would be a city franchise and it’s basically that anyway with the Birmingham Bears. It’s difficult, though, to see where you would get the eight franchises from without disenfranchising a lot of the 18 counties.
“I don’t think this will go through without a great deal of aggravation. Personally, I don’t think a lot of the members will like it, whether the chairman and committees will like it, I don’t know. Clearly they will be looking at the financial side as well.”
It’s finance which, ultimately, is driving these changes and you could forgive the average county watcher for thinking they were little more than spectators as the future of English cricket is decided.
“People would like a word with Colin Graves if he does turn up at Canterbury next week,” says Allcorn. “People here are so angry but there’s no outlet for it in cricket. There’s a mixture of anger and resignation. A lot of the members here see this a real threat to cricket as we know it.”
This piece originally featured in The Cricket Paper, Friday August 12 2016
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