by John Stern, Hayters Sports Agency
''No change is no option," said Lord MacLaurin, of Knebworth, when he
launched the England and Wales Cricket Board's (ECB) blueprint for
cricket in August. A month later, the 18 first-class counties and the
Marylebone Cricket Club voted for the county championship to remain
almost exactly as it is.
For much of a season, which had been marked out as momentous in the
game's history, there was talk of splitting the county championship
into two divisions with promotion and relegation. Then Lord
MacLaurin's blueprint, entitled ``Raising the Standard'', came up with the
suggestion of three United States-style conferences of six teams each
with a series of end-of-season play-offs to determine final placings
from one to 18.
The suspicion was that, despite his own preference for the
two-division option, MacLaurin realised that the counties would not
accept such a radical change because of the fear of professional
ostracism and possible financial extinction would be the consequences
of second-division status.
So, this curious three-conference idea was dreamt up as a compromise.
Unfortunately for the ECB, the counties, at a meeting in early
September, decided that this particular option had little merit. This
forced the ECB to come up with what they called the ``enhanced''
championship, which is the option finally accepted by the counties on
15 September and what the nation's cricketers will play for in the
The new championship is based on a relatively simple concept. The
four-day county championship remains untouched - the 18 teams play
each other once, the winners, obviously, being crowned the champion
county. There is, however, additional incentive for counties to do
well in the championship because the top eight counties at the end of
the season will qualify for a high-profile and potentially lucrative
one-day "Super Cup", to be played in the early part of the following
For the bottom four counties in the championship is the ignominy of
having to play against each other in the first round of the next
season's NatWest Trophy as opposed to being drawn against a minor
county, which is the way the competition currently works.
"Raising the Standard" also proposed the formation of a one-day,
50-over National League with promotion and relegation to replace the
current 40-over Sunday League. The counties have accepted this
although the original fixture schedule that had each team playing 25
matches has been trimmed to 16.
Counties will have the freedom to schedule the matches when they wish
and floodlit games will be encouraged after this year's successful
experiments at Hove, Edgbaston and Old Trafford. There was a crowd of
around 15,000 at Edgbaston to see Warwickshire play Somerset under
floodlights and the ECB acknowledge that promotion of the game in
ways such as this are vital to the future of cricket at county level.
The "enhanced" County Championship will come into existence next season
while the National League and the Super Cup will commence in 1999.
The Benson & Hedges Cup has one more year to run as does the NatWest
Trophy in its present form. The Benson & Hedges will be disbanded
while the NatWest will be expanded to include more teams and justify
its oft-used label of "the FA Cup of cricket".
The premise on which all this reform is based is that the English
national team are not competitive enough and have not been for the
best part of a decade. England's defeat by Australia highlighted,
once again, how far England still need to progress to compete with
the very best sides in the world.
It is a widely held view that one of the reasons, if not the main
one, for this sorry state of affairs is the lack of competitiveness
in the county championship, the breeding-ground for Test cricketers.
County cricket has become stagnant and self-serving and where much of
the cricket played is no longer of a sufficient quality or intensity
to produce players able to withstand the technical and mental rigours
of the Test match game.
It is slightly curious as to why counties should be rewarded for
their performances in four-day cricket with entry into a
limited-overs competition but that aside there will certainly be
considerable incentives - financial and professional - to strive for
that top-eight finish.
Aside from the changes to the professional game, there are
substantial innovations for the game at grass roots level. The ECB
want to improve the standard of club cricket by forming a premier
league and to introduce two-day cricket at under-17 and under-19
level. The logistics of this may prove be nightmarish but there can
be no doubting the honour of the intentions.
For all the talk about making county cricket more competitive and
that, in turn, leading to a more competitive international side,
players have to learn the right habits and many of those habits are
formed before they even become first-class cricketers.
The intention is to raise the profile of the game at all levels and
also to improve quality of play and coaching at all levels. That is
what Lord MacLaurin and Tim Lamb, the ECB's chief executive, hope
will be achieved by the changes. Only a considerable amount of time
will tell whether they have been successful. However, they know that
the health of cricket in England depends on it.
For more information, contact:
Press Officer, England and Wales Cricket Board
Lord's Cricket Ground, London, United Kingdom, NW8 8QZ
+44 171 432 1200