LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
The tricky business of county cricket
After extensive professionalisation, the English county cricket clubs are on the downswing, offering a product that seems to attract no one.
In a few weeks the India squad will arrive on these shores to commence a demanding two-month tour, playing four Tests, five ODIs and one Twenty20, plus matches against county sides. The Test series, in particular, looks set to be a stiff challenge for both sides and the result may well seal the top spot in the international Test rankings for one or the other.
The tour will offer English-based cricket-lovers their last chance to see Sachin Tendulkar at the crease, and even the most dedicated England supporters will not want him to go home without adding to his record tally of centuries. For fans here, Tendulkar is the embodiment of Indian cricket who transcends Indian cricket. He's the symbol of a particular era — the era of India's rise to new global status — and a batsman for all time, a standard setter, a supreme exponent of a classical art.
These days, only India and Australia can regularly fill English Test grounds, so it's vital for the ECB's finances that the tour is a big success. The media-monopolising English football season will start long before the Indians finish their duties here, so there will have to be some exciting cricket to maintain public attention in a crowded marketplace.
But even the most scintillating international season will not lift the long-term gloom surrounding England's domestic cricket. The 18 first class counties are carrying unsustainable debts, facing increased costs and a wholly inadequate revenue stream.
In the last 20 years, county cricket has slipped far behind club rugby as a spectator-draw, and, of course, is a mouse compared to the mammoth of football. The administrators have repeatedly redesigned the product — tinkering with competition formats, division and conference structures — but nothing has quite worked. It was thought the Twenty20 format, developed in England before it was seized by the IPL, would bring new audiences and new money to the game. For a couple of years it seemed to be succeeding. But attendances are now in decline and the ECB has already decided to shorten next year's competition. Whatever its virtues — and for me they're limited in the extreme — Twenty20 has failed to do what it was originally designed to do: provide a financial subsidy for loss-making first class county cricket, which in turn supplies the talent for the England side that is the only element in the English game that actually makes money, principally through the sale of TV rights.
As ever, the problem remains fitting the old game, whose classic forms were shaped in social conditions long since superseded, into the cultural and commercial space currently available to it.
In trying to secure a share of the lucrative international match programme, several counties have upgraded facilities at huge expense, incurring long-term debts that they can barely service. The pressure is to stage more and more cricket, especially more and more international cricket, but with that expansion comes a decrease in the value of each match.
It's a business now
In the last two decades, county cricket has undergone extensive professionalisation. Most clubs have incorporated themselves as business entities, leaving members with only a residual veto power. An ever larger proportion of expenditure goes on non-cricketing staff, who at most clubs now outnumber cricketers by two or three to one. The business staff are necessary because without them the club cannot secure the revenue it needs and cannot compete for ECB largesse, but of course they add to costs.
The upshot is that while the counties have all become much bigger businesses than they were, with much higher financial turnovers, they are in general reporting greater losses and incurring greater levels of debt, while offering a product that most spectators would say is of inferior quality to what was on show at county grounds in the not so distant past. Clearly, the enterpreneurial model is not delivering, even in its own narrow terms. English cricket is working ever harder, investing (and borrowing) ever more, just to stand still, or at least not fall too far behind.
On top of this, domestic cricket will be hit hard by the government's far-reaching assault on public services. Cuts in education, local government and sports budgets will deprive counties of vital income support, through the drying up of grants, loans and cooperative agreements.
There is a sad reality underlying county cricket's problems, which is that the central place cricket holds in the English mythos does not correspond to its actual place in British society. Even a competitive title deciding county championship match attracts only about 4,000 spectators. Big name sponsors have made a sober appraisal of county cricket's appeal and looked elsewhere for branding rights. It was hoped that Twenty20 would attract a supermarket chain, soft drink or footwear giant — but it has ended up with an insurance company. Is this a symbolic seal on the future of the domestic game?
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