All posts by StephenFH

Oval Summer 2018

While the Surrey team taking to the field in the opening fixture against Hants (above) look generally together, there were not that many signs of the season that was to come. In early summer form there is of course little or none for anyone and the Oval wicket in particular had its reputation for doing draws.

The fourth game and  Sam Curran taking a 10-for against Yorkshire gave their season momentum, an innings win to be followed by those against Hants, Somerset and, in July, Notts. From the spectating end of things the Championship was by then on hold rather, but June did mark a visit from teams of Aboriginal cricketers a 150 years after the 1858 tour,  and at the end of July there was an entertaining KSL match between the Surrey Stars and Lancashire Thunder;  t20 cricket at the Oval with a Championship-type ambience and a competition that deserves a more settled future than it currently seems to have.

The first tied match in the history of the Championship was the Surrey v Lancashire fixture of 1894. This year might easily have been another one, a really well contested match (Surrey 211 and 306, Lancashire 247 and 264),  and, at the end, with six the difference, Matt Parkinson fended at a delivery from Morne Morkel and was instinctively, brilliantly, caught at short-leg by Will Jacks.

It was a gripping final afternoon and a crucial, if not decisive, moment in the season: what turned out to be the penultimate ball from the other end was a swing from Tom Bailey that did not connect with a very short leg-side boundary; and had the result gone the other way it might have unsettled Surrey’s campaign, de-railed it even. By the end of the Notts game the following week (below) the body language of the players suggested another story, and Somerset then did tie their fixture with Lancashire; the 24th in the competition’s history.

Early September brought the final Test with India, much attention with and appreciation for the career of Alistair Cook. There was also an interesting final day when for a time the Indians  were on course to emulate their 1979 predecessors; the year of Sunil Gavaskar’s  double century, when they drew a match at the ground scoring 400+ in the 4th innings. At the end of this one there were markers of Sam Curran’s progress as he set up Jimmy for the final delivery of the series.

Surrey were no question very  worthy county champions in 2018 and there was an excellent finale with the champions of 2017; the heightened senses of don’t miss a ball cricket on the final afternoon for a second time, nearly but not quite a record comeback, nearly the 25th tie.

To be sure they have  a financial advantage over other counties, part of which is returned to those who come to watch: £142 for the Championship and List A season, 12 guest tickets included, £5 for a KSL match and in the way cricket does bargains £20 for the 5th day of the Test. Reasonable sums in any year, although the cricket in 2018 exceeded reasonable expectations by a distance. It also funds high-end signings, Morne Morkel this year; with a career of more than 80 Tests behind him it was very evident just much he cared about playing county cricket this summer, which for those spectating was a very good thing to see and a message to others.

The Championship Schedule

The Championship has made a welcome re-appearance in the last month after its ‘break for the summer’ and if comments about its sidelining are not exactly new, the point being made has become more a lot more pointed. In 2016 almost exactly a half of the competition was scheduled towards the middle of the summer, since when through a combination of reducing the number of games to 14 and other changes to the fixture list this has declined half-way to not all. The obvious general question here is where is all this heading?

As to the wait between games at the 18 county grounds the longest gaps are not surprisingly at counties that do  cricket festivals on outgrounds, although not all those that play at outgrounds have  particularly long intervals at their main ground. But the impact of  taking the game away from the middle of the English summer in the last couple of years is plainly a general one and for most resulted in a gap of something like two months in 2018.

