By Charles Randall
26 December 2013
A serious governance upset has rocked Nottinghamshire club cricket. The county's board had to take control of the premier league administration just before Christmas after eight elected officers said they were not willing to continue, apparently in protest at the way disciplinary sanctions against one club had been overturned.
This shocking disaffection among volunteers, caused by a money issue, could be seen as a distinct down side to ECB premier league cricket after Lord MacLaurin's report Raising The Standard in 1997. Another effect, demotivating a raft of recreational players, was illustrated by the Hertfordshire split from the Home Counties Premier League in November.
Mansfield Hosiery Mills called in a law firm to fight their case after they had been hit with automatic relegation and three-year ban by a Notts Premier Cricket League disciplinary panel in September, a penalty for breaking the rules on player payment. The club won their appeal allegedly on a technical point.
The fall-out from this case left the league unable to fill eight of the 12 elected honorary slots on the management committee at the annual general meeting, including the long-standing chairman's post vacated by Peter Johnson. The Board had to intervene with interim administration until an extraordinary meeting could be called soon as possible in the new year.
The original disciplinary decision had been endorsed by the Nottinghamshire Board for the benefit of cricket, as they saw it. Tony Palfreyman, the Board chairman, said he believed very strongly that the league should provide a pathway for the county's best amateur players. "This can only be achieved if high standards of behaviour and integrity are maintained on and off the field," he said. "It should not degenerate into a financial free-for-all where financially backed clubs have the means to buy success through a breach of the rules."
The 'Mills' felt the sanction was harsh, especially as they could claim to field at least eight home-grown players in a successful side through the league season, very much along the ECB ideal. Several incidents of abuse against umpires in 2005 - leading to the suspension of the Middlesex and Nottinghamshire player David Alleyne for eight weeks and two other players for shorter periods - happened a long time ago.
The creation of premier leagues was designed to narrow the gap between club and professional cricket, and it proved a force for good by enabling the ECB to insist on better facilities, on higher playing standards and on all-embracing youth schemes at every club. The two-fold price for this eventually became apparent. With the advent of 'professionalism' - metaphorical and literal - came a diversion of money away from development and a deterioration of on-field behaviour seemingly everywhere. The other bad outcome, coincidental or not, was a detectable shrinkage in the overall number of players, as in the case of Hertfordshire.
In 2014 there will probably be 25 ECB premier leagues in England, a higher number than envisaged when the ECB rolled out the concept. The decision by Hertfordshire clubs leave the Home Counties Premier League, a pyramid sprawling across six counties, was the jolt that reminded the ECB and recreational cricket family that all was not well. The appearance of a professional lawyer at a Nottinghamshire league appeal provided further worrying evidence.
In the case of the Home Counties league the ECB's drive to concentrate the best players into a region raised playing standards, but the price of such social engineering proved to be a fall in the number of active players. Other counties, such as Yorkshire, might well have suffered. Nobody can yet measure the extent of a general shrinkage, but it could be significant.
The main aim of the Club Cricket Conference is to encourage more people to play. A major deterrent, a perception perhaps, has always been the length of time a game might take, but an additional travel burden can only make things worse, leading to demotivation. As any club knows, the loss of availability might easily spiral into a crisis when a few players drift away. Hertfordshire clubs decided to take action by reverting to the old fixture landscape before further damage was done, and without losing premier status.
Chris Megone, a professor at Leeds University, wrote to the Club Cricket Conference about the damage caused by premier leagues and about Hertfordshire's experience in losing the loyalty of many older family men. "The same thing has happened up here in Yorkshire where clubs are folding on a regular basis and lots of people are lost to the game," he said.
Prof Megone alluded to the ECB reasoning - the need to follow the Australian grade system at a time when Shane Warne and Glen McGrath, two of the best bowlers in history, were playing in the same team. "I've no doubt the MacLaurin report was well-intentioned, but it has been disastrous for recreational cricket," he said. "And like a lot of other things from the ECB in recent years, it was premised on entirely misguided assumptions that structures create excellent national teams, and so everything structurally has to be geared to that."
"That was never so. Australia in the 1990s and early 2000s just had several exceptional international players, and from time to time such players come along. Structures do not create them as the current state of Aus cricket only a few years later very clearly proves."
