A Valentine’s gift

The ECB came up with the perfect Valentine’s gift for County Cricket, one which expressed their feelings for it in no uncertain terms. There were neither flowers nor hearts here, instead a list of venues for Tests, ODIs, T20 Internationals, domestic trophies and the ECB’s much heralded, but rather less keenly anticipated, T20 Competition from 2020 to 2024.

The Test venues see a return to the traditional six venues – Lord’s, the Oval, Edgbaston, Trent Bridge, Headingley and Old Trafford – with recent hosts Sophia Gardens, the Rose Bowl and the Riverside missing out.

Credit where credit is due, this makes a lot of sense to me. The six grounds selected are the best for Test cricket in my opinion, although those who missed out after investing heavily to host tests, with the ECB’s encouragement, have reason to be less pleased. The other caveat is Trent Bridge missing out on an Ashes Test in 2023 as well as in 2019, which is a crying shame. Not only is there a great atmosphere at Trent Bridge Tests, but England’s record there in recent years, particularly against Australia, is excellent and why the ECB want to give that advantage away, not once but twice, is beyond me.

The ODIs and T20 Internationals are split across the Test venues, plus the three recent grounds that missed out, Sophia Gardens, the Rose Bowl and the Riverside, and the County Ground, Bristol. Two of these, the County Ground and the Riverside, will get an ODI each year.

The one glaring omission from the shorter formats is the County Ground, Taunton, which hosted its first T20 International in 2017. Somerset CCC have spent a considerable amount redeveloping the ground, in part for the opportunity to host international cricket. To have achieved that ambition in 2017, but then have future opportunities taken away is an almighty kick in the teeth.

The venues of the “As yet unnamed T20” competition, as it appears to be known at the moment while the ECB marketeers smooze potential sponsors, are no surprise at all: the six Test venues plus the Rose Bowl and Sophia Gardens. They are the ECB’s favourites, with Sophia Gardens thrown in so that the governing body can say that it has fulfilled its remit of “England and Wales”, while on the other hand taking Test matches away from one of the countries in its jurisdiction.

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New T20 Competition Venues

For someone looking in from the outside it would be hard to see how a selection that leaves large swathes of the country without a venue nearby, with 25% of teams in London and none in the whole of either the south west or the north east, has even considered where potential supporters may live.

The reason for this, of course, is the ECB was never going to risk upsetting the big boys, nor the likes of Sky who prefer the comfort of the bigger grounds. As for existing supporters, well, they are a bit of an irrelevance as the ECB is confident that the new competition will attract an entirely new audience. They want to get away from the ‘boozy night out’ image of the T20 Blast and attract families instead.

Does the new fanbase exist? We’ll only find that out in 2020 but grounds like the Oval and Lord’s certainly contain a good proportion of work nights out or similar for the T20 Blast and replacing them is not going to be easy, especially given cricket’s low profile. There will be some games on free to air (ten, including the final) to improve the profile, but this is not even a quarter of the games that Australia’s Big Bash gets in a country where cricket is far more popular than it is here (notleast because all cricket is free to air). Current County members cannot be relied on to attend, given they are broadly against the new competition, which devalues the County game by its very existence. Of course, some in the areas where the new competition will go along, but it will be a small proportion who pay over and above County membership to watch T20.

And so to the final betrayal in the ECB’s Valentine’s message: the domestic 50 over competition. We already knew that this competition would suffer by being played concurrently with the “As yet unnamed T20”, but with 100 or so players unavailable because they will be playing in the T20. To add insult to injury, the ECB’s list tells us that the final for this will no longer be held at Lord’s but at Trent Bridge.

Taking away the opportunity for players and supporters to experience a Lord’s final kills a bit of the game. Sure, it will still be a final but without the setting of Lord’s it won’t mean quite as much. I remember the finals I’ve been to at Lord’s, the incredible surge of joy when Gloucestershire have lifted trophies and the elation evident on the players’ faces: that will never be replicated at Trent Bridge. As Durham’s Chris Rushworth tweeted after the news came out:

No final at @HomeOfCricket can’t imagine I’m the only cricketer that feels slightly gutted by this! Showpiece of a county players season IMO. I’m lucky enough to have played and won a final there, it will be a big loss on the calendar!