The CC ‘Summer Break’, no of Days 2018 (2016)

Headingley 127 (63) Chester-le-Street 61 (47)
The Oval 96 (39) Derby 61 (50)
Bristol 77  (89) Leicester 56 (34)
Hove 75 (38) Northampton 56 (39)
Lord’s 68  (35) Southampton 56 (31)
Edgbaston 67  (31) Cardiff 51 (61)
Taunton 67  (39) Canterbury 41 (44)
Old Trafford 64 (50) Trent Bridge 41 (32)
Chelmsford 61 (31) Worcester 40 (37)

 

If rhythm in the cricket season comes from continuity and at least some regularity in the fixture list it has gone missing in the Championship scheduling and there are other variations that from the spectating end of things are difficult to fathom. The six rounds of matches in the first part of the season are played across the weekend, the four rounds of matches in September when the competition reaches its climax, are played during the week.  Matches in 2018 started on all seven days  of the week; those that began two days after the August bank holiday had a scheduled Saturday finish when domestic football was a rival attraction and the following week finished on a Friday when football was on an international break.

In a world of  free streaming and Beeb radio commentary  at some point this might very well risk an exodus of members, the game’s bedrock joining the Chief National Selector in seeing the Championship as an I-pad experience. The August issue of The Cricketer magazine included a piece from its editor making the case for more red-ball cricket mid-summer, central it might be thought to the competition retaining its strategic importance in the game; although with the ECB pushing on with The Hundred and some county voices responding to it by arguing the case for an expanded Blast, the problem for the appreciators of the game’s long-form is evidently a fundamental one.

It is a long way from  obvious that there are enough figures in the cricket establishment with incentives to stabilise the place of red-ball game. George Dobell wrote a piece this summer on the presence of a Cricket Supporters’ Association, a body to give the game’s supporters more of a voice. FWIW, almost 20 years ago this one blogger had some involvement with the setting up of football’s Supporters’ Direct, from which a fairly clear message that there are issues that ‘burn’ (existential ones at many football clubs then) and attract support, and there are good intentions about governance changes, the election of supporters’ reps to boards, which are often the long-road. The tensions within the game being the way they are the need for a campaign for red-ball cricket looks real enough.

 

 

 

Data sourced from Cricket Archive.

 

 

 

 

Dean Park, Bournemouth

Hampshire versus Middlesex 3rd September 1978.

The current issue of The Nightwatchman is largely  given over to the influence that overseas players have had on  domestic cricket since the summer of 1968,  the season after the rules on their registration were relaxed. In the 1970s much of the excitement that followed came from West Indian cricketers who dominated on the international stage but who starred in domestic cricket as well.

Clive Lloyd, Viv Richards, Gordon Greenidge and Alvin Kallicharran had county careers that between them spanned more than 70 years, brilliant but also lasting, and apart from Roy Fredericks who by then had left Glamorgan, 10 of the West Indian team that won the inaugural World Cup in 1975 returned to play for their counties that summer, 6 of them in Sunday League fixtures the following day. Seen from 2018 the general strength of  West Indian cricket in the 70s and 80s, and the loyalty of the individual players to their respective counties, put the game decades ahead of football in helping combat prejudice.

As to the Sunday League match played on the 3rd September 1978 at Dean Park, after the mid-season exit of Barry Richards, it was a game largely won by Gordon Greenidge  batting about as well as at any time for his county.  The strong Hants team of the 70s were on the wane, but were to claim the JPL trophy that evening as he got on top against a Middlesex team, that boasted a bowling attack of  fellow Barbadian, Wayne Daniel, Mike Selvey , the ‘spin twins’ Phil Edmonds and John Emburey, and Mike Gatting.   Even after 40 years it is not at all difficult to remember just how hard Gordon Greenidge hit  a cricket ball, back over the bowler’s head as much as anywhere, and the general excitement, apprehension then relief that followed the ball’s trajectory after the shot, realising that someone might have to catch it, and then seeing the ball land in or sail over the hedges that surrounded the ground.

The Middlesex team that afternoon had nine players who either had or who would go on to play international cricket; although it was actually Norman ‘Smokey’ Featherstone that led the visitors’ reply, having also checked the Hants innings with the ball. Harry Pearson in his piece ‘The Journeymen’ points out just how important ‘bits and pieces’ players can be to their teams and how much appreciated they are at times by supporters as well; in the case of Norman Featherstone a career lasting a decade and more, giving ‘glue’ to a Middlesex team that was generally on the rise in the 70s.

