If England want to win Tests, our county players need more first-class cricket – not less

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Michael Atherton, one of the more thoughtful cricket writers, raised an interesting question during his own post-mortem to England’s shocking tour of Australia. Accepting reform is necessary to the county championship, he offers a choice: a championship contested by 18 counties, and which takes the game out to a wide potential audience, or one that exists purely as a machine to produce Test cricketers, so we can beat the Australians. 

It is undeniably important to give the Australians, and anyone else we play, a serious contest, otherwise cricket becomes pointless. And, given the present debacle, that consideration must be a top priority.

However, I fear we are likely to rob Test cricket of its audience, and, therefore, of its revenue base, if we concentrate solely on producing Test players. What deeply concerns me is that Atherton, and others, have suggested the championship be reduced to 10 games per season (like the Sheffield Shield). This ignores two important differences between England and Australia: that there is a culture (helped by the timings of the antipodean school year and the generally superior climate) of young people playing highly competitive cricket in Australia from an early age. Cricket barely exists in our state schools now, and the timing of examinations means even where it is played the fixtures are few.

Also, despite the historic excellence of some leagues – notably in Yorkshire and Lancashire – there is no formalised substructure in English cricket to compare with grade cricket in Australia. Thus it is harder to produce players of Test standard, and new players in county cricket seldom raise its already low calibre. To produce a decent Test team our players need more, not less, serious cricket. And if we are going to maintain a viable audience for serious cricket, they need more decent cricket to watch, and it needs to be properly marketed. All these points are entirely ignored by the England and Wales Cricket Board, a body that is, frankly, so utterly intellectually bankrupt that it should simply be shut down and started again.

I would not like to be running a county club trying to sell memberships with the promise of just five home first-class matches a year. But then nor would I want to be a young batsman or bowler coming into a county side in my late teens or early twenties and knowing I had, if I were lucky, just 20 innings (in reality, probably more like 15) to develop myself as a first-class player before the season was over. It is also hard for younger players that they so seldom play with or against world-class cricketers: partly because we have so few, and partly because those we do have either don’t play first-class cricket through choice or because of orders from the ECB, or because a Test match is on simultaneously.

Having written here for the last six years that the obsession with short-form cricket would eventually make us incapable of playing first-class and Test cricket to a competitive standard, I have been amused by so many players and ex-players suddenly, after the Melbourne horror, breaking cover to say the same thing. It reflects not just the extent of the calamity, but the ECB’s moral weakness, that players feel able to criticise their employer in this fashion. Remarks by certain ex-players are even more interesting, because some rely on Sky Television’s golden goose to feed them; and it is Sky that has driven the white-ball obsession by waving its wads of banknotes at the ECB. The ECB’s decision to sell television rights of Test cricket to subscription services has reduced interest and participation in the game, and helped limit the pool of good players coming through. These self-inflicted wounds have to stop.

Counties should compile two squads: one for one-day games, another for first-class matches

Does anyone in cricket administration have the brains to pursue to its logical conclusion the demand by Gary Kirsten that he would coach England’s Test side (and rather good he would be, too) but would want nothing to do with white-ball cricket? Doesn’t it suggest the skills are utterly different, and that the importation of white-ball skills into county championship and Test cricket has been a disaster? Shouldn’t counties be required to compile two squads of players for the different codes, with one concentrating on one-day games and the other on first-class matches? Could that really make things worse? 

There is an undisputed market for one-day cricket (though one of the three present competitions has to go, preferably the ludicrous Hundred, whose arrival just before this tour of shame was no coincidence), and the revenue it raises is vital for counties; but it can no longer be allowed to wreck Test teams.

Some counties have been corrupted by the welfare state the ECB runs for them. They have backed ideas that have undermined their independence and their ability to function as businesses. MCC, as custodian of Lord’s, is also culpable, with its determination when the ECB tells it to jump simply to ask ‘how high?’ 

A programme of 18 counties all playing each other once, from mid-May to early September, would give players extensive practice on all sorts of wickets. It would allow counties to take the game to a wider audience (though they would have to learn to market it properly). There should be more first-class cricket on free-to-air television. First-class status should be restored to the universities, if we are serious about producing new players. Test cricketers should play more first-class games, for better practice and to draw in crowds; and touring sides should – as a condition of coming – play more county matches, both to educate players and to attract audiences.

This would, among other things, mean playing less low-grade one-day cricket. Small loss. But it would be a far better training ground for cricketers, it would – if properly marketed – attract the public, and we would end up with a serious Test side. The alternative is to wreck Test cricket here, possibly within a decade, and to cause grave international repercussions for the game. 

The ECB’s stakeholders must get their axes out, and get on with it.

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