Andrew Strauss and Joe Root have England cricket in safe hands as County season kicks off

Scyld Berry
The Champions: Middlesex are ready to defend their County title, and the domestic game is in a good moment - PA

Baseball is cricket’s cousin yet the launch of the new county season bore little similarity to its counterpart in American sport.

Not a firework, not a celebrity, not a pom-pom in sight when the cricket season was launched on Monday in the music department of Merchant Taylors school in Northwood - not cricket’s most famous venue but Middlesex, last year’s champions, use it as one of their out-grounds and it came cheaper than Lord’s.

The introductory video broke down after 20 seconds. Being the school holidays, the clock above the stage was unadjusted and still one hour behind.

This was not symbolic, however, of the English game.

Quite the contrary: the England and Wales Cricket Board is up to speed, and the essential fact at this season’s start is that the sport in modern times has never been better governed than it is now.

Warwickshire leadership group: Jonathan Trott, Jim Troughton the Director of Cricket, Ian Bell the captain and Ashley Giles Credit: Getty

The presence on that stage of Angus Fraser and Ashley Giles - the directors of Middlesex and Warwickshire, and men of English oak - was vastly more important than pom-poms and PR.

They endorse the ECB’s seismic shift: basing the big money-earner of Twenty20 - virtually the counties’ only money-earner - on franchises in future.

“You can’t please everyone,” both of them said; and a governing body, if it even tries to, will fail.

Let us stand back to trace the sport’s evolution. Cricket followers of the first millenium AD were no doubt outraged when traditional fixtures like Eboracum v Londinium were scrapped after the Normans introduced new-fangled counties.

And now we are all being given the chance to shape the way our professional sport develops. If the county model for T20 remains robust, it will survive as a second competition after the introduction of the eight franchises in 2020.

Top woman: Director of England Women's Cricket Clare Connor Credit: Reuters

If not - and on this same stage Clare Connor, the ECB’s director of women’s cricket, made the point that counties had ceased to produce a good national women’s team and had to be replaced  by franchises - it will not survive.

Preserving the game as it is would only succeed in the short term. Research data, observation, anecdotal evidence, all combine to insist that cricket is diminishing in popularity, to the extent where it would become no more than a niche sport confined to suburbs, towns, and large but not small villages. The whole of championship cricket of last summer, spread around 18 counties over almost six months, was watched by 576,000 spectators.

The Big Bash meanwhile attracted a new demographic of Australian families, and the same model has to be tried here: true, Chelmsford and Taunton are full for Essex’s and Somerset’s T20 games, but their capacity is only a quarter of the 30,000 average for a Big Bash crowd.

The ECB is still human. The new campaign of All Stars, designed to attract children before they reach ten, will increase participation but only that of the existing middle-class by charging £40 per child per course; this does little to lure Afro-Caribbeans back to cricket.

The punishment meted out to Durham may have been consistent with big business, and penalties for banks, but was not in the traditions of cricket. Overall, however, the ECB is no longer reacting, and short-termist, but propelling the sport in the right direction so that cricketers can stride out this season with the future in safe hands.

The key has been having the right men in the right place: not only the ECB chairman Colin Graves, who knows business, and the chief executive Tom Harrison, who knows television, but Andrew Strauss, whose influence extends far beyond his directorship of the England team.

Master of his domain: Andrew Strauss at Lord's Credit: Action

Assuming the postal ballot confirms the changing of an article in the ECB constitution to allow franchises, this will be not a revolution but an evolution achieved by consensus, with everyone pulling together: the hallmark of Strauss whether as England captain or director.

So the cornucopia of a season which starts to unfold on Friday can be enjoyed with few qualms. If the highlights will be the four-Test series against South Africa and the Champions Trophy, there is also the experiment with day-night Test cricket - at Edgbaston against West Indies - and the pink ball, painted not dyed.

The first round - though not match - of championship cricket with a pink ball will be staged in late June; and the advantage of having an even number of teams in each division - eight in the first, ten in the second - is that all counties can play simultaneously.

Oh captains my captains: England's Test and ODI skippers Joe Root and Eoin Morgan Credit: AP

Middlesex and Warwickshire will be two of the counties contesting the championship title, along with Surrey and Yorkshire. Middlesex, who play in the style of a four-day Test, have so many pace bowlers that they have already loaned out James Harris, who featured in their one-wicket win against MCC in Abu Dhabi. Whichever county wins the title has to possess a good spinner: a gradual revival of spin, from rock bottom, has been more Strauss engineering.

Eight England players are taking part in the Indian Premier League, not only cashing in but gaining big-match experience which will help the six who play in the Champions Trophy: again this has been engineered by Strauss and consensus, not like the West Indian board which prefers confrontation, fall-outs and bans.

Another piece of planning enables all the England players to tune up for the Champions Trophy by participating in the county 50-over competition, as the Royal London One-Day Cup has been moved to early season.

All that remains is for England’s Test team to move forward again, as their white-ball teams have done under Eoin Morgan, having gone backwards last year. A new strike bowler is surely required if England are to win in Australia this winter, but now Joe Root has taken over, the Test captaincy as well is in another pair of safe hands.

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