In a separate piece titled ‘Box of Delights’, Matthew Engel recalls happy summer days past  when county cricket was quite widely covered by the national press, but also by local, independently-minded journalists  as well.  It could fairly be said that the press box at Dean Park, to the left in ‘the cowshed’, did basics;  a building shared with the scorers to the right, a store of historic equipment in the rear which also provided a place for the umpires to change in.  But a way of life for those doing reports that had a certain charm to be sure, particularly then perhaps; even if, unlike their colleagues going round the nation’s racecourses, there were no telephonists to assist with dispatches.

There were other ways, now largely forgotten, in which domestic cricket exercised its voice then;  tea-time interviews given by county players and officials as  a part of the Beeb’s coverage on Sundays being one of them. Twenty minutes or so once a week through the summer months; ground level views in a manner of speaking, often from pleasant settings at a time when the game was still largely viewed as a game, and batsmen who walked, such as Hampshire’s captain Richard Gilliat, won their share of trophies. In his interview that summer he expressed  complete scepticism about the long-term benefits of the Packer revolution  for ‘ordinary’ county cricketers, which from the vantage point of 2018 is a judgement that seems to have been largely, if not entirely, right.

Of Dean Park, Hants continued playing home fixtures there until the early 1990s after a decade in which the county of the Hambledon club began to rather lose its way off the field. If cricket is a mirror of sorts to the world beyond, the Rose Bowl, conceived in the late 80s during the excesses of the ‘Lawson Boom’, led to decades of financial strain in Southampton, as an essentially solvent cricket club making small surpluses became something rather different. Others since have added to the over-expansion of TMGs and are still counting the cost.

Hampshire 221-4, (C.G. Greenidge 122), Middlesex 195ao (N.G. Featherstone 76, T.E. Jesty 5-32).

 

 

 

 

 

 

Watching T20 Cricket

Lancashire Lightning versus Yorkshire Vikings, Now TV, 20th July;  MCC  versus Nepal versus Netherlands, 29th July, Lords;  Surrey Stars versus Lancashire Thunder, 31st  July, the Oval.

The Roses rivalry produced a game of short form cricket that was about as good as it gets and, rather unusually for T20 cricket on TV, the memory of this match, which won Lancashire by 1-run, might actually last for a while.  It also helped set up the Championship fixture that followed afterwards, a message for the fixture schedulers maybe, but overall Counties 2 ECB 0 in the week after the football World Cup.

The MCC’s triangular tournament deserved better luck with the weather, but the two ICC associate nations did get some time out on the hallowed turf, and for the Marylebone Club players, there was two 36-ball contests as well. An afternoon helped  rather a lot  by the noisy, infectious, enthusiasm of the Nepalese support, several hundred in the Grandstand, the nature of which was rather similar to that given at some of the events during London 2012. The Dutch in the crowd did European style support and there was also  a sprinkling of MCC members in attendance. The non-aligned were not very many; this blogger was one, curious enough to go, but there mainly from having been a heat wave absentee from a Blast fixture earlier in the week.

Two days later July was dressed up again and playing her tune at the Oval, where the KSL fixture was played in front of a weekday sized county audience, and despite the ground gearing up for the men’s match in the evening, it had much of the ambience of a county game.

The match was dominated by the performances of Natalie Sciver who made an undefeated 95, and  Nicole Bolton who replied for the visitors with 87, out leg before to the Surrey star and Star. In the end the visitors won with one ball to spare following a 4, then 6, after threatening to implode; a good T20 finish. The match evidently held the attention of those watching and for an afternoon’s entertainment at the people’s Home of Cricket £5 still and a bargain.