There is no doubt that there will be many who welcome the ECB’s announcement, but they are within the media, the Counties who stand to lose least and the higher echelons of the game who will profit if it is successful. For the supporters it is simply a betrayal, the confirmation that the ECB cares not a jolt for County Cricket fans. Many of us have long felt that: we’ve seen the County schedule switched again and again, Championship matches pushed out to the extremes, and now a new competition which, if successful (and that’s a big if), could be a death sentence for the County game as we know it.

It’s a crying shame that supporters are far more cynical about the ECB than the County executives, most of whom voted the new T20 proposals through (with Middlesex and Essex voting against and Kent abstaining) in return for £1.3m. It didn’t take too long for things to begin to sour after that vote. In December, Elizabeth Ammon reported in The Times that the Counties who would not be hosting were upset that the model of ownership proposed for the competition (a subsidiary company of the ECB) was not what had been agreed (ownership by the Counties plus the MCC). This change could affect future changes to the T20 competition and freeze out the Counties.

I’d wager that there will be further betrayals to come, now that the votes have been bought and the tournament agreed or, to put it another way, after the turkeys voted for Christmas.Turkey

The franchise game

We all knew it was coming. However much cricket fans hoped the ECB wouldn’t get their own way on city franchises we knew, deep down, that they would. After all, the ECB have time and again shown themselves to be more concerned about money than the sport they govern, so, given that Sky clearly want franchises, that’s what we’ll get. The ECB also needs to do this before the next TV deal is negotiated, in order to maximise its revenue, meaning that the decision is being rushed through before the tender process begins.

Ostensibly there was a vote of course. The Counties and the MCC in a 16-3 “yes” decision to have a city franchise competition running alongside the existing T20 Blast (for now) with a short consultation first. If that sounds like turkeys voting for Christmas, well the turkeys were well rewarded to the tune of £1.3-£1.5m per county according to reports. Given the precarious state of many counties’ finances the compensation would have been hard to refuse, but in taking it then have they indirectly signed their own death warrants? And what of the members that (most) represent?

Most of the members of county cricket clubs that I know oppose the idea of city franchises. By and large they don’t have an issue with Twenty20 cricket, and many go and watch the T20 Blast, but what they hate is the idea of cricket being taken away from counties and put into eight franchises. How this is done, the compensation that counties will get, the way that the franchises will operate are all irrelevant; this is a fundamental opposition to the formation of eight “city” clubs.

There are lots of reasons for this. For a start, it attacks the very structure of professional cricket in the UK by focussing on eight cities, when the game has been organised around counties since the 19th century. This matters a lot to people: a Liverpudlian may be enthusiastic about watching Lancashire at Old Trafford, but tell the same fan that he or she should support a team called “Manchester” and you’d get short shrift. Sport in the UK is tribalistic, whether around a county in cricket or a city in football, with fans feeling an attachment to place, and teams have almost exclusively grown organically rather than being franchised to an area. It’s one of the key differentiators between sport in the UK and in other parts of the world, such as the USA and Australia.

Fans also look to the current structure of eighteen counties and the new proposals of eight city franchises. It doesn’t take a genius to work out that ten of the county grounds won’t be hosting any of the new competition. With teams likely to be based at the larger, test grounds (details are yet to be confirmed) then large swathes of the country will miss out. The beauty of the county system is its accessibility to so many people. The counties cover large areas and while they may be headquartered in a specific place, supporters will come from across the county to watch. Not only that, but you often find supporters from neighbouring “minor counties” (in cricket terms) supporting their nearest professional team: there are plenty from Devon and Cornwall who travel to Taunton to watch Somerset for example. Call me a cynic but I can’t see many fans travelling long distances to watch two franchised teams in a city that means nothing to them.

And then there are the players who will miss out. We’re told that players like the idea of city franchises and no doubt many see it as a way to make some cash in the short career of professional sport. No one would dispute that as a valid reason but the maths show that many young British players will miss out. If we assume that each county has a squad of 25 then you have 450 players and then if we assume each franchise will have a squad of 20 that gives you 160 players. That’s almost 300 fewer, even without the inevitable influx of foreign stars. The likelihood is that there would be about a maximum of 130-140 places available for the county players. The rest may (we don’t yet know) have the chance to play county cricket at the same time (although there would surely be resistance from those counties whose squads have been weakened most) or they may simply be twiddling their thumbs for the best part of a month during the season.

