This post comes out of Twitter exchange with @LegsideLizzy, @ErikPetersen and myself on the subject of comments made by Muttiah Muralitharan on England’s domestic Twenty20 cricket competition. I hope I don’t misrepresent them in any way, and thank them for planting the seed in my head on a day when I had nothing better to do than end up thinking about this way to much.
The jist of the comments from Murali, which can be found here (the BBC website) are that the current T20 set up in England is “old fashioned”. He advocates a move to franchise teams and even merging counties.
To my mind, these are separate and distinct possibilities and are mutually exclusive. Both have enticing pro’s and both are fraught with potentially damaging cons, but both have the same end game, an English version of the IPL, with around 8 teams containing the cream of the county game and a half dozen of the world games top stars.
On the face of it, this would seem like a good thing, and indeed the model has been pretty successful around the world of the major cricketing nations. England however, may just be it’s nemesis.
In no other of the major nations is cricket so firmly entrenched. None of the other countries have an equivalent to the County Championship consisting of 18 teams. None of the other nations has such a small window of optimum weather to play all their cricket in. A window which seems to be opening and closing more over a longer period, but leaving fewer days where play is possible.
So, what do we need to get an “EPL” up and running?
On the basis that any team owner, whether it be a merged county set up or a franchise, is going to want to maximise their gate money and associated concession sales, then it would make sense to host these games at the existing venues. There are international class grounds available in Durham, Leeds, Manchester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Cardiff, Bristol and Southampton with a further two in London. The issue here is that these grounds are in use by the resident counties, and also for international commitments. A merger of existing counties would bypass one of these problems, and the necessity for star players would also alleviate the second as there would have to be a time frame created for this tournament with no clashing international cricket being played.
One of the points put forward this morning would have been the potential, within a franchise based model, for minor county areas such as Cornwall to bid for a franchise. Whilst a laudable aim, the lack of facilities would be a stumbling block that would need time to overcome. An investment of that ilk would also likely need guarantees of usage beyond the short EPL season. Franchise owners will need to be able to negotiate use of these grounds. Opening up the potential for regular franchise movement as each owner looks to sign a sweetheart deal with a city eager for a piece of the pie.
This last is one of the reasons “franchise” is seen as a bad thing in the UK. Clubs in the UK have a history and a sense of place generally because the have grown up organically there. MK Dons are derided as “Franchise FC” because the parachuted in from elsewhere. Fans, set in their ways with their county loyalties are unlikely to take to a merged set up because of the tainting of their team by a rival, nor are the likely to have an affair with a franchise. The fear of it moving as ownership chase greener pastures of cash being just part of it. Yes, rules could be drawn up preventing that sort of cash grab, but, that would just make the investment even less attractive to any prospective owner.
Any league needs teams. Currently the T20 is made up of the 18 First Class Counties, split into 3 groups of six, each team playing ten games. There are then quarter finals, and a finals day where both semi-finals and final are played.
For any move toward an IPL model, 18 is too many. The talent pool is left thinner as the best players have to be spread between the clubs. Looking at the other world leagues, numbers range from 5 in Zimbabwe to 11 in Pakistan. Of the key competitions any prospective EPL would look to be modelling itself on, in South Africa they have 7 teams, Australia 8 and India 9.
The simplest thing to do would then be to follow Murali’s lead and merge counties. This could conceivably cut the numbers to 9 or 8 with minimal fuss. A quick scan of the county cricket map could give:
- Leeds – based on Yorkshire
- Manchester – based on Lancashire
- Durham – initially felt they could merge with Yorkshire, but as I had no-one merging with Lancashire, there’s no way Yorkshire would’ve taken “help” if Lancashire weren’t getting any!