From which a couple of observations: as a spectacle the shortest form of the game is very reducible to its fundamentals of boundary hits, moments of brilliant fielding and extras referred to under a variety of names, taking singles and coming back for a second included. To which fine taken for what it is, the Roses contest was in practice  84 balls this year and it would have been hard to have been a much better watch if it had been 120. Or a 100. If the short form of the  game is going to expand globally via the Olympics, it would not be at all surprising to see it played as T10.

Whether the cricket is played in Manchester or Kathmandu, history and context is a gift to the present from the past; a fundamental that the ECB certainly appears to be trying to ignore with its proposed competition from 2020. The MCC triangular tournament had obvious purpose, but sitting in the Lord’s Grandstand and looking the other way did prompt the thought who is going to identify with the 8-gon tournament coming in from the Nursery End?

 

 

 

Burnaby Road, Portsmouth

Hampshire versus Yorkshire Sunday 6th August 1978

The United Services Ground in the 1970s had a certain robustness to it, the feel to spectating given partly by the sounds emanating from the Officers’ Club in one corner and the famed heavy roller, weighing over 5 tonnes, stationed more or less directly opposite. Behind the rugby stand opposite in the photo, the railway line, and, on one side of the ground the festival tents with deck chairs for spectators, adjacent to the entrance and the impressive King James’s Gate.

Modernity then was in the form of the rugby clubhouse cum pavilion next to the pavilion used by the  players; offering home-made teas on Sunday afternoons and social history in the form of the photographs of the rugby teams over the decades, and the distinctive looking figures that played for them. Burnaby Road also did something of a split scoreboard, with the main board to the left of the older pavilion and tin plates doing bowlers’ overs bowled on the other side.

Cricket Archive records first-class cricket starting with a match between a Cambridge University team and the visiting Australians in 1882, a week or so before the ashes of English cricket were urned at the Oval.  County Championship matches were first played in 1895, and wars and two seasons apart, continued until 2000.  An historic ground; as to the cricket played on Sunday 6th August 1978, the match rather foreshadowed what was to happen in the  World Cup Final a year later. In an era of outstanding West Indians, Gordon Greenidge batted brilliantly, scoring at a rate close to current norms in List A cricket; the visitors after a solid start, struggled rather (Hampshire 216-4 in 34 overs, G. Greenidge 116, Yorkshire 130ao, 28 overs).

Ambient pleasure in watching at Pompey came from its history and distinctive character, a good ground to perambulate and cricket by the sea as well; with the prospect of the Rose Bowl being otherwise used for several weeks in the summer of 2020, perhaps a Hampshire team will return to Portsmouth, or, if not, then to May’s Bounty in Basingstoke.

 

 

 

 

County Cricket and its Outgrounds

Chris Arnot’s book is a gentle nostalgia for county cricket past, times fondly remembered in pleasant  and sometimes beautiful settings, places where supporters were close the game and its players. Quite what constitutes a cricket festival is given some leeway by the author,  but there are over 50 grounds recalled and he understandably concludes with the wish that the game’s festivals do not become an extinct species.

Certainly some of the nostalgia  comes from remembering when those at the very top of the game played on club and school grounds; and also  on municipal grounds as well at times, such  as Clarence Park in Weston photographed here in 1978, a venue where player facilities while not unusual for public parks then could now be euphemistically described as limited. In a very different world forty years ago, the game’s best players were paid salaries for the season that were not a long way north of what a new graduate could then expect.

The 1970s was a rather turbulent decade to end the relatively egalitarian post WWII era in  Britain, although cricket arguably did a  decent job of adapting to change with the then shorter forms of the  game. The Sunday League was to a considerable extent played on outgrounds, 100 in all, as the game renewed itself by going local,  sometimes very local;  in the middle of the decade the competition was won by a Hants team with three ICC Hall of Fame cricketers at Darley (pop 5,000).

