ECB premier league vision fades with Home Counties break-up

The ECB’s drive to bolster professional cricket by focusing on a premier league structure has been quietly shelved, and there have been suggestions that the policy has actually been reducing the number of active players in club cricket, with standards in decline during the recession.

Lord MacLaurin’s celebrated report Raising The Standard, published in 1997, wanted to see a wider base of players available to county cricket along Australian grade cricket lines. The envisaged pathway was premier clubs and the 38 county boards – plus county second XI – but this has proved unsustainable.

There was real evidence that priorities in the shires had changed when Hertfordshire clubs decided to leave the Home Counties Premier League, splitting one of the country’s strongest set-ups in half. Days later Farnham Royal CC announced they were withdrawing from the league, owing to an exodus of players.

There was general tweeting consternation when the realisation dawned that the semi-professional league would lose its eastern sector in 2015, leaving behind the Thames Valley and Cherwell clubs in the west.

Monday, 28 October, was the landmark date when Hertfordshire voted 19-5 to quit, a surprisingly wide margin that seemed to say ‘enough is enough’. Formed in 2000, the Home Counties pyramid gradually began to draw in clubs from the edge of Essex in the east to the far side of Oxfordshire in the west, raising the prospect of a three-hour round trip in some cases. The quality of cricket was often high, but at the very start it was clear that travel time and petrol cost might become an obstacle to acceptance.

From the Hertfordshire snapshot, some evidence emerged of participation shrinkage, and the Club Cricket Conference, an organisation dedicated to increasing the number of cricketers, has expressed concern at the premier league burden. Clubs already shoulder the responsibility of mass youth development to fill the void left by the collapse of the game in state schools.

Alf Langley, the CCC chairman, said: “High quality players, perhaps with family responsibilities, might not have time to play the 120-over format, the original premier league model. Quite a number of leagues are introducing 50-over games, and it seems to us that the objectives must now switch from identifying players for professional cricket to encouraging enjoyment for the vast majority within a sensible budget.”

Paul Cunnington, the Farnham Royal chairman, explained why his club had opted out of Division Two West after most of the first team left for a variety of reasons at the end of the 2013 season. Noting that the gap between first and second teams had become too wide, he said: “To remain playing at the same level nearly a whole new first team requires recruiting, and at this level new players will expect to be paid. Given we are in the process of buying the freehold of the ground, the committee have decided this is not a sustainable option.”

Undoubtedly playing standards and facilities at club level have improved, but the recruiting gap between county cricket and the recreational sector remains as wide as ever. Thanks mainly to Sky broadcasting income, professional cricket has turned to youth academies, not premier leagues, and the usual county age-group squads to source players.

Paul Bedford, the ECB official with responsibility for recreational cricket, agreed that the landscape had changed. He said that county second XI cricket had been strengthened by better funding. The premier league structure, costing about £400,000 a year in hand-outs, had driven up the quality of facilities as planned, but the main focus had been redirected. “Clubs now provide a high-quality environment to enable young players to progress,” Bedford said. The hoped-for direct link with county cricket was never made.

Ian MacLaurin, a fine batsman in his days at Welwyn Garden City CC before diverted by his glittering career at Tesco, had a vision for strengthening the England game when he became ECB chairman. His club cricket reasoning seemed sound enough, but in practice his hopes were never going to be realised.

The thrust of Lord MacLaurin’s ECB report was to harness club cricket more effectively. Amid a raft of other reforms, his report said: “The network of premier leagues will provide a greatly enhanced standard of competition for the top 2,000-plus recreational cricketers.”

“Above this network of leagues there is a need to provide the best possible refining feeder system in the first class game. At the moment the only real feeder for first class cricket is the Second XI circuit which is, in the main, a closed shop made up of contracted professionals.”

The report noted there was a “real desire” to see smaller county staffs. “There are too many contracted players who have no real chance of playing first-team cricket on anything like a regular basis.”

This was true. The ECB funded well over 300 full-time professionals in the 18 counties, too many of them mediocre. The Board believed the time had arrived to open up the game so that the finest club players had the best chance of progressing to the professional level – hence the focus on premier league clubs and county boards. “When the time is right, the 38-county competition will completely replace Second XI cricket as the feeder for the first class game. The objective is for this to be achieved by the year 2000.” Pie in the sky, as we now know.

In December 2004, seven years later, doubts were being raised about the MacLaurin club and county board strategy. A report headed by David Dolman, under the title of Strategic Plan For Cricket, found that the function and performance of county boards varied and that there was a “lack of clarity” in their purpose.

