County cricket still a treasure - but under threat
Apr 10 2008 By George Dobell, Chief Cricket Writer
'Don't it always seem to go, that you don't know what you've got till it's gone?'
I'm fairly sure that Joni Mitchell wasn't thinking about the degradation of county cricket when she wrote Big Yellow Taxi, but her words do seem apt as a new county season gets under way.
For years county cricket boasted the best players in the world. Sobers, Richards (Viv and Barry), Marshall, Warne, Hadlee, Murali, Lara and Donald are just a few of those who we've been lucky enough to see.
Yet fewer than 1,000 people came to watch Shane Warne's final game at Edgbaston last summer while Dale Steyn, now the world's leading fast bowler, also performed in front of an almost empty stadium on several occasions. We'll be lucky to see much more of such talents.
Indeed, as Sussex and the MCC begin the traditional curtain-raising fixture at Lord's this morning, storm clouds are gathering over the domestic game. The Indian super leagues and the increase in international cricket represent the gravest threat to county cricket in living memory.
The lure of the Indian leagues has robbed the counties of the rich seam of talent they have mined for years. It is inevitable that more English players will join the Indian Premier League in months to come.
Fair enough. You can't blame players for wanting to make a living. But do remember Kevin Pietersen's words the next time you see him kiss his England badge. The three lions should be replaced with a dollar sign.
Player power is one of English cricket's substantial problems. The ECB and PCA (the players' union) are staffed to the rafters with former players who couldn't cut it in the real world and have, at every turn, backed players over spectators.
The reason for shorter tours? Player power. The reason for fewer overs in a day of championship cricket? Player power. The emergence of a transfer market? Again, player power. Every worrying development in the game can be laid at the feet of players who want to make more money in a shorter period of time.
They've failed to value and, as a consequence, protect the English game. For years many in the media peddled the myth that county cricket was slow and watched by one man and a dog. It was nonsense, but it was also damaging. More worryingly, it is partially self-fulfilling.
To make matters worse, the best English players are also denied us through central contracts. The result is that the quality of the championship has been compromised. The difference between division one and two of the championship has become enormous.
It is, therefore, a crying shame that the England and Wales Cricket Board have sought to add to the problem by trying to ban those players involved in the (rebel) Indian Cricket League. Quite how the ECB think that banning the likes of Shane Bond makes English cricket stronger or more attractive to sponsors and spectators — I don't know.
The ECB's decision to embrace the IPL but shun the ICL is simply perverse. Neither organisation offers the ECB any money, yet the ICL, at least, takes place out of the English domestic season. Only the ECB could sell their soul and not get any money for it.
Fortunately it seems inevitable that the ECB's decision will be challenged legally. It is manifestly unjust that some who play in the ICL, such as Bond, are banned and others, such as Mushtaq Ahmed, are not, while the likes of Darren Maddy and Vikram Solanki can feel justly aggrieved that they are being prevented from earning a living as they see fit in the English winter.
These are not the only challenges facing the counties. With more and more clubs lured into the battle to host international cricket, vast sums are being invested in bigger and better stadiums. On the face of it that might seem good news. Yet there is only so much international cricket to go round and the concern is that some counties may struggle to repay their loans.
Perhaps of more immediate concern is the ECB's response to the threat of the Indian leagues. One possibility is the founding of their own league, built around city franchises instead of counties. If it happens it will be a nail in the coffin of the counties.
Yet county cricket will surely endure. It may be unappreciated by large parts of the media and the governing body of English cricket, but it still represents everything that is good about the game.
A new generation of heroes will emerge. In the likes of Steve Finn, Stuart Meaker, Moeen Ali, Adil Rashid and Michael Munday, there should be a new generation of exciting cricketers to watch this summer. There is still no finer place to be in the world than a county ground in April. Enjoy it while you can.