Two articles dropped this week which made rather depressing reading for cricket lovers. The first was The Cricketer’s excellent interview with ECB CEO Richard Gould. For those of you who haven’t seen it, Gould made it clear that not only does he see The Hundred as the future of English cricket but he believes that “premium” Test series, i.e., those against India and Australia will no longer be played in August so as to give the Hundred a clear window. Allow that statement to sink in for a moment. There is so much to unpick here. First of all, how insulting it is to the other nine countries that play Test cricket to say, if not in so many words, that they are now second-tier nations in the minds of the ECB. Teams with as proud a history in the game as West Indies, South Africa and Pakistan, to name but a few, will now play second fiddle to a bunch of cricketers running round dressed as crisp packets.
Gould also appeared to confirm that private investment in The Hundred will almost certainly go ahead, raising the possibility of England playing second string sides in Test matches against all but the rest of the Big 3. After all, the businessmen who have invested vast amounts of money in their Hundred teams will hardly be happy to see their marquee players lost for the majority of the competition. Presumably, the touring sides will also be fielding weakened Test teams as their best players will have been poached by The Hundred, Major League Cricket or whatever other franchise competition has been dreamed up by the moneymen in the meantime.
By admitting this, Gould is openly admitting that the ECB sees the future of Test cricket as a contest involving the best players in the world as something played between just a trio of nations. Name any other sport that has only 3 national sides playing at an elite level, go ahead I’ll wait.

The enshrinement of the Hundred in the height of the summer means that Gould and the ECB will continue to pay only lip service to the concerns of county members who, it appears, will have to accept that county cricket, in any format, will never again be played at the height of the English summer. Not only is this a betrayal of the very roots from which the English game has grown but it is also remarkably short sighted from a business perspective. Gould openly admits that the majority of Test match tickets, still the economic bread and butter of the ECB, are bought by county members. Alienating them even further in pursuit of a mythical “new” audience for the game seems like an extremely short sighted move.

We often hear that Sky Sports is the driving force for the Hundred but the vast majority of the lucrative TV deal depends on Test Match cricket so downgrading it to almost a “B” team sport every other year seems very unwise to say the least.

Gould is not the only leading figure in the game that has spoken out this week however. The outgoing head of the Professional Cricketer’s Association, Rob Lynch, was interviewed by Ali Martin in The Observer and, in his zeal for money making, managed to make Gould seem like Mother Theresa in comparison.  

Lynch has consistently pushed for a reduction in County Championship matches for his members, citing player workload. He weakens his own argument though, by relentlessly trumpeting the endless franchise opportunities for English cricketers. Player workload is a serious issue and there can be no getting away from this but it’s funny how it only ever seems to matter on a cold morning in Derby and never when a six–figure salary in Abu Dhabi is at stake.

Consider this quote from Lynch in the interview “If we as a game don’t get this next phase of the sport right I believe we will have English-developed players who will look at their calendar and see July and August as the time to lie on a beach in Spain because, right now, the Hundred and the Blast are some of the lower-earning opportunities”.

If this quote is an accurate assessment of the mindset of the modern cricketer then it makes for considerably depressing reading. Lynch goes on to say that he sees a future where cricketers are independent contractors, travelling the world with their own individual coaching team in the manner of golfers, choosing which competitions to enter.

If this is the case, then it begs the question what is the point of cricket or indeed cricketers? If a sport exists purely to make money then it loses all meaning and context. Even the Premier League, one of the most rapaciously money making organisations in the world, exists in the context of clubs which can trace their origins back to workers in the 19th Century and provide a focal point for community, family and emotion.

Franchise cricket provides none of this. Indeed, players often leave one tournament early to go to the next, higher earning, competition. The IPL is now a legitimate sporting league with context and passionate fans but it is the only one. Nothing that happens at any other franchise league will be remembered in 10 years’ time whereas the deeds accomplished in the fields of Test and First Class cricket are still talked about after 100 years. It is hard to imagine that the majority of professional players see earning capacity as the sole way to define the worth of their careers. The distain with which a lot of elite players hold the county teams that developed them is clear but surely feats achieved in the heat of an Ashes battle or in the colours of their country hold more value to them then a run a ball 30 in the uniform of the Cape Town Cashchasers or the Southern Pombears. Perhaps I am being naïve but I hope that there is more value to our game than that.

Last week I made my first visit of the season to my beloved Wantage Road, home of Northamptonshire CCC. It was like medicine for the mind. The Supporters Club-run bookstall had been replenished with an even more splendid treasure trove of cricket volumes. The play was enthralling without the need for DJ’s or tinny music blaring through speakers and plenty of skill was on show. I couldn’t help but reflect on what the ever-maligned band of county cricket enthusiasts like me could do to stem the relentless gaudy tide of franchise cricket. Are we like King Cnut failing to hold back the sea or do we actually have a chance of preserving the thing we love?  I don’t pretend to know the answer but I do know that the men who know the price of everything and the value of nothing will never understand what this thing means to us.

What we can do, though, is to support our ailing game more then ever. Go and watch your county as often as you can, take out a membership if you can afford one. Visit other grounds and drink in the joy of county cricket as much as you can for we do not know how long we will be able to taste of its simple beauty.

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