In April, English cricket's county championship will once again begin its domestic season. This year will see some changes which will include for the first time, championship games played as day/night affairs. Structural changes are also afoot that mean the cup competitions are organised rather differently than they have been in the recent past. One cannot accuse the ECB of shying away from trying to increase the appeal of the county game but the question does have to be posed about flogging not so much a dead horse but one who is critically ill.
One of the most depressing cricket stories from last year was the demise of Durham. For those of us who are unfamiliar with accountancy, it was difficult to fathom how the county had got itself into such difficulties. They are the youngest county and over recent years had achieved considerable success on the field. The club has produced many exceptional players and had been hosting international matches at is home stadium. One does not seek to analyse the underlying causes for the financial plight but to point out that if a county as seemingly successful as Durham can suffer in this way then others are likely to follow.
In previous blogs, I have highlighted that the tradition of British sport is to have many teams and cricket is no different. The split into two divisions has reduced the number of games but there is still a large number of teams due to the historical traditions of how the game was structured within England and Wales. The Sheffield Shield in Australia and the domestic competitions in the West Indies and New Zealand seem to operate on a six team domestic competition. There are advantages and disadvantages of having a larger competition but one of the issues facing the county championships is attendances for four day games and the question as to whether the longer formats of the game are actually still viable.
What seems to have been missed in the current debate on the future of cricket is this. Put yourself in the mind of a young person with a bit of cricket talent. You are being shown the likes of the BBL and the IPL and the kudos that comes with these tournaments. The colour, the lights, the sounds and (yes) the increased wage packet! T20 cricket has given a platform to a breed of player who would previously been cast into the wilderness and challenged the established principles of cricket. The batsmen whose defensive technique was suspect and temperament meant that the desire was to deposit each ball into the stands would have been a thanks but no thanks in days gone by. Bowlers who consistently hit a good line and length would have been praised as ideal in the past but good line and length today disappears to the boundary. The county season is shorter than it was but the longer format of the game also gives greater potential for injury. A talented player (particularly a bowler) is unlikely to want to play in a format that puts any suspect joint at increased risk. The prospect of missing a high profile T20 competition due to injury sustained in a county championship match represents a real possibility. The role models for the young will be in coloured clothing and the better players of the future are likely to want to be able to play in as many T20 tournaments as they can, rather than toil away in a sparsely attended four day game in a cold corner of England or Wales.
I note with interest the arrival on the scene of the young England opener Haseeb Hameed. His tour of India was sadly cut short by injury but his temperament and application impressed many a shrewd judge. Nicknamed "Baby Boycs" after the arch-blocker himself, one wonders whether there will be many more cricketers like Hameed in the future that appreciate the art of technique, shot selection and a reliable defence.
There will be many who point out that Test cricket remains the pinnacle and that four day cricket is the best preparation for this format. There is no doubt that Test cricket is still the most challenging format of the game. The issue here is that attendances at Test matches are going the way of the county championship in large parts of the world. To mine and many others great sadness, the enthusiasm for the longer format seems to be diminishing and this may only get worse as the better players choose to play a different format on the grounds of attendances, reduced injury risk, excitement, money, opportunity to travel and less work load among other potential reasons. What also does not help is one sided Test matches that seem to have become more prevalent over recent years.
Test cricket and county cricket share some of the same problems. The proposed new T20 competition in England and a second one in South Africa demonstrate the direction cricket is heading. One of the issues that exists with a new non-county T20 competition in England is that the better players are likely to turn up for that rather than the counties. It also runs the risk of creating a purely city focused version of the game.
It will be a very sad day should the county game become unsustainable but the challenge is on to keep it relevant and appealing. Other longer format competitions such as the Sheffield Shield in Australia are also struggling as fans and players turn to different formats. The ECB are certainly trying but one wonders whether there is a long term future for the oldest form of the game.