It’s a competitive affair being a sport in England these days.
Foreign superstars continue to pour into the Premier League, cementing its reputation as the world’s elite football competition.
Rugby Union has enjoyed the luxury of having the national side in two successive world cup finals and is experiencing growing media coverage at the domestic level (particularly benefiting from the rise of Setanta).
Although a Scot, Andrew Murray’s exceptional achievement of reaching the US Open final is likely to give another boost to tennis following the Henman years.
Golf is no longer a game for the idle rich, but a leisure pursued by many. Lewis Hamilton has reignited the nation’s passion for Formula One.
On top of this, Britain’s gold rush at the Olympics has given a boost to "minority" competitive sports such as cycling, rowing, and swimming.
With the shine of the 2005 Ashes Victory well and truly faded, what place then for our beloved game of cricket?
Cricket suffers a number of disadvantages over other sports. For a start, it requires an absence of rain that seems laughably optimistic in light of the "summer" months that have just passed. There is nothing more disheartening for a player or spectator than to make a voyage to some far away ground only to wait around in the rain for a few hours before being sent home without any play.
Additionally, the less than frenetic pace with which the battle unfolds is unsuited to the high-paced lifestyles most of us choose to live these days. This is aptly illustrated by the necessity of playing the longer forms of the game during daytime on weekdays.
To be fair to the ECB, they have done a decent job in recent years in promoting the national team with the introduction of central contracts and a willingness to move beyond traditional test venues to bring in new crowds.
However, the ECB must do a lot more to promote the domestic game if cricket is to consistently be a presence in the nation’s sporting consciousness, and in order to secure the financial future of the game.
The ECB must exploit the advantages of cricket in order to achieve this promotion of the domestic game. One crucial strength of cricket is that its appeal transcends geographical considerations, with teams and devotees located in all the nooks and corners of the sport’s motherland.
Whilst there is a particularly strong tradition in certain areas—the mill towns of Lancashire and Yorkshire, London and the South Coast counties—cricket doesn’t suffer Rugby League’s constant headache of having to break out beyond a "heartland."
Yet by limiting the number of counties in the domestic competitions to 18, the ECB is squandering large numbers of potential supporters in counties without first-class representation. In counties such as Hertfordshire, Berkshire, and Staffordshire there are large populations that enjoy cricket at the amateur level and enthusiastically follow the national team, yet they have no first-class side to support.
Two additional counties in this category that have performed particularly strongly in minor county competitions over the last decade are Devon and Cheshire, yet no-one is clamouring for their inclusion in the first-class leagues.
But the recent success of Durham, granted first-class status in 1991, shows the potential for minor counties to establish themselves as competitive at the higher level of the game given the chance.
Chester-le-Street today attracts very healthy and enthusiastic crowds to county games as well as being rewarded with a number of international games. There is no reason why other minor counties can’t go on to emulate such achievements.
Any proposals to significantly increase the number of first-class counties will raise an inevitable clutch of objections surrounding the practicalities of expansion.
Those surrounding the format of competitions aren’t especially problematic, as the ECB seems only too happy to change these on an annual basis anyway. Indeed the inclusion of additional counties could solve some of the current headaches of county cricket scheduling such as the dual 20/20 competitions that will run from 2010.
To briefly digress, the English Premier League, the more prestigious competition, is due to have the 18 existing counties plus two overseas teams taking part. This seems quite a cumbersome roster for an elite league.
The second competition in August is a rather ill-defined entity and has been widely criticized for risking 20/20 "overkill," endangering what is meant to be the new lifeline of the sport.
If the number of first-class counties was expanded, for example, to 28, then the August competition could act as a qualifier to the following season’s EPL. Due to the money at stake in the EPL, this would make the August competition highly competitive, and go a long way to avoid 20/20 overkill, particularly if the EPL was restructured to host only 12 domestic counties and four foreign sides.
A more problematic objection to a substantial expansion is the financial viability of such a scheme. Most existing first-class counties make an annual loss, largely absorbed by the ECB.
So what hope is there for minor counties who need to find the finances to fund a professional squad and in all likelihood improve their stadia?
Before the developments of the last two years it would indeed seem an insurmountable obstacle. However, the sudden influx of money into the game due to the 20/20 phenomenon means that financing a county cricket club is no longer a necessarily futile enterprise.
Indian businessmen and Bollywood stars were tripping over themselves to get a stake in the IPL teams. It isn’t unreasonable to believe that there are a number of wealthy folk in India, the Middle East, and the Far East who would relish the chance of transforming a minor county into a global sporting brand.
Hopefully some English investors would jump on the bandwagon, too. Whilst cricket isn’t football, it is a far more glamorous game than it was two years ago, and it is a glamour that the counties must look to benefit from.
The likelihood of whether anything of this sort comes about is entirely down to the creativity and courage of the ECB. As the sport heads into an unpredictable but promising future, one thing is clear: for commercial and sporting sustainability the ECB must seek to make cricket as popular as possible in England.
The 18-county structure is a straightjacket to achieving this end. It is time for a radical expansion of our domestic competitions.