Rebellion in the shires as counties consider response to Strauss Review

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County members are revolting. Well, the ECB have been saying that in private for years. But this time revolution really is in the air as county cricket traditionalists try to rally opposition to the Strauss Review which critics believe, if implemented in full, risks death by stealth of the 18-team professional system.

For all the clamour, even if their disgust morphs into united opposition, will the views of county members carry any weight? Fifteen of the 18 counties purport to be members’ clubs, and clubs have long become skilled in mollifying them and then doing largely as they please. But this time, unlike when the Hundred was introduced, many have been forced to promise greater consultation. This time members are flexing their muscles.

Strauss wants less, more intense cricket, combined with greater rewards for elite players to dissuade them from forever rushing off to worldwide franchised T20 tournaments, and weakening the international game in the process.

But county members are joining national bodies, forming action groups, penning angry letters, and launching petitions on change.org. The majority are ever more dismayed by what they perceive as the ECB’s high-handed and dismissive attitude to the professional game as it traditionally exists. The air is full of rebellion.

Can they really have an influence the length and breadth of the country before a vote on the future structure of the professional game, changes that will need support from at last 12 of the 18 counties?

And, furthermore, do members really speak for county cricket followers across England and Wales at a time when the largest county crowds are for white-ball competitions that attract thousands of casual spectators without membership rights?

Some counties are actively considering extending membership rights to white-ball spectators – an extension of members’ rights not just to those who watch Championship cricket, but to those who watch county cricket. Warwickshire, for example, also offer full voting rights to anyone who buys a joint 50-over and Blast season pass. The policy risks an outcry, but it would seem to be a natural democratic response to changing times.

Further justification for such a development can be found in the gradual shrinking of county membership from around 70,000 in 2005 to roughly 55,000 today – a fall influenced only to some degree by the disruption caused by Covid-19.

As yet, no county has opted to scrap membership entirely, although Surrey and Lancashire are probably rich enough to attempt to do so.

The Strauss proposals in their current form appear to have no chance of being adopted without considerable compromise. Predictably, the non-Test-playing counties have been most shaken by what they see. Essex, Kent, Sussex and Leicestershire have been among the immediate critics. Derbyshire, Northamptonshire and Worcestershire are expected to be of similar mind. Somerset are hedging their bets, aware of the vague possibility that they might yet share a south-west Hundred team with Gloucestershire and settle into a happier ECB-approved future.

The crisis for county cricket is stark. If adopted, the High-Performance Review proposals could reduce the amount of county cricket played by one-third in the name of serving England’s needs, and leave August an even bigger black hole for county cricket than it is now. It is August that is the biggest insult of all with the Hundred envisaged as taking place alongside a hotchpotch of regional red-ball matches and Lions games, which might provide useful red-ball practice for England’s Test contenders but which would leave county cricket even more excluded.

It is no solution. For many, it is an abomination. Not that a solution is easy to find. Even advocates of the Hundred cannot easily deny that it sits in midsummer like a blue whale, feeding on the plankton of 400 or so professionals as it pleases, while the counties scuttle around on an increasingly polluted seabed, downgraded and ignored.

At least the current solution – playing the Hundred alongside the Royal London Cup – has maintained surprising popularity as a 50-over developmental competition and gives the counties a supporting role.

As divisive as the Strauss proposals are, the mood can change once deals are struck behind the scenes (the counties voted for the Hundred in the first place, after all). Opposition is likely to be voiced county by county in the meantime, with no national body quite possessing the kudos to express supporters’ views.

The Cricket Supporters Association is the original and most broad-based body, and its reputation is steadily growing. The fact it strives to be representative of all opinions has given it an uneasy dialogue with the ECB. But its most recent survey, while showing overwhelming support for a County Championship that the ECB wants to trim from 14 to 10 matches, only got 3,704 responses. That does not illustrate a national outcry. And an analysis of its demographic played into the ECB’s hands: 92 percent white, 90 percent male, 66 percent aged 45 or over.

“Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” will be the ECB’s predictable response. And, as the ECB partly funded the report, presumably they feel they have a right to do pretty much as they please with the findings.

They did exactly that, twisting the results of the survey with some disingenuous data selection by brazenly stating that a majority of supporters were unhappy with the current schedule while not pointing out some inconvenient truths, such as the fact that most of their disenchantment was caused by the Hundred and that 65 percent do not think the ECB are considering existing supporters when making decisions about the future of the game.

A more militant defender of the faith – albeit in its infancy – is the County Cricket Members Group which now claims a following of 6,000. It is more openly hostile to the Hundred, and portrays itself as a staunch defender of the county system. Alan Higham, its national co-ordinator, said: “The key problem with the High-Performance Review is that it inflicts mortal damage onto the 18-county system.”

County Cricket Matters is more a modern pamphleteer, with an online presence, than a body around which county loyalists can coalesce politically. Nevertheless, editor Annie Chave believes: “The voice of those who love the county game has largely been ignored in recent years. Worse, it has been disparaged and dismissed. I think most counties have mobilised enough members to get their vote to count so yes, it is perfectly possible that the 15 member-owned counties could take control. It all depends on timescale.”

Many counties have urgently scheduled members’ forums to consider the Strauss Review. Worcestershire are holding two next week – their chair, Fanos Hira, suggested last month that it was “unnecessarily alarmist” to claim that counts could go to the wall and it will be interesting to see if his opinion has changed now the report’s findings have been issued.