In the decades that followed the middle classes politically re-asserted their interests and cricket festivals saw growing numbers of corporate hospitality tents, that were later to become permanent boxes as the county game centralised, contracting the number of places where it was played. In a changing economy some company grounds were no longer used and with the advent of  4-day cricket, the historic festivals at Weston-super-Mare, Bath, Bournemouth, Portsmouth, Eastbourne, Hastings, Folkestone, Maidstone, Ilford and Southend departed from the cricketing calendar. The festivals of the middle-classes, together with those of ‘Essex Man’, what went with them was the counties doing their bit for club cricket at those grounds and returning spectators giving in some cases decades long support to the game.

As to what this might tell anyone about the prospects for outground cricket in the future, in 2018 festivals there still are at  Arundel, Cheltenham, Guildford and Scarborough, and, if not necessarily named as such, 4-day games are on the calendar at Chesterfield, Colwyn Bay, Swansea, Southport and Tunbridge Wells as well. Most counties continue to play at least some cricket on outgrounds.

In the  August issue of The Cricketer the magazine’s editor makes the case for a more even distribution of the Championship games across the summer, something for the hearts and minds of the game’s  traditional supporters, although he does also make it clear that priorities in ECB fixture scheduling  are international cricket, the Blast, then other competitions.

If, as may well be, the amount of county cricket that is played in 2020 is reduced to some degree, it being a matter of which format(s), but that the financial distributions from the ECB to the counties are increased, then the extent to which outgrounds are used looks like a fairly open question. If the view that more Championship cricket should be played in July and August does prevail, it should at least maintain, if not extend, the number of 4-day games, albeit that  it might squeeze the number of limited overs fixtures.

The game of cricket is evidently caught between the centralising tendencies of the ECB and the counties, who still do something to spread the professional game around the country. This points to a fundamental problem, even if much of the public debate this summer has been over the merits or otherwise of a yet to be tried format for the game.  The county game has in the past done very similar competitions at the same time,  30 balls to make a point of  difference rather than 20, and in 1981, almost entirely forgotten now, 7 a side 10 over cricket was tried at football grounds.  It didn’t work then, although T10 cricket, 2 hour games, might well in the future.

On the long view county outgrounds are a marker of sorts, cast now as something of a counterweight to the game’s globally minded elites, who appear determined to introduce a competition in which they will regulate the integrity levels of the teams they will create, own and manage. Chris Arnot at the end of his book points to the continuing success of cricket at  Scarborough and the need for individual festivals to pay their way; to which amen, although coming at this more generally prompts the question could the game of cricket really afford  to not continue with its festivals?

 

 

 

 

 

The Toss and the T20 Blast

Does the toss in the T20 Blast give an advantage to the team who wins it? The % of games won by its winners  over the years in the competition under its various names is shown in the chart below, together with the % of field first decisions.

In eight of the fifteen seasons its winners have won more games than they lost, in the other seven years the opposite. The numbers bounce around from one year to the next, in most years alternate above and below 50%, which they could be expected to do if winning the toss had essentially no effect on the outcomes of matches. Overall since 2003 the win % is 49.8; a pointer suggesting an answer to the question of quite possibly not.

As to the field first decisions made, the big shift to a preference for fielding first is striking; a previous bat/bowl ratio of around 70: 30 reversed over the present decade; conventional wisdoms about how to apply pressure on the opposition old and new,  from  which a reasonable inference is that captains, and the supporting cast of analysts as maybe, presumably do think there is, or at least might be, an advantage to exploit.

In general terms the overall numbers sit comfortably enough with the simple observation that winning the toss could be decisive in very tight matches, and with the view that a bit of luck should be a factor in sport but that the extent of any advantage be simply not large enough, often enough, to impact the win% figures. But the numbers  do also prompt the question of why the current preference for fielding has gone as far as it has and also whether the decisions that are made are due for another shift?

The second chart shows the % of games won batting first and fielding first. In 2017 in rounded numbers the teams who won the toss chose to field 68% of the time, won 44% of the games, of which batting first they won 47%, fielding first 42%;  which might not unreasonably prompt the thought that there were too many decisions to have a bowl first. Standing a year ago and looking back on the then previous 2016 season, the respective numbers are 69%, 57%, 54% and 58%, which might not unreasonably prompt the opposite thought.

