My writing about English cricket is usually about the past. That about the present mostly concerns New Zealand, reasonably enough as that’s where I have lived these past 21 years. My visits to games in England are confined to a few days every two or three years, though the wonders of modern communication enable me to keep up (as I write this I am watching Tom Kohler-Cadmore of Yorkshire put the Durham attack to the sword). But when it comes to discussing the great issues of the day, I don’t generally like to intrude in private grief. But from time to time…
I can’t get steamed up about “The Hundred” in that way that many supporters of traditional cricket have (“traditional cricket” now including T20, apparently). Of course, it is a marketing rather than a cricketing initiative and has been sprung on the public in a manner that is patronising and comically inept. But does the absence of 20 deliveries an innings make that much of a difference?
After all, one-day cricket in England started with 65 overs, quickly cut to 60; then a 55-over version came along, and 50 overs became the default for ODIs. Meanwhile it was 40 overs on Sundays, except in those years when it was 45. So let’s not be too precious about counting the overs.
The central issue is unchanged: the big slice of high summer that the new competition encloses, driving us peasants off our land. Michael Atherton has been pushing the idea of playing the County Championship in parallel with the new competition so that young players get the chance to develop in the best conditions. That’s admirable, but with so many players taken by the Hundred (or whatever it ends up being), the County Championship in this period would be not much more then a second XI competition.
Here’s a proposal that would reserve a place at the table for a reasonable standard of first-class cricket at the height of summer, albeit in the servants’ quarters.
Parallel to the new competition, I would create first-class and 50-over competitions between ten teams. Eight of these would be a partnership of a county that is the base of a new franchise with one that is not. There are various ways in which this could be cut, for example:
· Durham and Yorkshire
· Derbyshire and Lancashire
· Leicestershire and Nottinghamshire
· Worcestershire and Warwickshire
· Glamorgan and Gloucestershire
· Sussex and Hampshire
· Kent and Surrey
· Essex and Middlesex.
Obviously, the point of this is to create teams that are of true first-class standard, good enough to develop international players of the future and to attract spectators.
So what about the two counties—in this example Somerset and Northamptonshire—that would be left without a franchised partner? One answer would be to invite the new test countries, Ireland and Afghanistan, to send seven or eight players to Taunton and Northampton respectively. I’m sure that we in New Zealand would jump at the chance to send a cohort of our good emerging players to spend five or six weeks playing a decent standard of cricket. Much better value than an A team playing against a virtual county second XIs. Even an established international such as Henry Nicholls might be keen on having a chance to play in the southern winter.
A second aim is to keep cricket going in the shires in July and August, so the non-franchised county would host all the team’s home games. This may be hard on members of the franchise counties but they would get home membership privileges as an incentive to make the (mostly) easy journey to watch their amalgamated team.
There would be two conferences of five teams. Teams in conference A would not play each other, but would play all the teams in conference B. Otherwise, in a five-team group there would always be a team without an opponent. Clearly, some teams would have two home games and some three. This could alternate from year to year.
My plan has a 50-over game on Saturday followed by a four-day game between the same teams on the same ground starting on Sunday. I know that the thought of switching formats overnight might cause the smelling salts to be called for in some quarters, but we are trying to save county cricket here, so sacrifices must be made.
I have included 50-over games as it seems likely that it is this format that will make room for the Hundred, perhaps becoming closer to a straight knockout. As long as there is a 50-over World Cup players must be given the chance to play that format. Besides, who knows? If matches are played at weekends in July and August there may still be an audience for it after all. If there were five rounds of first-class cricket in midsummer, a reduction of the Championship to 12, or even ten games could be borne with equanimity by most supporters, if August replaces April.
The winners of each conference would play in the final. A neutral venue would risk an empty ground, so one of the finalists would be at home (this works well enough in this part of the world). There are any number of ways of deciding this. A side that has staged two home games might host one that has had three. Or what about the better rated pitch (measured against criteria that favour balance between bat and ball) having home advantage? A team that reaches both finals might claim home advantage to maximise the crowd and minimise the travel. Or they could just toss a coin.
Given that the name of every vertebrate animal known to science has already been appropriated for sports team titles, what shall we call them? I’d like each to be named after a player associated with both teams: Norman Gifford v Grahame Clinton. No? So what about water-based names? Trent and Mersey…Tyne, Tees and Humber…Thames and Medway…
What are the risks? Obviously, we don’t want the idea of county amalgamation to take hold, but the reputational damage of counties turning out sub-standard teams is more dangerous.
All a pipedream I know, but I suspect that many readers would turn up to these games rather than either the Hundred or a sub-standard Championship.