One should always be prepared to offer an alternative when criticising cricket administrators who invariably have the game’s best interests at heart but all too often give way to mis-placed priorities.
This, therefore, is what I suggested to David Morgan when he asked me, as one of the many he consulted during his impossible attempt to rationalise the fixture list in Britain, for my own recommendations:
* An unchanged County Championship with games always starting on Sundays. Tests always starting on Thursdays. Haphazard fixtures have been disastrous for press coverage.
* Championship and Test cricket to be innovatively and actively marketed. Television coverage to fit around a properly balanced schedule and Sky or other broadcasters to fit a pattern that best serves the game.
* For Twenty20 a Friday night league: each county staging a home game once a fortnight to build a regular and committed audience. No need for floodlights until the second innings in mid-summer.
* Saturdays for a knockout 40 or 50-over tournament from mid-season following a four-match regional stage in four groups of five.
Morgan, we know, has actually recommended a return to a 50-over tournament in tune with international cricket, which makes sense. His other suggestions are more of a fudge.
I commend my colleague Mark Baldwin’s more detailed observations on next season’s fixture list elsewhere on TheCricketer.com but here is a different way of looking at the debate, both current and perennial, about the domestic fixture list in Britain and the relative merit of Test, 50-over and Twenty20 cricket.
Imagine, just for a moment, that the Gillette Cup of 1963, the Packer Revolution of 1977, India’s victory over the West Indies in the 1983 World Cup final at Lord’s, the introduction of Twenty20 cricket to county cricket and India’s defeat of Pakistan in the first final of a World Twenty20 tournament in 2007, soon followed by the advent of the IPL, had never happened. None of it.
Cricket would, in consequence, be largely an amateur sport, its international element consisting only, as it had before 1970, of Test cricket. The fixture list would be altogether smaller. Income to the game would be far smaller, with much less televised cricket – although TV companies would still want to cover Test and two-innings first-class cricket because it would still be cheap, relatively popular, daytime television – and participation would be much the same.
Professionals, naturally, would be far less well paid, but there would still be a living from the game, earned with rather less strain. Standards of ball striking, variety of bowling and the athleticism of the fielding would no doubt have improved but they would certainly be inferior to what they are now.
Believe me, I am not yearning for such a scenario. You cannot undo what has happened, nor argue that it might have been better if all those changes, introduced to bring in spectators and television viewers and thereby to finance a growing game, had not occurred. The game has evolved throughout its history and always will. New converts will think it is changing for the better, old hands believe it is not what it was, which, of course, has to be true.
What I do believe, however, is that cricket is instrinsically such a good game to play and to watch that it would still be going strong if none of the seismic shifts in the professional game had taken place. Indians, for example, would be watching the old game in their millions, as they always did. The conclusion I draw is that decisions about fixtures and the future balance of the game should be taken with the well-being of cricket as the first priority.
In practice, administrators cannot resist the urge to maximise profits. If the overall good and balance of cricket had been considered the priority, for example, South Africa would have played more than two Tests recently against Australia.
Such was the magnificent cut and thrust of the two games that were played, the third might well have attracted greatly enhanced crowds. A series of five matches may still be unrealistic in a land where people got out of the habit of watching Test cricket in the years of isolation, but it should be the aim of the Rainbow Nation to work towards increasing the number of Tests, especially against so-called marquee opponents.
I am not personally so distressed about the ICC’s postponement of a World Test Championship until 2017, to allow the spurious Champions Trophy to splutter on, because it is essentially an artificial concept, but I deplore the reason for caving-in to the demands of ESPN television. US$50 million was the threatened loss but who knows what a really well marketed Test Championship might have generated?
Ditto at least four Tests between England and South Africa next year rather than three, all more or less clashing with the Olympic Games. Why not a fourth Test instead of five one-day matches against Australia, against whom England are due to play three series for the Ashes, home and away, between 2013 and 2015?
It is, of course, because five internationals provide games for five different grounds rather than one. Administrators, their spirit willing, their flesh weak, cannot summon the will to sacrifice guaranteed profits. But overdo the marquee series and demand will falter.
The same forces faced David Morgan. His proposed changes to the domestic fixture list cannot take place until 2014 because the ECB is locked into the current television contract with Sky. A really decisive national board would have recognised the widespread press and public dismay at the inchoate mess of fixtures with which we are saddled for two more years, renegotiated the TV contract even if it cost some money and replaced it much sooner with a programme that everyone can follow.
*Christopher Martin-Jenkins, the MCC president in 2011, is a former editor of The Cricketer