Even advocates of the Hundred cannot easily deny that it sits in midsummer like a blue whale, feeding on the plankton of 400 or so professionals as it pleases, while the counties scuttle around on an increasingly polluted seabed, downgraded and ignored.

Derbyshire are another county holding a members’ meeting next week with members also able to attend via Zoom. One person bound to be voluble is David Griffin, the county’s photographer and statistician, and a former committee member, and now among a growing number of Twitter activists as his pre-play videos warn about “the destruction of the county game”.

Griffin, as befits a statistician, has done the sums about the Strauss Review. He tweeted: “Assuming no qualification for knockout rounds, and all games are played to their maximum number of overs – no rain – here’s the number of overs a county would potentially play in 2024, with comparisons; 2024 – 4,340 overs; 2022 – 6,736 overs; 1991 – 10,048 overs.”

For the moment, the Test-match counties largely keep their own counsel and it is these counties that could first come into conflict with their members.

The most active Action Group is in Lancashire- an “awkward squad”, according to The Guardian – whose relations with the chief executive, Daniel Gidney, have long been strained. The group is implacably opposed to modernisation and is gathering signatures to force a Special General meeting. The Lancashire Board has promised a “binding vote” on the Strauss report during the Surrey game at Old Trafford next week, but the Group tweeted: “Who knows what stunt they will try next. We have the numbers to call an SGM & are watching them closely. County cricket is on the precipice. All members have to stand up for their Club now before it is too late.”

The more rural counties may need no bidding to follow their members’ wishes. Many have already been hostile to the High-Performance Review, sensing that the ECB is not overly concerned about their survival.

Proposals for more performance-related payments – dependent, for example, on a county’s ability to provide players for England – and the gradual aligning of the Test-playing counties with their supposedly independent Hundred franchises are just two areas that make the smaller counties apprehensive.

Kent’s chair Simon Philip was quick off the mark this week: “The Strauss Review is a wide-ranging and comprehensive document. However, it should be remembered that it has been prepared through the prism of high-performance only. We will not allow our club to be rendered irrelevant.”

Jon Filby, chair of Sussex, has been of similar mind. “Strauss’ High-Performance Review is equally unworkable as far as county cricket is concerned,” he said. “When looked at through the lens of high performance it is exactly what the game needs. But we are not only looking through the lens of high performance. We are looking through a financial and commercial lens. We are looking through the eyes of our members who have cricket that they want.”

Sean Jarvis, CEO at Leicestershire, has also been vociferous. “It equates to about a quarter-of-a-million-pounds loss of income. It is going to threaten our survival as a first-class county. It really does potentially put a nail in the coffin. We can’t allow that to happen. There are a lot of clubs out there who are in a similar position.”

There are many well-reasoned proposals in the High-Performance Review, even if much of it boils down to obvious stuff like more seminars for coaches, use of the latest data and psychology information, and developing leadership groups with greater diversity in specialisms and backgrounds.

But if the aim of this report really is to maximise elite talent as possible, then that is best achieved by 18 centres of excellence, every one of them under pressure to be less reliant on the pathways provided by the private school system and more committed to discovering the most talented from all areas of society. Reference to diversity in leadership groups without considering the failure to build a diverse playing staff, by providing opportunities for all, is a glaring omission.

The County Cricket Members Group has also drawn that conclusion. Higham said: “The game does face major challenges: the report into Equity in English cricket will again lay bare the barriers in place for those from ethnic or different social backgrounds in the game at local and national levels. Whether it is prejudice, or the long-standing cliquey nature of cricket run by a closed group, it certainly closes off access and participation from a game that should unite people from all backgrounds and political views. The HPR is silent on barriers to entry such as effective links to clubs, funding and support of the grassroots, costs of county pathways and a focus on fee-paying schools.”

Inconsistencies of thought are never far away: the usual criticism of poor county pitches and an inability to play long innings come at a time when county pitches have improved, even in early season, yet scores in Test matches involving England are often lower and are completed in fewer overs. The wherewithal to play attritional innings has been abandoned for the enterprise of Bazball – an approach now deemed to fit a more impatient age. Indeed, Ben Stokes, England’s captain, advocates the retention of 14 Championship matches and says it is adventurous cricketers that will most impress him.

There is a sense, too, that this Review fits a more unashamed capitalist age, quickened both by the influence of India and the UK’s current political climate, where a communal system that took pride in mutual support is under pressure from a more naked capitalism approach where the rich – both elite players and the biggest clubs – will get richer and the rest will find their livelihoods and existence at risk.

Higham has sympathy for the counties’ predicament. “The county chiefs are in a difficult spot,” he said. “Many want to support the ECB, some gleefully, some with misgivings, but many can’t afford to do without setting their county on a death spiral. Those that refuse face poorer major match allocations and, more widely, the current ECB distribution ends in 2024. Over the next 12-18 months a new county participation agreement has to be agreed. Steps that offend the ECB could see reduced finances.

“The solution is to involve the counties and their members more in resolving the problems. Less centralisation and diktats, more collaboration. Cricket has a marked reluctance to engage its fans. It sees them purely as consumers, not stakeholders. It promises consultation and delivers tokenism.”

The new ECB chair, Richard Thompson, is a skilful diplomat of high intellect, with an affinity for county cricket. But quite how even he brokers a compromise is hard to see. He has sensibly slowed down the process in the hope of considered thought. But the introduction of the Hundred signalled a sea change in England’s professional game and the reverberations could only just be beginning.

David Hopps writes on county cricket for ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps

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