Chris Megone's view as a cricket enthusiast has to be taken seriously. His job is professor of inter-disciplinary applied ethics in the Leeds University department for philosophy.
In 1999, a year before the founding of the Home Counties League, some influential club people already had doubts about the ECB concept. In a perceptive article for The Independent the journalist Graeme Wright garnered opinion from Mike Rogers, captain of Woodford Wells CC in Essex, and Ron Lynch, a former chairman of the Club Cricket Conference.
"I'm not anti-progress," said Rogers, "but I think it's being pushed too far, too fast. And to be honest they're talking sheer nonsense if they think there's going to be a link between club and county second eleven. It strikes me that they're trying to devolve the cost away from the counties and put it on the clubs." Yes, this was back in 1999.
Lynch, without the benefit of hindsight, commented: "The club cricketers are the ones who pay to play their cricket, and they pay quite a lot one way and another, and they're being told from above that this is what you've got to do or else you're not part of the Premier League."
A Chingford CC stalwart until his death in 2012, Lynch added: "There's no compromise. You've got these people saying it's all for the good of cricket, but I can't believe that over the years the counties have missed cricketers who are good enough. They are just looking for a panacea and I'm very sceptical for the future under those sort of conditions."
It was the extra funding from Sky Sport broadcasting rights that did provide a panacea of sorts. These days counties draw on age-group representative cricket and their own expensive academies for the vast majority of players, and three consecutive Ashes series have been won. In response Cricket Australia did not create a network of clubs with afternoon games and tea and cake at halfway.
Another telling point that Rogers made all those years ago was the advent of so-called professionalism, though since then excesses have been curtailed by the recession. "We're becoming increasingly vulnerable to professionalism without an increase in standards," he said. "More and more young players expect to be subsidised, and some think they have a market value, which they haven't."
Players thinking they have a "market value" is one distortion that clubs could do without. Farnham Royal CC, in the Home Counties pyramid, demoted themselves from Division Two West after the 2013 season when they lost a nucleus of their first team and reckoned that replacements would "expect to be paid". All this because they dared to divert funds towards buying the freehold of their ground.
Paul Hooper, of Addiscombe CC, raised concerns about the ECB revolution during the 2000 season. Higher standards, intensity, competition and open professionalism was all very well, he said, but the ethos of club cricket was under threat. "It isn't just the money, even if a club has funds that it feels are more wisely spent on paying players rather than improving facilities or encouraging youth," he wrote in the old Club Cricket Conference magazine Extra Cover.
"There are other concerns. The loyalty of club members is under attack, incentives are encouraging players to change their allegiance, sometimes on an annual basis and often with little appreciation for any investment in time and effort made in their formative years by their initial clubs."
Hooper argued that the premier league trend did not encourage sociability among players or encourage any contribution to their club's administrative workload. "Officials and committee men may start to question the logic of their loyal involvement," he added.
Wright, a former editor of Wisden Cricketers' Almanack, made his own observation about attitude. "Certainly, what's been missing from the talk of raising standards and bridging gaps is the role that nets should have," he wrote. "Playing rather than practising has been the time-honoured English method. But if the ECB is following the Australian model by introducing structured leagues and two-day club games, it should also take on board the importance of twice-a-week nets in improving Australia's cricketers. After all, it's a culture we are looking at here, not just a system."
The ECB's great leap of faith started in 1998 when they awarded funding to new premier leagues and sold the concept broadly to the club cricket community, though clearly without convincing everyone. The Birmingham & District League became the first to be awarded ECB premier status in 1998, and similar leagues were assembled on the basis of area the following year, such as East Anglian, North East and West of England, alongside the obvious county set-ups. The trend was set for further area groupings such as Southern and Home Counties.
Kent went further than anyone along the MacLaurin lines when they agreed to play two-day games over consecutive Saturdays from the first year in 1999, copying the Australian grade model. They were the only league to go the whole hog, and that experiment lasted four seasons. This short life was predictable in view of the English weather, the commitment factor and very limited club member appeal.
The ECB can now accept that English culture in cricket is for England and that Australian culture can be left in Australia. It has been a lesson worth learning.