Gap between county cricket’s haves and have-nots is growing dangerous

<span>Worcestershire’s New Road is the only one of the 18 first-class county grounds lacking permanent floodlights.</span><span>Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images</span>
Worcestershire’s New Road is the only one of the 18 first-class county grounds lacking permanent floodlights.Photograph: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

While a once showpiece competition reduced to a developmental sideshow played out to its usual sparse midweek audience at a ramshackle New Road ground so unfit for purpose that Worcestershire’s first two County Championship fixtures of 2024 have been relocated, Ashley Giles took stock of English cricket’s troubling state.

“I don’t think there has ever been a more fragile time for the whole game,” he said, as his new club eased to a facile One-Day Cup win over Glamorgan.

It was early August 2023, only six weeks since the former left-arm spinner and England men’s team managing director had taken the helm at a club who will this summer attempt to survive a season in the County Championship top division without relegation for the first time in more than a decade. They are odds-on not to succeed.

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The task for Giles is one of the stiffest in a domestic game grappling with its purpose and future direction. Worcestershire’s is the only one of the 18 first-class county grounds lacking permanent floodlights; there are no on-site indoor facilities, with the club instead using a nearby private school to train over the winter; and the ground is susceptible to the type of damaging flooding that has forced the drastic relocation of their early season home fixtures. It was little surprise this month when the club were one of only two – alongside Derbyshire – not to submit a bid to host a top-tier professional women’s team from 2025. Giles has said they may need to seek a move to new pastures.

A week out from the first delivery of the English cricket season, Worcestershire’s is a worryingly uncertain fate shared by a number of counties.

During the course of last summer, I travelled the country speaking to more than 100 of the game’s most important figures for a new book – Batting for Time: The Fight to Keep English Cricket Alive – published this week. The concern and discontent from all quarters was palpable.

Wary of changing methods of sporting consumption and the threat of foreign franchise leagues, the England and Wales Cricket Board is eager to haul a structure deep-rooted in the Victorian era into something fit for a modern audience. Over the coming months, they will confirm the future of the Hundred – the divisive tournament that now commands the same ECB annual expenditure as the men’s, women’s and disability England teams combined – ruling on a potential expansion from the present eight teams and almost certainly welcoming some form of private investment.

As leading English players ditch the county game to play lucrative franchise cricket, the governing body and its supporters within the professional setup see themselves as protecting the sport for future generations. The vast majority of county members disagree vehemently, arguing it is they who are best placed to serve as the sport’s guardians. Amid the spring flowering of daffodils and hyacinths does such rancour provide the backdrop for English cricket’s seasonal return.

“We stand at a really interesting time for the game,” said Giles. “We are at a bit of a crossroads with the rise of franchise cricket around the world.

“With that threat to our player pathways and player supply, and the general commercialisation of cricket and the widening gap between the boys at the big table and the rest of us, it is worrying. I suppose it comes down to purpose. There has to be a purpose for the 18 clubs.”

Uniformity is a near impossible task given some clubs operate on annual turnovers scarcely more than £5m (the majority of which is provided by the ECB) while the double reigning champion county, Surrey, have an income close to 10 times that. “It’s a bit like going into the high street and trying to get Harrods to agree with the corner shop on how they want their business models to run,” said the Sussex head coach, Paul Farbrace.

The luxury department stores of the county cricket world are increasingly given extra tools to boost their cause: hosting international cricket, a team in the Hundred, impending private investment in those franchises and potential top-tier women’s teams. The maligned remainder – Worcestershire, Northamptonshire, Derbyshire and others – fear suffering a slow death. A playing field that has undulated naturally over time is willingly being made more uneven.

Some are unapologetic. “My fundamental belief about sport is that it’s a meritocracy,” said the former Hampshire chairman Rod Bransgrove. “The best teams get to the top. The polarisation of talent at top clubs is, and must be, part of taking the sport forward. It’s the same in any other business.”

In late 2022 the ECB, under previous leadership, unveiled controversial proposals to create a six-team County Championship top division – a de facto Premier League – with a 12-team second division split into two conferences beneath it. The plan was scrapped after widespread outcry, but the motives behind it remain. Neil Snowball, the ECB managing director of competitions and major events, confirmed a desire to “make sure the best teams and best players are playing against each other”.

Crucially, he said: “It’s important not to misinterpret creating a smaller elite as getting rid of first-class counties.” Not everyone believes such denials.

“If a couple of counties were to disappear it would solve a lot of [the ECB’s] issues,” said the Essex and South Africa spinner Simon Harmer.

The growing chasm between county cricket’s wealthy and needy leaves many to suspect such an outcome is inevitable. Somehow, Giles must ensure Worcestershire do not become collateral in any grand changes. He is not alone in harbouring concerns.

• This is an extract from the Guardian’s weekly cricket email, The Spin. To subscribe, just visit this page and follow the instructions.