County Championship facing uncertain future

Published: Wednesday, April 13, 2005, 23:53 [IST]
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London:Farmers welcome the start of English cricket's County Championship as traditionally the opening day is a wash-out.

But for its supporters these are worrying times as the competition, which began here Wednesday with Warwickshire defending their title, battles to maintain its place in the sporting calendar.

Admittedly, there is a fundamental problem which confronts all first-class cricket around the world.

In order to prepare players properly for five-day Tests - cricket's ultimate challenge - it is necessary to have a competition of similar duration.

But with many Championship games starting on a Wednesday and finishing before the fourth and final day, there are an alarming number of 'blank' Saturdays in England.

It was all so different in the immediate post-war years, when thousands flocked to Lord's to watch the likes of Denis Compton and Bill Edrich play for Middlesex.

But go to Lord's for a Championship match now and the joke about the game being played in front of two old men and a dog doesn't seem so funny.

The growth of alternative leisure options have taken their toll while domestic cricket has suffered greatly from being shoehorned into the ever-narrowing gap between football seasons, the 'beautiful game' overshadowing most other sporting events in England.

Meanwhile the massive expansion in the amount of international cricket has created problems for the county game.

As recently as the 1980s county spectators could see Malcolm Marshall (Hampshire) bowling to fellow West Indies great Viv Richards (Somerset), with the pair playing for a whole season because of an absence of cricket elsewhere.

Now some of the world's best are actively discouraged from coming to England, while those that do, such as Hampshire skipper Shane Warne, can only give half a season before international commitments intervene.

And the very changes that have helped Michael Vaughan's men rise to second in the world rankings have harmed the Championship, with the best England players hardly turning out for their clubs.

Given there are 18 first-class counties, three times the number of Australian states, and the foreign legion's size - this season 70 overseas players will feature in county cricket either as fully-fledged signings or as cricketers arriving under the Kolpak ruling - is easy to understand.

Maros Kolpak may not have bowled a ball or scored a run but his influence on English cricket has been significant.

An unheralded Slovakian handball player, Kolpak went to the European Court in a bid to play in Germany without being classed as a foreigner, claiming restraint of trade.

Slovakia is not part of the European Union but it has an associate agreement with the EU, as do South Africa and several Caribbean islands.

EU laws already allowed any player with a European passport to play on the county circuit, even if not qualified to represent England, rendering the rule restricting counties to two overseas players each meaningless.

The creation of a three-up, three-down Championship guards against the development of a 'permanent' second tier which the counties - who dominate the the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) - fear would be a prelude to their extinction.

Although without their annual 1.3 million pounds hand-out from the ECB's international match proceeds, some counties would go bust regardless.

But as editor Matthew Engel wrote in the 2005 edition of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack: "Let them go... If the social security cheques from Test revenues dried up, the experience might prove not just salutary but liberating."

He added: "The county game is now in danger of sliding from its position at the margins of British life into total oblivion."

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