In other words relying on the numbers for just one year could be rather misleading; in the early years of the competition, when the decisions made were  towards batting first,  there was for a time some supporting evidence of teams winning proportionately more often batting first. In the last few years it is hard, or at least harder, to say the same for the current preference for bowling first; not only do the win% tend to alternate from year to year, but  also the breakdowns of wins when batting and bowling first as well.

It is, of course,  possible that there could be a systematic advantage from the current bowl first decisions, even with the numbers above, but that the influence is conflated with other general and/or in-play influences.  Some of which influences may also be measurable and possible to (statistically) model, but absent plausible evidence on this, the question is why is the toss anything more than a way of just starting matches?

 

 

Hove

Sussex versus Hampshire 19th June 1978

Good Old Sussex by the Sea was the reward for a journey involving three slam door trains,  in time to see Gordon Greenidge and Trevor Jesty coming out to bat on a brilliant midsummer morning; two members of a particularly strong Hants team in the 1970s, albeit by the time this photo was taken one that was coming towards the end of its lifespan. The relatively small numbers of mature spectators, in the pavilion, in the deckchairs  not unusual for a weekday in June; numbers tended to rise, to some extent, with those of school-age, their teachers and holiday-makers later in the summer. As for commercialisation in cricket 1978 style, the (slightly bedraggled) sign for Qantas is not all that surprising, even if Barmy Army travels were not to start for more than a decade; more of a surprise, maybe, is the sign for the Burnley Building Society to its right, advertising to cricket-goers in Hove.

In the summer of 1978 both counties had a schedule of 72 days of First-Class cricket of which this match was the fourth of six (3-day) fixtures in June, with, for the visitors, seven to follow in July; 16 days more than in the 2018 Championship, in a season 25 days longer now. It was also a time when the cricket season had a rhythm to it which is simply absent in 2018, the then 17 counties played most of their limited-overs fixtures on Sunday afternoons, when a new audience, younger members included, were most likely to be able to (and did) attend.

Happily Hove has retained the character of a cricket ground over the decades since: more comfortable seating for watchers in 2018,  a better view looking up from the public stand built adjacent to the pavilion, an accommodation made with hospitality boxes and deckchairs there remain at the Cromwell Road end. A ground enhanced by its development, although anyone who can see something of the essence of English cricket in the photos here, or the way the ground is now, would surely see more of it with more balanced fixture scheduling.

In their book ‘Arlott, Swanton and the Soul of English Cricket’, Stephen Fay and David Kynaston argue that the  changes in the game in  the 1960s and 1970s were more fundamental and far-reaching than any for a century, and that ‘it was essentially money that drove  change’; changing its nature, as distinct from the variety of formats. In other words cricket started to become less like a game.

This seems like a reasonable comment on the way of things then.  On his retirement at the end of the 1980 season John Arlott wrote of his ‘abiding nostalgia’ for the county cricket circuit and the considerable charm the way of life gave its participants, at a time when the jobs available to many outside the game had little or no charm, or much in the way of holidays to recommend them. It could however also be said that more money comes with its advantages,  which at the time included helping to attract many of the world’s finest cricketers to come and play in England.

The Hants team that played in this match had three ICC Hall of Fame cricketers, were led from the field at the end of it by Keith Stevenson, an ‘honest county pro’; appropriate to a  reflection on the Arlott era. As for the financial rewards for playing then,  the Hampshire players’ salaries in 1973, the year of their last Championship, amounted to somewhere around £450K in all (£2018); county cricketers have plainly been beneficiaries from the greater sums of money coming into  the game since, although it could be fairly added, not the principal ones.

