The divide between county cricket’s haves and have-nots is becoming dangerous

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<p><figcaption class=New Road in Worcestershire is the only one of the 18 first-class county grounds without permanent floodlights.Photo: Dan Mullan/Getty Images

While a competition that was once a showpiece was reduced to a development afterthought, played in front of its usual sparse weekday crowd at a dilapidated ground in New Road so unfit for purpose that Worcestershire’s first two County Championship matches of 2024 have been moved, Ashley Giles takes stock of the worrying state of English cricket. .

“I don’t think there’s ever been a more vulnerable moment for the whole game,” he said, as his new club cruised to an easy One-Day Cup win over Glamorgan.

It was early August 2023, just six weeks since the former left-arm spinner and England men’s team director took over at a club that will attempt to survive a season in the top division of the County Championship without relegation for the first time this summer. in more than a decade. Chances are they won’t succeed.

Related: Australia take on England in the historic women’s daytime Ashes Test at the MCG

The task for Giles is one of the toughest in a domestic game as he struggles with purpose and future direction. Worcestershire’s is the only one of the 18 first-class county grounds without permanent floodlights; there are no indoor facilities on site, but the club instead uses a nearby private school to train in the winter; and the ground is prone to the kind of damaging flooding that forced the drastic rescheduling of their early-season home games. It was no surprise this month that the club, alongside Derbyshire, was one of only two not to submit a bid to host a top-level professional women’s team from 2025. Giles has said they may have to look for a move to pastures new.

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

Last summer I traveled around the country speaking to more than 100 of the game’s key figures for a new book – Batting for Time: The Fight to Keep English Cricket Alive – published this week. The concerns and dissatisfaction were palpable from all sides.

Wary of changing methods of sports consumption and the threat of foreign franchise leagues, the England and Wales Cricket Board is keen to transform a structure deeply rooted in the Victorian era into something suitable for a modern audience. In the coming months they will confirm the future of the Hundred – the divisive tournament which now commands the same annual ECB expenditure as the England men’s, women’s and disabled teams combined – with a possible expansion from the current eight teams and almost certainly some form of private investment.

As leading English players leave the county game to play lucrative franchise cricket, the governing body and its supporters within the professional set-up see themselves as protecting the sport for future generations. The vast majority of provincial members strongly disagree and argue that they are best placed to serve as protectors of the sport. Amid the spring blooms of daffodils and hyacinths, this grudge sets the stage for the seasonal return of the English cricket.

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

“With that threat to our player routes and player supply, and the general commercialization of cricket and the ever-widening gap between the guys at the big table and the rest of us, it’s worrying. I think it comes down to the goal. There must be a goal for the eighteen clubs.”

Uniformity is a near-impossible task as some clubs have annual turnovers of barely more than £5 million (much of which is provided by the ECB), while two-time reigning champions Surrey have an income almost ten times that. “It’s a bit like going onto the high street and trying to get Harrods to agree with the corner shop on how they want their business models to work,” said Sussex head coach Paul Farbrace.

The high-end stores of provincial cricket are increasingly getting additional resources to boost their business: hosting international cricket, a Hundreds team, looming private investment in those franchises and potential top women’s teams. The maligned rest – Worcestershire, Northamptonshire, Derbyshire and others – fear they will suffer a slow death. A playing field that has naturally undulated over time likes to be made more uneven.

Some are insolent. “My fundamental belief about sport is that it is a meritocracy,” said former Hampshire chairman Rod Bransgrove. “The best teams come out on top. The polarization of talent at top clubs is and must be part of moving the sport forward. The same goes for any other company.”

In late 2022, the ECB, under former leadership, unveiled controversial proposals to create a six-team County Championship top division – a de facto Premier League – with a twelve-team second division split into two conferences below. The plan was scrapped after widespread outrage, but the motives behind it remain. Neil Snowball, the ECB’s director of competitions and major events, confirmed the desire to “ensure the best teams and the best players play against each other”.

Crucially, he said: “It is important not to misinterpret the creation of a smaller elite as getting rid of first-class provinces.” Not everyone believes such denials.

“If a few provinces were to disappear, that would solve a lot [the ECB’s] issues,” said Essex and South Africa spinner Simon Harmer.

The growing gap between the rich and the needy in the province suggests that such an outcome is inevitable. Somehow, Giles must ensure that Worcestershire does not become collateral for major changes. He’s not the only one with concerns.

A glimpse of England

An England multi-format international featuring for his country in red-ball cricket last season was rarer than hen’s teeth. In fact, players like Joe Root, Harry Brook (both Yorkshire), Ben Stokes and Mark Wood (both Durham) did not play a single match for their counties in any competition, despite playing domestically in the Indian Premier League and the Hundred played.

Not even the Ashes could tempt Root to an early season Yorkshire Red Ball award. Instead, he opted to spend two months in the IPL, where he batted just one innings and faced a total of fifteen balls. “Am I really going to be better prepared for an Ashes series with slower pace bowling on some niggly wickets, when hopefully we will be playing on good pitches at a high pace and a high quality spinner?” he asked. “I do not think so.”

The signs are more promising for the coming campaign. With that quartet all absent from the IPL for various reasons, Brook and Root have already been confirmed for a share of the County Championship tariff in April. They don’t often eat the white Yorkshire rose, so enjoy it while you can.

Quote of the week

“We know what it looks like” – Sri Lanka selector Ajantha Mendis to ESPNcricinfo as she denied T20 captain Wanindu Hasaranga’s shock return from Test retirement was a ploy to avoid missing T20 World Cup matches . Despite not playing a first-class match for over a year, Hasaranga was included in Sri Lanka’s Test squad for a day before being handed an ICC ban that now applies to that Test series and expires before the T20 World Cup.

Memory strip

England’s low point, New Zealand’s first Test series win away from home in seven years. Chris Cairns was the visiting side’s hero in the fourth Test at The Oval in 1999, taking 5 for 31 before hitting 80 from 93 balls at No. 8 to save his side’s second innings. England fell for 162 while chasing 246, losing the series 2–1 and sliding to the bottom of the Test rankings. Nasser Hussain, only recently appointed captain, was booed by the crowd in south London. It was time to shake things up.

Do you want more?

Mitchell Starc’s modesty belies his status as a modern Australian as he bypasses Dennis Lillee’s Test wickets total, writes Geoff Lemon.

Simon Burnton reports on how David Warner and Jason Roy were rejected in the draft for the Hundred this summer.

And read how the improved IPL will dominate Indian cricket again after the 2023 competition was met with relative indifference.

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