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Changes to a Very British Game
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 1998 season.

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 season.

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:

Brian Murgatroyd
Press Officer, England and Wales Cricket Board
Lord's Cricket Ground, London, United Kingdom, NW8 8QZ
Telephone: +44 171 432 1200      Copyright ©1999, LLC