Why is there a fight to save English county cricket?

Why is there a fight to save English county cricket?

BY Ben Bloom

18th Apr 2024 Sport

4 min read

Due to lucrative global franchise leagues and a desire for change, English county cricket is in its most uncertain period of a history spanning more than 150 years. Can it be saved?
In his new book Batting for Time: The Fight to Keep English Cricket Alive, Ben Bloom explores the precarious state of English county cricket, what it is we expect from the domestic game, who it exists for and where things might go in the future. What must English cricket do to survive?
The extract below from the book looks at everything from money and power dynamics to The Hundred and women’s cricket.

How do cricket clubs make money?

Derbyshire chief executive Ryan Duckett introduced concerts to the County Ground in 2017 during his tenure as the club’s commercial director. They have since hosted Elton John, Little Mix, Boyzone, Michael Buble and Rudimental, among others. When the Who played Derbyshire as one of the band’s three county ground gigs in 2023, Duckett admits he was concerned about the impact it might have on the playing area. But the finances dictated its necessity.
"The Who played Derbyshire as one of the band’s three county ground gigs in 2023"
“The Who will be our most profitable day of the year. There’s no question about that,” reveals Duckett. “I’d struggle to name a song by the Who, but the reason we do it is it allows us to become sustainable and invest more in cricket. There’s always risks with concerts. This year, when we had the Who here the weather was awful, so I was a bit nervous. The concert was on a Friday and we had a match starting against Durham on the following Wednesday, so it was tight. But it leaves a massive hole in our finances if we don’t do it.”

The Hundred: abomination or saviour?

The Hundred 2023 finals at Lord's
If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then there is good reason to question why no other country has followed England’s lead in playing 100-ball cricket. While the ECB led the way in launching T20 cricket in 2003, by the time it finally managed to establish a city-based version almost two decades later, it felt the time had passed to directly follow others and needed a point of differentiation.
“They could have created a franchised T20 tournament in a format that has been proven to work around the world”, says Essex and South Africa spinner Simon Harmer, who has not been involved in The Hundred. “Instead, they’ve created a new format that I don’t see any other countries around the world copying. It can’t go anywhere in terms of growth around the world.”
Yet the format alone is less an issue than the existence of another competition in itself. Why, ask so many county cricket devotees, did the ECB not just stick their millions into the existing T20 Blast and other county competitions? Would that not have attracted the required new audience if allocated the same marketing budget?

Beholden to passionate Luddites

Durham chief executive Tim Bostock, a former minor counties cricketer for Cheshire and businessman in the banking world, has been at the Durham helm since 2018. Unlike a number of county chairs and chief executives, who he believes are “very embedded” in the club they serve, he was neither born nor raised in the county. This detachment, he insists, is precisely what the game requires to progress.
"I just don’t know how they think it will survive without radical change"
“We’re running a multi-million-pound professional sport and yet the long-term, big decisions are made by a handful of... I don’t want to call them activists because they will get on their high horse, but they are effectively activists,” he says. “Of all the millions of people who watch cricket in an English summer, the whole structure is being dictated to by what might only be about 10,000 people. You’ve got chairmen threatened with removal if they don’t do what a small handful of Luddites say—and they are Luddites. They are passionate Luddites, but they are Luddites. I just don’t know how they think it will survive without radical change. We’ve ended up with the lowest common denominator ruling the day.”

Why women's cricket is vital to the future

Sophie Ecclestone in 2023
At a time when the men’s domestic game is at a crossroads, grappling with the uncertainty of wholesale power shifts and attempting to safeguard against a rapidly changing cricketing landscape, Beth Barrett-Wild is in charge of an expanding women’s sport growing year on year. Her main concern is not survival, but how best to harness progress. To that end, the relationship between the men’s and women’s game is about to become a whole lot closer.
“I certainly bring the positivity,” says Barrett-Wild, whose personal sporting pedigree includes a blue in hockey and half blue in cricket during her time at the University of Oxford. “Women’s cricket is the exciting bit at the moment. It’s not women’s cricket coming to the rescue but while counties are struggling for purpose, the women’s game is full of relevance, purpose and growth. What the women’s game needs is scale, longevity and embeddedness, which is what the men’s game has. But what the women’s game has is that exciting freshness, which is what the men’s game needs a bit more of.”

The haves and the have-nots

With a handful of clubs operating on annual turnovers scarcely more than £5 million (the vast majority of which is provided by the ECB) and the likes of double reigning county champions Surrey raking in more than £46 million over one financial year, it is no surprise that uniformity is a rarity. “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,” says Sussex head coach Paul Farbrace.
"There are deep divisions in financial prosperity among the counties"
The development, growth and possible external investment in The Hundred has exacerbated deep existing divisions in financial prosperity among the counties, with the ECB’s desire for a concentrated de facto Premier League causing resentment among many at the so-called smaller clubs almost certain to miss out. Its proponents argue that is just the way in modern sport.
“My fundamental belief about sport is that it’s a meritocracy. The best teams get to the top,” says unapologetic former Hampshire chairman Rod Bransgrove. “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.”
Batting for Time
Batting for Time: The Fight to Keep English Cricket Alive (Pitch Publishing) by Ben Bloom is available now
Banner: Surrey are the current county cricket champions. Credit: Kroome111
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