Comment: Franchises Are Not The Answer To County Cricket's Problems
Daniel Grummitt begins his weekly Friday column with his take on county cricket and whether franchises in Twenty20 cricket are the answer
Franchises have increasingly been talked about in recent days as the saviour of England’s Twenty20 competition – the group stages of which will splutter, amidst the rain, to their conclusion this weekend. They have been painted by luminaries such as David Lloyd, Tony Greig and Muttiah Muralitharan as the answer to all of the competition’s woes, while the game’s traditional fan base – both young and old it is worth stressing – have taken to blogs in their hundreds to defend the status quo.
Quite how franchises will prevent a repeat of the main problem with this year’s competition – namely the Great British weather – has not been fully explained, but they are nevertheless worth considering.
Now, before we go any further, I would like to point out that I am about as unashamed a fan of the county game as it is possible to meet – despite not having a local first-class county to support, residing as I do in Lincolnshire. Nonetheless, there are undeniably some advantages to the franchise system that has been advocated.
First of all, let us consider how these new teams would be formed. To begin with, Muttiah Muralitharan’s idea of merging neighbouring counties is so ridiculous – he suggested that arch rivals Gloucestershire and Somerset merge – as to make David Cameron’s decision to appoint Andy Coulson as his Director of Communications appear a shrewd move. Much better is the suggestion of David Lloyd and others whereby there are nine City-based franchises located at each of the international grounds.
The main advantage, as far as one can see, to the franchise system is the extra revenue that it could potentially bring into the county game. When the idea of an English Premier League was first seriously considered in 2008, it was rumoured that each franchise would be bought for around £40 million, with one of the biggest investors in American sport, SCP Worldwide, expected to be one of the buyers. Whether the sums involved now would be quite so large given our recession-hit world is open to debate. For example the seven franchises in the Sri Lanka Premier League were recently sold for around £3 million each – significantly less, albeit a very sizeable sum in the world of county cricket.
The other advantage with the franchise concept would be the inevitable increase in standard that halving the amount of players and teams involved would bring. However, many of the reasons behind the success of the Indian Premier League and Australia’s Big Bash would not really apply to an English competition. The current English domestic game as a whole is, despite what the critics would have us believe, the best supported in the world. The Indian state sides can only dream of the type of following that English county sides have. That following is almost exclusively because of the history of our county sides and the resulting loyalty among supporters which that entails. Take away that history and the existing fans will lose interest.
People may point to the history that also exists in the Australian state system, which has not prevented the success of the Big Bash, to refute that argument, but that is easily countered by saying that that tournament didn’t axe any of the existing sides, it merely created two new ones in the biggest cities – incidentally what Surrey and Middlesex effectively do with London.
Which brings us on to another point. No other country’s domestic competition involves the number of derby matches that the English one does. Those matches which pit Surrey against Middlesex, Lancashire against Yorkshire, and Gloucestershire against Somerset already regularly achieve sell-out crowds. What would happen to those matches if there were only nine city-based franchises?
There are also numerous other concerns and problems with the franchise model. To begin with, the television revenues are not as likely to be as big as the system’s supporters purport due to the BCCI’s reluctance to allow Indian players to participate. Also, England, as a country, lacks both the size of city and number of cricket-mad people that one like India does – something that is hardy likely to appeal to would-be investors when they are faced with an ever-increasing number of places in which they can invest in modern cricket.
So, if not franchises, what is the answer, to the competition’s perceived woes?
For a start, the competition could be spread over a longer period of time to decrease, in theory at least, the impact of the weather. Matches should be played on Fridays and Sundays, with a Championship match during the week and a 40-over fixture on Saturdays. Obviously this would affect counties’ abilities to recruit overseas players for the entirety of the competition, but then that has been the case with current block format anyway. It would also remove the problem of counties having to sell four home games in the space of five days as is the case with Surrey at the moment.
Another possibility is to involve the counties’ outgrounds more. Now I know this isn’t popular with county chief executives because of the increased running costs involved, but it would certainly help to take cricket to the people – something which Twenty20 was originally supposed to do.
More innovative marketing would also help. The counties could team up with local football clubs for example to offer ticket offers. How about half-price entry to one of Lancashire’s home games for all Manchester United season-ticket holders? It would certainly help to bring in a new audience – also something Twenty20 was supposed to do.
And finally, how about making England’s international players available for more of the competition? Andy Flower should be credited with allowing the fringe players, such as Jonny Bairstow and Samit Patel, to be release for county duty, but do we really need a visit by Australia in a non-Ashes year?
Oh, and one more thing, surely it isn’t beyond the remit of the counties and the ECB to get together and come up with some sensible and consistent start times. Today there are nine fixtures due to be played in the competition. At five different start times. Why?
© Cricket World 2012
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