Saturday, June 21, 2008
ICL? EPL? StanfordPL? Tread carefully, Giles...
An English Premier League, three day cricket, fewer first-class games and three conferences (not divisions); it didn’t take long. Giles Clarke’s proposals to dramatically alter the structure of the English domestic game were a somewhat inevitable response to IPL mania, Stanford’s money-bags and an overall obsession with the cash potential of Twenty20. It is however something of a change of heart from the man who claimed that "tradition and history rather than Bollywood stars and glitz are the binding which persuade supporters to return week in week out to our grounds...” Certainly it begs the question whether cricket administrators are in danger of killing the goose that laid the golden egg.
Of the suggestions mooted, that of an EPL is the least surprising. Everyone wants a twenty20 league of their own these days, from Pakistan to India to the West Indies to England. Quite how different such a league in England would be from the competition already in place is not altogether clear. Despite his proposals for sweeping changes, Clarke dismissed the idea of a city based franchise structure ala the IPL as ‘ludicrous’ only a couple of months ago. More teams, including some from overseas, and a draft system controlled by the ECB for recruiting foreign players seem to be the major differences proposed from the Twenty20 championship.
The proposal for a three conference county championship appears outwardly more bewildering. Such a move would abolish the current system of promotion and relegation and involve teams competing in one of three randomly drawn divisions each year. Of course that is basically the way one-day tournaments are presently organised (though the conferences are more rationally determined based upon region), ultimately coalescing into a knockout stage for those enjoying divisional success. The idea of determining the first-class County Champions via a play-off is a rather unsatisfactory situation however. Simon Briggs points out that such a change would allow the ECB to reduce the time spent playing four-day cricket and allow the middle of the summer to be exclusively devoted to that grail of marketing, the English Premier League.
Predictably, support amongst the counties is split between the bigger and smaller clubs. The former are wary of any changes to a system that has seen their status as the forces to be reckoned with in English cricket solidify, whilst the latter are unsurprisingly enough keen on any opportunity to extricate themselves from the dead-end of division two cricket. Both sides have a point. Two-tier cricket in England has done its job of creating a more professional and competitive structure since its inception in 2000 and it would be something of a retrograde step to abolish it. On the other hand, the position of counties who have struggled with divisional cricket such as Worcestershire is understandable. According to their chief executive, "the major positive [with conferences] would be that every team starts even and has a chance of winning the Championship. It would also give you the chance to play more counties regularly, rather than missing out on facing some of the big teams." However, the implementation of another of Clarke’s proposals, the salary cap, would go a long way to solve the widening gap between the have and have-nots without involving the need to abolish the incentivised nature of promotion and relegation.
The idea of a salary cap is one that surely needs to be implemented in all sports in the era of the billionaire owner. It was the saving grace of American football, meaning fans rarely have to endure watching their side propping up the bottom of the league year after year as teams are prevented from using superior financial muscle to become invincible. If the administrators of football in England and indeed Europe had any courage they too would implement such a system, ending the farce of a perennial ‘Big Four’ and laying the foundation for a new era of competitiveness. Nor would such a move be without precedent in British sport. Those in charge of running both codes of rugby on the island long ago had the foresight to put salary caps in place: the Guinness Premiership has operated under the system for fully nine years.
Though the problem may not be as acute in cricket, salary-caps would be a welcome compensation for perennial second division domestic sides keen on the idea of shaking up the current domestic structure. The arbitrary threefold conference division, something these same counties are keen on for this very reason, would then be rendered largely unnecessary. If counties were on a largely even footing then the elite group of consistently successful counties would eventually be dispersed. Some counties may complain about the breaking up of their settled units, but in the long run it would be a small price to pay for a healthier national structure. The big boys will no doubt moan bitterly about tradition and the like in an effort to retain their burgeoning monopolies on the domestic game, but it will certainly be easier to stand up to the likes of Surrey and Sussex as opposed to tycoons such as Glazer and Abramovich. Other sports have been able to adapt, and there is no good reason why cricket cannot do likewise.
That all the changes put forward by Clarke are devoted primarily to increasing the primacy of money-spinning twenty20 in the domestic calendar is yet one more crystal clear indicator of where the game is heading. Many naysayers and doom-merchants have predicted that Lalit Modi and his twenty-twenty vision will inevitably sound the death knell for longer forms of the game, but few could have imagined it being given such momentum so soon by the ECB itself.
Nonetheless, change is not a bad thing. Just as Twenty20 has changed the way we play cricket, it will inevitably change the way it is run. It is the task of administrators like Giles Clarke to integrate such changes into current models without completely destroying them. Cricket cannot nor should not now survive without Twenty20 as a fundamental component. Neither however can it survive with Twenty20 alone.