- Birmingham – taking in Warwickshire, Worcestershire and Gloucestershire
- Cardiff – Glamorgan based
- Southampton – joining Hampshire with Somerset and Sussex
- Nottingham – joining Notts with Derbyshire, Leicestershire and Northants
- North London – Middlesex and Essex
- South London – Surrey and Kent
Nine teams all playing at current international venues! Wait, did I say “with minimal fuss”? Hmm, anyone who saw the kvetching from the FA’s of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland over Team GB at the Olympics, knows this bird will fly about as well as the Dodo did.
So, we have to go to a franchise set up, right? Nine new sets of colours, nine city identities no doubt with an animal mascot bearing no resemblance to anything seen in that city. Sorry Superleague, but the only Rhino’s ever to have been in Leeds are plastic and on the shelves in Toys’r’Us. At least the clubs can generate publicity by having a naming competition, just so long as the Durham Durhams is one of the teams.
The obvious source of players for any merged counties is the county squads themselves, augmented by the overseas stars. The main gripe against the current system is that only two overseas players are allowed, and no England, or by extension, touring team players are included. Merging could solve one of those problems, in that, the best of each counties squad would become available, long with the finance for multiple overseas players, up to a limit of five or six if the IPL model is followed. Getting the England etc players in would require a change in the calendar to make this happen. A fully franchised model would mean practically everyone being put into a put to be auctioned/drafted, which is fine for those selected, but what about those many who would be surplus to requirements? A county cricketer’s lot is not an easy existence without making him surplus to requirements for a month in the middle of the season. None of the counties are going to want to play any form of cricket if the are shorn of their better players during this time period.
Administrators and ideas people love to talk of the potential of untapped wallets just waiting to be emptied into their laps, and there is no shortage of deluded people in these industries. One look at the “Apprentice” illustrates that. This idea does not rest on the “County Tragic” being enticed along, it’s all about the new audience, the young, sexy, cash to burn professional types. Oh…..
On the face of it, having counties merge, pooling their T20 budgets and resources would appear to make sense. For many, the share of the profits would probably be higher than it currently is. The theoretical bigger gates garnered by them playing at the bigger grounds, the possibly increased TV money would all aid this. But would it? There is a potential for fans to stay away. They identify with their counties and are likely to vote on any dilution/pollution of their team by staying away.
Similarly, a franchise model may not bring the fans flocking. For reasons mentioned above they may struggle beyond the initial curiosity phase to attract an audience. The big ticket for franchisees is the TV deal. SKY are the existing broadcasters, but would have to renegotiate regardless of the model used. The change in number of games and format would see to that. They’d also be likely to have competition. ESPN have links to Indian broadcasters and given the IPL nature of this venture it would seem to make sense to capitalize on increased interest from the sub-continent by getting broadcast rights. Even little ITV4 who go a bundle on the IPL might look to dip a toe in.
However, this all relies on finding 9 men or women with money to burn on a cricket tournament. In the middle of a recession.
The final conundrum, is when to play it. The English domestic season is already a Dante-esque mish mash of little windows for it’s various competitions, interspersed with International cricket, and regardless of how the teams are formed, this is going to be the single biggest stumbling block.
This years T20 contest runs from 12 June to 8th July, with quarter finals on 24th and 25th July and finals day 25th August. This won’t work for either of the new models. In order to keep all the big name players around, the tournament will need to be structured so it starts and ends within a single timeframe.
The initially run of four and half weeks ought to be enough to get a reduced format tournament played. With 9 teams, each team would have 16 fixtures. Add in the knockout games and it’s a 5 week window.
In that time frame, England play 3 ODI’s and a T20 against the touring West Indians. They then spend roughly two weeks playing a bolted on series of 5 ODI’s against Australia. They have a week off before starting a test series with South Africa.
There are very few fans, administrators or broadcasters who would have that program put on hold to allow players from England, West Indies, Australia or South Africa to play in a hit and giggle contest. I’d surmise most of the players would rather play in the international stuff too.
To my mind, the timing of this is the biggest stumbling block, as no matter which model is used, the clash with international cricket needs to be worked out. Something for greater minds than mine.
As indeed was this “article”. Maybe someone can make sense of it, but I wrote it, and I can’t.