Dolman’s report reckoned that the clubs and the professionals were still miles apart. “Several stake holders, representing the view of community cricket, stated that the first class counties were not interested in club cricket, and in particular premier league cricket, although this was strongly refuted by some of the first class county chief executives.”

The report’s sole conclusion on this point was: “The game is perceived to be fractured and comprises two distinct ‘camps’ at the present time, with little empathy between each.” And the role of county boards had not advanced beyond providing coaching resources and organising age-group development.

In financial terms the value of the ECB’s county 2nd XI and academy set-up is still questionable, but there is no evidence that even the premier league super-clubs are especially beneficial to the professional circuit beyond producing age-group players. For example, Ealing have long dominated the Middlesex League, Wimbledon in Surrey, Preston in Sussex; York have been the strongest club in the Yorkshire League for years; High Wycombe and Henley have almost monopolised the Home Counties League titles; Finedon-Dolben won the Northants League 10 times in the first 13 seasons from 1997. Achieving high status is laudable without reference to county cricket.

The Club Cricket Conference is concerned about any financial damage caused by the ECB league network. The introduction of better competition from 1997 encouraged clubs to stretch their budgets by embracing a fixture list of all-day games and perhaps spending on semi-professional players – sometimes significant amounts that a small club could not sustain. Langley said: “We certainly applaud the competitive sharpness of league cricket and the better facilities, but there has to be a limit and a more flexible attitude towards the format. Commitment isn’t restricted to player fees or petrol costs. Providing team lunches, for example, is compulsory in the all-day matches and can be expensive.”

In 2013 the gap between club and professional county remains as wide as ever. So this has left the original purpose of the premier league network open to question. The ECB concede as much. Nowadays the best part of the Maclaurin vision is that club players have become accustomed to a high level of cricket in good facilities.

The Herts disaffection with the Home Counties pyramid seems to underline the CCC concerns. A number of past and present players tweeted their despair at the break-up of the Home Counties Premier League, a seemingly perfect ECB model, but they did not take into account the reality of running cricket clubs. The standard had been high, perhaps as high as any league in the country. It was true that Henley and High Wycombe, two clubs with funding for semi-professional players, tended to dominate, but other clubs could at least enjoy aspiring to the heights…

The tweeting omitted to mention that the best young players could still reach their potential in minor counties and pro 2nd XI, not to mention occasional Club Cricket Conference representative games.

Sizeable financial deficits among some clubs, perhaps many, appeared after the wet 2012 season, and evidence emerged that standards were actually dropping, not improving. In October 2012 Barry Hellewell, secretary of the Saracens Herts League, issued a worrying report on the back of a club survey of Hertfordshire clubs in Home Counties Division One and Division Two East and the county’s top feeder league.

Hellewell said: “The imposition of the longer game within Home Counties Premier League, coupled with the consequent earlier start times and increased travel, has led to the more mature club player with family and perhaps job commitments not being able to afford the time to play at the top level and in many cases giving up the game altogether. The average age of most sides in the league has fallen dramatically over the last 10 years, and the general opinion is that the standard, certainly in Division Two East, has dropped.”

He added: “No Hertfordshire side has won Home Counties division one since its formation, and with the honourable exception of Welwyn Garden City in 2010, no side has come close. It may be that the larger ‘town’ sides from Bucks, Berks and Oxon, who have provided the winners, have larger catchment areas and/or can afford to pay ex-county pros and others handsomely.”

One factor that appears to have influenced the heavy Herts vote was disaffection with the management of the Home Counties League, judging from comments, and it was interesting that in response the Home Counties League committee called an extraordinary meeting to formally expel Hertfordshire clubs, scheduled for 13 November at High Wycombe. The reasoning was for a clean break as soon as possible to save Harpenden, North Mymms and Radlett from an uncertain 2014 in Division One.

The proposed Herts set-up expects to retain the sponsorship of  Saracens Rugby Club, strong supporters for many years, and it seems likely, in Bedford’s view, that the Herts and reshaped Home Counties will both be awarded premier status.

Radlett, with their chairman Tony Johnson doubling as chairman of the Herts League, issued a statement explaining the club’s decision to vote with the breakaway. Their reasons centred on “recruiting, producing and retaining high quality cricketers” and the split would leave the league free to look at innovations such as coloured clothing and a showpiece game at perhaps Lord’s or the Oval.

Johnson said: “Players want to be tested at the highest level, and while that is understandable it is not always sustainable.” His comment summed up perfectly the flaw in the MacLaurin vision and a drawback with the ECB premier league network.

This article has appeared on the Club Cricket Conference website

www.club-cricket.co.uk

 

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