The former Hampshire captain Mark Nicholas, now better known as a television commentator, believes it would be *no shame” if some counties lost their first class status. He is a man who cares deeply about the game, but his words have been penned for the Magic Wand School of Thinking, an institution that serves no real purpose
Writing in the July issue of The Wisden Cricketer magazine, Nicholas believes that the battle among counties for financial survival is self-serving and damaging the game’s resources. “It would be no shame for some counties to relinquish their first class status. Derbyshire, Northamptonshire, Gloucestershire and Worcestershire – to name four of six or seven – exist for no obviously justifiable reason.”
Nicholas continues: “County clubs should be centres of excellence, but too many are not, employing mediocre cricketers from elsewhere. They stumble along the breadline, sustained by money from Sky. The argument made on their behalf by the chairman of the ECB, Giles Clarke, is equally self-serving.”
A Nicholas blueprint would see six counties removed to leave a 12-team competition playing a season of 11 four-day Championship matches, a 50-over league/cup competition and a Twenty20 competition with semi-finals and a final.
Based on a series of radical alliances and mergers Nicholas puts forward the idea of a new Premier League structure. “Imagine nine Test-match grounds in eight major cities creating a Premiership of Durham, Leeds, Manchester, Nottingham, Birmingham, London North and South, Southampton, Cardiff. Add three from Bristol, Brighton, Canterbury and Chelmsford and eureka, 12 – job done.”
Unfortunately this is not a practicable solution, so that Nicholas’s thoughts can never be anything but hot air. The words ‘self-serving’ implies criticism that is remarkably dismissive, and he would have been better off trying to think up something that can be done and which might work. Starting from scratch is not really an option.
The number of counties, 18, is the same ratio per head of population to cricketing states in Australia. Sport in the United Kingdom should be able to support this number, and with the advent of 20-overs cricket the ECB might well be able to reduce hand-out funding in the foreseeable future.
While it is true there are not enough players of the right calibre for a full-time professional circuit, there is no disgrace in signing up has-beens or foreigners to make up the numbers, provided this is not expensive. After all Surrey have hit lean times with few home-grown players in the first team, but no one would suggest they should become extinct.
Rather than reduce the number of counties, amalgamation with minor counties might be a more logical way forward, reducing administrative costs. Where feasible for travel, indoor schools and professional coaching staff could be shared. Gloucestershire — goodness knows why Mark Nicholas thinks that this important county should disappear — could amalgamate with Wiltshire and even Oxfordshire.
To some extent Middlesex have already formed a natural alliance with Hertfordshire by relocating their training base from Lord’s to Radlett, which has the advantage of widening their player cachment with a logical pathway after age group cricket. Seemingly an obvious choice for the cut, Derbyshire, could join with Staffordshire, tapping into Birmingham resources. Perhaps Somerset could join up with Devon. All this would mean the ECB could create a sensible cost-effective second tier out of the existing Second XI and Minor Counties competitions. This is a more pressing problem than ‘too many’ professional counties.
There is a strong argument that Twenty20 cricket should be fought between amalgamations in order to utilise the major grounds more often for greater revenue. The smaller counties should gain extra revenue from this, but this is another debate.