Importance of leagues

It is interesting to note that the UNFASHIONABLE SUSSEX, who have just won the English county championship for the second time in the last four years, have a playing staff of only 18, eleven of whom are local boys.

Yet again Lancashire's quest for a county championship was pipped at the post. In finishing second to Sussex, Lancashire have now not won a county championship outright since the mid-1930s.

They shared one in between but for nearly 70 years, the cupboard is bare. Yet, they are one of the biggest and most prosperous county cricket teams in the country. They also have, perhaps, the most extensive league system in England. The Lancashire leagues are world famous and most of the great Test players have spent time here. It should be the ideal ground to produce and develop outstanding young cricketers.

Much of the problem can be traced back to a `Them & Us' syndrome and while Yorkshire were known as one snappy family, Lancashire were not far behind.

I have had two coaching stints in England — two seasons each with Leicestershire and Lancashire. On both occasions I enjoyed the interaction with the playing staff, but I found the committees generally very insular and set in the past.

The county team and administration lorded over the local leagues and there was very little interaction between the two bodies, particularly in the development of young cricketers.

I was shocked when I broached this subject with the long-serving Leicestershire CEO and he said that the county didn't produce enough cricketers of quality. Next day he produced, rather gloatingly, I thought, a small list, of well under 100 players, who were born in the county and played for Leicestershire. This was the proof of his argument as to why the county shopped outside for players, though I gently tried to explain it was also a condemnation of Leicestershire's attitude towards their club cricketers.

In many ways the attitudes of both Lancashire and Leicestershire were similar. While Leicestershire has probably one of the smallest cricketing populations and Lancashire one of the largest, they have both relied heavily on imported players to try and boost their playing talent. While Leicestershire, the poorer of the two, concentrated on procuring English players on the verge of retirement, the wealthier Lancashire signed up some of the world's famous players.

Inevitably this has led to reduced opportunities for young local players. Both clubs, Leicestershire in 1990 and 1991 and Lancashire in 2000 and 2001, had a lot of staff and too many in their mid-20s languishing in the second XI with little prospects of going further. Their opportunities and development had been limited by too many older players brought from outside. It was a sad situation with too many players lingering around with little future.

Much of the blame for this could be levelled at the committee members. They were reluctant to let the players go as invariably they came from the same club as the various committee members and they didn't want to alienate their club-mates as they needed their support to be re-elected.

At both clubs I tried to do a little bit of culling but found it very difficult. On one occasion I recommended that a certain ex-international one-day player should not be offered a new contract. I based my recommendation on the fact that his physical fitness didn't allow him to play county matches and his one-day form and fielding weren't up to the mark.

My suggestion was rejected and the committee granted him a new contract and an increased salary. The next season was a disaster for the player.

While recommending that some of the second XI players be terminated, I was obviously seeking ways to improve the quality of the team. I was also very concerned about the future of the players who might have benefited from a move to another county or even looked for opportunities outside cricket. English county cricket is full of stories of average players whose lives have suffered because they hung on to a cricketing dream rather than move on and seek other opportunities.

At both clubs I also recommended a reduction of the playing staff from the 26 or 27 players under contract to a more manageable 18 or 19. My argument was that this would help mitigate the ever-present financial problem (at all the counties) and also make team selection more competitive.

I also felt that a smaller number would open up more opportunities for club cricketers to show their talent by being invited to play in the second XI matches. On both occasions my recommendations didn't get to first base.

It is interesting to note that the unfashionable Sussex, who have just won the English county championship for the second time in the last four years, have a playing staff of only 18, eleven of whom are local boys.

Lancashire, on the other hand, when I left them after the 2002 season, went the other way and embarked on a very expensive recruitment programme to try and win a title.

They raided less-fortunate clubs such as Northampton, Leicestershire and Derby and signed up experienced players.

In addition, Stuart Law, the talented Australian batsman, was signed from Essex after having spent enough time in England to qualify for citizenship. That his wife was also from Liverpool, of course, helped.

The net result of all of these signings was a very hefty players' bill and the oldest team in county cricket. Just where do they go from here? Obviously, in a couple of years injuries and retirement will take their toll.

As Sussex have shown, the locals are a good place to start. While the various leagues in Lancashire may not be as strong as they once were the structures are still in place and youngsters are still keen to play. They also shouldn't forget the Andrew Flintoff factor. He is now as big in Lancashire as the heroes from the great football clubs that abound in Lancashire, such as Manchester United and City, Liverpool, Everton and of course Flintoff's own football club Preston.

There will be no easy, paved road for Lancashire, but it will be fairly smooth if they begin rebuilding the bonds between the county and the leagues.