 

 

 

The Counties and their Finances III

Gloucestershire, Somerset and Worcestershire

In a recent interview with The Times, Colin Graves repeated his view that he wants to see a thriving 18-county system, mentioning that the proposed new competition from 2020 would  mean an additional £1.3mn  for each county, with a minimum of £3.5mn per year. The ECB’s accounts for the last year refer to  ‘significantly increased’ broadcast revenues from 2020 and however much that might actually turn out to be in £mn, it will be enough, according to those at the top of the game, to future-proof the county circuit as well as fund the new competition. 

 

It is not too difficult to see why the sums mentioned might sway a majority, if not all, of the game’s business minds. All three counties here are substantially funded by the ECB revenues that are shared out across the game; for Worcestershire, for example, over 60% of its income in the last decade has come from ECB funds.

Pooling revenues has a long history in cricket (as with other sport) on the grounds that it makes for more competitive matches, and whether the county game is viewed in its own right, or simply as a proving ground for Test cricket, or something of both, the general rationale for this is solid enough.

What this leaves open is quite how much? Over most of the ECB era the total amounts distributed to the counties from the centre have, broadly speaking, flat-lined and the experience of the three here plainly fits into this overall pattern. The amounts in £mn shared out to the individual counties, though not equal, are quite similar.

A large jump in the minimum raises the question why it would make the  counties here more sustainable? In 2016 they had (loan) debts in the region of £3-£5m, made interest payments of the order of 3-5% of their income, and generally have had salary spends on cricketers that has allowed them to compete with the county teams from the major TMGs.

The combination of relatively equal shares from the ECB pool, and centrally controlled playing spends has, it could be said, been on the side of the smaller counties from a sustainability point of view. Where large extra revenues might go, if large extra revenues there  be, given that all are recipients, is fundamental and also problematic.

The (2016) membership totals in the chart below are also striking, particularly at Taunton where the numbers are greater than at Cardiff,  Edgbaston and Old Trafford. The similarity between those for Worcestershire and Warwickshire is also noticeable. As a % of their respective county populations, Somerset are ahead of the TMGs, way ahead of three of them.

Also apparent is the variation between the TMGs,  about twice the numbers at Trent Bridge, where historically membership has risen, as there are at Edgbaston. There has been a decline and in recent years recovery at Headingley, and a more or less unchecked historical decline at Old Trafford, since numbers of nearly 14,000 in 1997. As for sustaining a new audience, playing at venues where there is experience of keeping an existing one might be thought helpful.

By comparison with football, which in the past certainly had its problems in the aftermath of the collapse of the ITV-Digital contract, but where most of the time this century the revenue numbers from TV have been heading north,  it is arguable that cricket has had a more difficult, maybe much more difficult, time over the years.

The much criticised decision to take Test cricket behind a paywall after 2005 was justified by the ECB by the need to maintain its revenues. Channel 4, it seems fair to say, were not in a position to repeat its previous  contract, and the decision to ‘take the money’  has at least produced a time when  the distributions to the counties have been sustained; which is not to diminish the problems from the decision.

When aiming for sustainability the question that comes with a good  contract is what happens if it is then followed by a less good one?The general, systemic, risk to the smaller and mid-size counties, but really the county game as a whole, from big increases in central funding from 2020 is to whom would the ECB and the game turn, if there was a decline in 2024?

 

 

 

 

 

The Counties and their Finances II

Lancashire,  Nottinghamshire, Warwickshire and Yorkshire

The March issue of The Cricketer  has a strongly worded editorial comment in favour of a city-based 2020 ‘future’, and while to be sure the editor was clearly thinking  in terms of the then expected t20 format, the editorial line was no need for fear, only winners here; before going on to mention that the domestic game is almost £200mn in debt and that the new competition from the ECB is a ‘diligently researched, meticulously constructed attempt to eradicate it’.

Both sides of the argument in relation to the proposed 2020 competition face what is a divide of sorts, if not a fault line, between the counties with international grounds in the cities and the other counties; the  legacy of redeveloping and upgrading venues one side, the risks of marginalising, if not extinguishing, part(s) of the county game on the other.

