ECB ploughs on with T20 extravaganza plan while counties scramble for cash | Vic Marks

Vic Marks
The Guardian
<span class="element-image__caption">Durham and Yorkshire players take to the field during a T20 Blast game last season, but the ECB’s new tournament will not include all counties.</span> <span class="element-image__credit">Photograph: Ian Horrocks/Getty Images</span>
Durham and Yorkshire players take to the field during a T20 Blast game last season, but the ECB’s new tournament will not include all counties. Photograph: Ian Horrocks/Getty Images

The panacea of English cricket, the new T20 competition scheduled to start in 2020, will be significantly advanced at the start of this week with the representatives of the counties meeting in London in advance of their Article 50 moment. At Lord’s they are poised to wave through a change in the constitution that will allow the England and Wales Cricket Board to create a tournament that does not include all the counties. Thus the way will be open for the promised T20 extravaganza.

There is no indication at this late stage that things will fail to go the way the ECB intends and so, in an echo of the wider world, the project ploughs on even though several of those voting in favour of it have grave reservations about its ultimate success.

The majority of the counties do not really have a choice. Forget the arguments or a measured analysis of the pros and cons. They desperately need the money and must snatch at any straw. While the ECB is sufficiently rich it can happily spend a couple of hundred grand or more on the North and South playing in front of 15,000 empty bucket seats in Abu Dhabi, the bulk of the counties remain impoverished and fearful for their futures, which applies as much in mighty Leeds as lowly Leicester.

The minds of the chief executives and chairmen will have been concentrated by this sentence in the proposals for the new T20 competition: “Each first-class county, which has signed the media deed, would receive a guaranteed minimum annual sum of £1.3 million.” So here – let’s be polite – is the inducement for the counties to back the ECB. Even those clubs with some financial independence are now inclined to fall into line to ensure that they do not miss out on their share of the ECB booty. “Hang the arguments; give us the money” is not the best backdrop for a measured debate. In 2020 several clubs will, in effect, be paid not to host cricket matches, a new twist akin to farmers receiving their set‑aside payments.

It is all about marketing rather than delivering a balanced domestic schedule and the marketers will surely find the figures to assure us that the new T20 competition will be a rip‑roaring success. Say it often enough and it will happen. This past week Tom Harrison, the ECB’s chief executive, even suggested it is more important for England to entertain than to win, which left many fans young and old scratching their heads. In our naivety we thought it was all about the contest.

Australia’s Big Bash has been the source of envy for the ECB and its inspiration. That competition has indeed captured new followers, in particular women and young children, and it has been a spectacular success. In Australia, with its balmy early evenings and spacious cricket grounds conveniently situated in the middle of their cities, those women and children, as well as their menfolk, have walked up in abundance, many inspired by what they have seen on free‑to‑air television.

In 2020 in England, after a new television deal, the plan is to guarantee that 10 of the T20 games will be shown on free-to- air TV, which is an interesting development. More than a decade ago, when cricket was lost to terrestrial audiences, there were assurances from the ECB that viewing patterns were changing so rapidly that this would not affect the accessibility of the game to the public. Now comes the tacit admission that this was not the case, which has been demonstrated by the recent impact of rugby union and racing on free‑to‑air channels. There are no “floating” viewers among the subscribers.

With or without free access on TV, it still requires a leap of faith to expect that English fans will flock so readily to Old Trafford or the Ageas Bowl as they do to the MCG or the Adelaide Oval. Moreover, unlike in Australia, there is the possibility of alienating the existing supporter of T20 cricket. Anecdotally there seems to be little chance that anyone living in Taunton is going to beetle up the motorway to Bristol to watch the new competition; but they would be there in numbers if Somerset were playing Gloucestershire. Likewise, Lancastrians are unlikely to cross the Pennines to watch a game at Headingley – if the ground is fit to be a host for the competition.

Again in contrast to the Australian model, there will be two T20 competitions rather than one in the 2020 season. The new one, which is designed to be the premier tournament, with three overseas players per squad, will take place in the last week of July and throughout August without the presence of any of England’s Test players. The existing NatWest Blast is scheduled for the end of May and June and will inevitably be devalued. Some may even come to regard that competition as “mediocre”.

Clearly there is a place for a major T20 tournament in the UK with all the trimmings, but is there really space for two? The NatWest Blast risks becoming an increasingly irrelevant sop for those counties that do not host matches in the new competition. Meanwhile, a decent county cricketer will now be required to play more than 20 T20 matches per season without ever participating in a 50-over game.

Last summer the NatWest Blast was less “mediocre” in terms of attendances than Colin Graves, the ECB chairman, might have expected. This year advanced ticket sales are up by 35%, which raises the question of whether a spectacularly successful Blast over the next two years might encourage the ECB to change tack over its T20 plans for 2020.

The answer is “No”. This would be the equivalent of reneging upon a manifesto commitment. The loss of face among those in charge would be too much to bear.

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