Little is expected from England's cricketers in the world cup. The economics of county cricket is to blameby / March 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in March 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
The county ground, Northampton, early September. One of the world’s best bowlers, Anil Kumble, is tying the green-helmeted Worcestershire batsmen up in knots. I have paid ?2 for the privilege of watching.
The weather was lousy and only about three hours of play was possible. But it still seemed remarkable value to see Northamptonshire’s Indian leg-spinner wheel away for 17 overs. Especially when I had the run of the sodden Northampton ground. There were, I guess, 200 other spectators.
How can this be good for English cricket? How can county cricket clubs survive on the meagre proceeds that sessions such as this produce? Players’ comparatively modest wages have something to do with it-?20,000 is about the norm for a season’s work. But the answer lies mainly in the large payments all counties receive from the Test and County Cricket Board, which runs the English professional game.
Each of the 18 counties receives about an equal share of the money the TCCB earns from test matches, sponsorship, broadcasting rights and the like. For a county such as Northamptonshire-which last year received about ?600,000-these funds amount to some 50 per cent of income. “If that money did not exist, not a single county could survive,” says Stephen Coverdale, Northamptonshire’s chief executive.
The trouble with the current system is that it eliminates most financial incentive for the club to do well on the field of play. In Coverdale’s words: “Success makes relatively little difference in financial terms.”
This situation is unlikely to foster competitive cricket at county level or to help in the development of players of test match calibre. Many would argue that England’s international record over the past 20 years bears this out.
How could the system be reformed? The key is to encourage keener competition on the cricket pitch by establishing a link between the hefty TCCB susbsidy-a last bastion of Soviet-style economics-and performance.
The amount counties get should be linked to their finishing position in the county championship and performance in the domestic knockout competitions. The element of financial uncertainty that such a reform would bring in its wake-combined with the need to pay for good players-would encourage counties to concentrate on maximising income from other sources, notably sponsorship and gate money. It would not be good enough for games to unfold in front of a couple of hundred subdued spectators on a Thursday afternoon.
With any luck, counties would do more than simply jack up admittance prices; they would turn their thoughts to how to change the structure of the domestic competitions to make them more popular. The most far-sighted would quickly draw two conclusions: first, that more games must take place when people can actually come to watch-not on Thursday mornings, when county championship matches routinely get under way; second, that there should be fewer games which count for nothing.
Here is the sort of blueprint they might come up with. Keep the NatWest Trophy-the one successful domestic competition-but scrap the Benson and Hedges Cup and the jaded 40-overs-a-side Sunday league. Instead, there should be a new midweek competition, a 40-overs-a-side Wednesday evening game under floodlights, designed to maximise the number of spectators.
As for the county championship, there is already talk of splitting the 18 teams into two divisions. It would be much better, however, to go one step further by creating three divisions of six teams each.
If two sides were promoted and two relegated every year, there would be few meaningless fixtures. Furthermore, a schedule of ten matches per season (with each side in a division playing all the others at home and away) would mean championship fixtures no longer had to coincide with test matches. Counties with players in the national team would no longer be obliged to do without their best performers for up to six games a year.
Better attendances could be further encouraged by starting the four-day matches on Fridays and playing straight through until the following Monday. There is a lot to be said for the side coming last in division three at least having to explain why it-and not the top minor county-deserved to keep its first class status. The prospect, however slim, of one day making it into the big league would provide a fillip for the minor counties game.
Proposals for a two or three divisional championship would be resisted by some counties. Coverdale says it is “very, very invidious to start promoting two division cricket.” But I have a feeling that my days of watching the world’s best players at bargain basement prices are numbered.