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Possible locations for the city franchises

If the window for the new competition is given over to it exclusively then it isn’t just the
majority of county players that will miss out on cricket for several weeks of the summer. Many county cricket fans will also be without cricket should they choose not to watch the franchises (and I suspect that large numbers will so just that.) And not only that but test matches are also likely to be halted to give England players the chance to play in the new competition (and to allow Sky to concentrate on it): the ECB is prepared to shunt what should be its highlight of the year to either end of the summer.

Opposing the views of fans are many (but by no means all) of the media. The case for franchises (that they work in Australia and India) has long been espoused by some commentators and journalists, notably – and unsurprisingly – those contracted to Sky. The vested interest needs no explanation and this group has long tweeted, spoken and written about the need for a franchise based competition. Much of the chatter has been amongst themselves or small groups of people on social media and perhaps this has convinced them that there is widespread support for the idea; it is easy for likeminded groups to view themselves as a majority when, in fact, they are quite the opposite and social media amplifies the effect.

It would be fair to say too that many of these proponents seldom break out of the media bubble in which their views are rarely challenged. They are also often those who have come to their profession through playing cricket professionally and, as a result, they don’t have the experience of being a fan. That’s not a criticism – as a fan I have no experience of playing the game professionally – but it means that they lack the understanding of why and how support works in the UK. On the other hand, there are journalists who have direct experience of being a cricket fan and by and large their views on franchises have been more balanced.

What the proponents of the franchise system have failed to explain is who will actually watch the competition. I know of few, if any, existing county members who plan to pay to go and watch a city franchise that they feel completely unattached to. Some will, of course, but I suspect they will be in a very small minority. That means that the competition will need to attract existing T20 punters who are not county members and/or new fans. The first of these groups has potential in that some, but by no means all, of them go to T20 for a night out with mates. These people have little interest in the actual cricket or who is playing and so it doesn’t really matter whether they are watching a county or a city franchise as long as their mates are there and there are plenty of bars available. How many people fall into that category is another matter. In London there are plenty, in the other cities where the franchises are likely to be there may not be quite so many – and lets not forget that lots of the T20 crowds are county supporters too, regardless of whether they are members, and consequently they are far less likely to attend.

The cost of going to games is another factor for existing fans (whether they be members or not). People have limited budgets and going to watch teams in the new competition may well mean they are unable to go to the county T20 games or vice versa. This is amplified by the franchise games being in a block, meaning that the cost is concentrated into a month – it is no coincidence that the T20 Blast attendances have increased when the games (and cost) is spread across a longer period.

The second target group seems to me to be the one that the franchise proponents are counting on: the uninitiated. Quite how this will happen is unclear and there appears to be no reason why new fans would flock to watch T20 cricket simply because a team is named after a city any more than they would a county. The fact that the teams will have international stars is largely irrelevant – the counties already field many of these players – simply because of the profile of cricket in the UK. With all live cricket on pay TV (Sky) then the professional game has disappeared off the radar for many people. Whereas once kids and adults alike would be able to reel off the names of international players, these days even the England team can walk down the street without being recognised – and another competition on pay TV isn’t going to change that regardless of marketing.

Who will watch is the key question that needs to be answered. The counties have voted for further consultation, but the period for that is so short that it is nothing more than a
paper exercise. The ECB is simply looking at the next TV deal, which will further line the pockets of its executives, while the counties themselves look to the compensation they will receive while the media will continue to talk about how great the Big Bash in Australia is, without bothering to look at the differentiating factors between sport in the UK and Australia (see inset) or at competitions such as the Ram Slam in South Africa which are nowhere near as popular.

As for the counties, members fear that this is just the first step in dismantling a system that has been in place since the 19th Century. The is a concern that the ECB’s focus on the new franchises will marginalise the County Championship and further devalue other competitions and, in time, clubs may disappear. Given that county members are the bedrock of support for domestic cricket the implications of that have considerable reach.

Members are not, however, completely powerless either. Most counties are still members’ clubs (Durham, Hampshire and as of a week or two ago Northants the exceptions). Members generally have less power than they once did but there are mechanisms for calling SGMs or EGMs within constitutions and if ever there were a time to get the necessary signatures and call a meeting then surely this is it? The typical county member may not look like a revolutionary but they may just have to start thinking like one to save the game as we know it.

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