Yet, when it comes to their financial size, and the debts that are being carried, the differences between the TMG counties, with Surrey at one end of the spectrum, are often greater than the differences between them and the others. In terms of revenues, the four counties over the horizon covered by the chart, for instance,  vary from Lancashire (£258mn) to Yorkshire  (£118mn) with Warwickshire (£183mn) and Nottinghamshire (£153mn).

When TV coverage of Test cricket went commercial after 1998, Channel 4 latterly offered a contract that was so favourable to the game that it was unable to repeat it and the ECB, prioritising (centralised) revenues, traded away FTA coverage; with  risks for the  finances of individual counties passed on from the diminished visibility of the game and in the case of the TMGs, dealing with the effects of having to bid and pay staging fees to hold international cricket.

It is no surprise that the revenues from the middle of the last decade became more variable,  with the  particular years in which Test cricket was staged or not obviously important for the individual grounds. Edgbaston and Trent Bridge both staging four Ashes Tests after 2001, Headingley and Old Trafford two, creating predictable local peaks; as the for the troughs in the case of Old Trafford 2012 was a year of major rebuild, the ground that re-opened a year later, ‘a venue for the 21st century’.

There are, of course, other specifics, which impact the revenue figures, one of which being membership numbers; at Old Trafford, for example, there were  more than 13,000 members at the turn of the century, a number that had declined  to the order 5,000 by 2016, while at Trent Bridge numbers of 5,000 in 2000 have since risen by around 50%. Differences of this sort are not obviously attributable to matters of TV coverage; variations in costs and fixture scheduling, the management of member facilities would seem likely, among other things, maybe.

In a way the revenue figures are also an observation on the argument put forward by some club officials at times that the business in the cricket business is simply there to support the cricket. Centrally set limits have meant that the differences between the counties’ expenditures on their playing staff have been relatively small: the financial records over the last decade show spends by Lancashire of £26mn, by Yorkshire £24mn; the  amounts of support from business involved in putting out a team of  cricketers seemingly varying by a factor of up to two among the counties here, between 2007-16  about £1 in 6 of the revenues at Old Trafford went on paying their county players, at Headingley, about £3 in 10.

As to the debts being carried, the second chart shows the growth in the loan finance by the four counties; numbers that have risen in the last decade with ground developments at Edgbaston, where loans rose from £20K to £20mn between 2008-11 and at Old Trafford, where they rose from £3mn to £18mn during those years and where the numbers have been projected to keep rising, as they have been at Headingley, reportedly up to £40mn with the development of the football stand. As things stand something like a half of the debt in English cricket is carried by three counties, with loan finance at Trent Bridge  having peaked at the end of the last decade since when it has halved approximately.

How much of a problem is this really? Much of  the growth in debt finance in the last decade has an orthodox (and not unreasonable) justification that the cost of the ground rebuilds be paid for on a generational horizon.  Developments aimed at eradicating debts on a shorter horizon come up against the standard (and as far as it goes not unreasonable) objection that they are likely to be either ineffective, for some if old debts are paid off new ones be acquired, or un-necessary, for others manageable debts simply remain that way.

Debts from trading losses are another story and there is a something like common sense takeaway from the first chart that more stability would be a good thing, greater certainty about major match allocations for longer horizons a help and avoiding unnecessary risk-taking, it does seem reasonable to think, likewise; such as a new competition for new spectators where they simply may not exist in noticeable numbers  in one, or several, of the proposed locations for holding it.

Broadly speaking an era of commercialisation, with the centralisation of revenues and arguably more managerial influence throughout the game, has resulted in more debt. There is no obvious outward sign that this is set to change, rather that the 100 ball cricket now proposed from 2020 is the continuation of the same, at least in terms of managerial influence;  which raises the question whether the rising debt levels are reversible without, among other changes, there being larger budgetary spends on the game’s players?