It is a misconceived idea


I SAW a game of Cricket Max in New Zealand a few years ago and it was a lot of fun. You got 12 for hitting the ball into a target area, each side batted twice but very briefly under the lights, Mike Atherton was caught out by a girl and the beer-drinking, hamburger-munching locals went crazy.

Now something similar is to be tried in England. From next summer there will be a 20 overs a side competition, with the semi-finals and final at Lord's and if it is to be a piece of pure entertainment, I hope the whole of the England women's team gets a game and they all wear funny hats.

But it is a truly misconceived idea even if the organisers deserve a pat on the back for trying.

The belief is that this watered down, giggle of a game will attract the younger element. I happen to be related to quiet a few members of the younger generation and I can assure the England and Wales Cricket Board that they are not daft. They will not feel compelled to watch cricket simply because it is played out of office hours and doesn't last very long.

Besides, there are no young people watching cricket in this country. Not even the 10-year-olds, clutching their scorebooks, their autograph books, their school caps, raincoats and satchels; and losing their pencils just as their hero is ready to sign. Mentally they are all nearing pensionable age.

They like cricket for its tradition, its archaic clothing, old-fashioned good manners and its certainty in a rapidly changing world. They know how many maiden overs W. G. Grace bowled to left-handers, they can recite Law 42.7 backwards and they will all grow up to be scorers and devout admirers of Jo King and Bill Frindall.

It is no use kidding ourselves that they are all looking for a more modern approach, wishing that the cricketers wore shorts and that Lord's had floodlights.

Instead most fans probably favour the reintroduction of the curved bat, the old lbw law and uncovered pitches. I have heard some of them argue for these changes and when the 20-overs idea was introduced two of them went on the radio and said as much.

They happened to be Chris Hassall, the chief executive of Yorkshire and Jim Cumbes who does the same job at Lancashire. They laughed when they said it; but they also reflected a widely-held view.

No-one is sure how the novelty idea got through the First Class Forum - the Lord's lawyers had to search their dusty old volumes to discover if the majority was big enough - but it did. We will just have to cross our fingers, hope for the best and suspect that once the initial fervour dies away 20-over cricket will be just another good marketing idea that had three years of glory and then quietly died.

Actually, the FCF had a rotten afternoon. They also decided that it was time to allow two overseas professionals for each county back and that is based on decidedly dodgy logic.

When that idea first surfaced in the late 1960s Brian Close, then Yorkshire and, briefly, England captain, damned it as a bad solution to the problems of the day - lack of crowds, lack of interest in the county game - and forecast that it would put a stop to the steady supply of England-quality young cricketers.

Brian was never Brain of Britain but his instinct on this occasion was spot on. As Yorkshire ploughed - unsuccessfully - ahead without an overseas player for another 20 years, the rest of the counties relied too heavily on partnerships like Joel Garner and Viv Richards at Somerset, Zaheer Abbas and Mike Procter at Gloucestershire and Richard Hadlee and Clive Rice at Notts. The fortunes of the England team plunged towards the bottom of the ocean.

This time the notion has risen again because it is felt the counties deserve compensation for the loss of players who will spend most of their time either playing for England or lounging about in what are believed to be necessary periods of rest. (We'll come back to that bit in a minute.)

I think it is more likely that cricket, following in the footsteps of football - a professional game heading for bankruptcy - will spend more of its money on players' wages and less of its energy in ensuring that the schools, the small leagues and the major club sides produce good young England prospects.

Incidentally, this idea came to the fore soon after the ECB suggested a cap on players' wages so that salaries do not absorb a disproportionate amount of annual income. A contradiction in terms? What else is new?

I'll tell you what else is new. In the future it is planned for the ECB to pay all their Test and one-day international players' salaries as well as giving them one-year contracts. They will appear for their counties even less frequently.

Thus, young Joe Bloggs is discovered, nurtured and finally developed to a high standard by Blankshire. He is then kidnapped by the ECB to be one of 20 England players and takes part in a maximum of 45 days' play each summer and goes on two brief tours in the winter.

Let us suppose young Joe is a fringe player on the international scene and takes part in only half the matches. That reduces his summer's workload to a mere 20 days or so each season. Forget how much he is paid - didn't I estimate a few weeks ago that he might be a millionaire by the time he retired? - but what does he do with the rest of his time.

If he is an Andrew Caddick, who by nature is not a regular visitor to the gym but gets fit by bowling 20-plus overs a day, his fitness levels will drop. If he is Darren Gough, who is a regular gymnast, he will stay fit but probably put on a pound or two. If he is a James Ormond, who turned up in New Zealand tipping the scales until they almost fell over, he may find his international career at an end.

In other words, if the ECB are to take charge of so many players - they say they have not got the money but I guess they will find it somewhere among their zillions - who will manage them? What will they do between Tests? To bring the whole question to a sensible conclusion, is a contract system really necessary?

It may be. But have ECB thought it through and particularly in a cricket sense? It seems not. It was one of the questions asked of Nasser Hussain, the England captain and Duncan Fletcher, the England coach when they went to their winter debriefing.

Here is another argument that will run through the next few years.

When good old James Lillywhite Junior set off for Australia in 1876 he had just 11 men under his command. They visited Australia and New Zealand, played 23 matches between November 16 and April 17, were sea sick, slept in bad hotels, were stuck in the middle of a river and spent two nights in a roadman's shelter after drying themselves naked in front of an outdoor fire. Imagine the fuss on the front page of a tabloid if that happened now.

By the time the first Test was staged in Melbourne his selection committee had been relieved of any responsibility. Edwin Pooley was in a New Zealand jail after a row over gambling and so all 11 who climbed off the boat from New Zealand one afternoon played the following day.

They lost the Test - and the series therefore by 1-0 - the margin by which England lost to India recently, despite the modern travel, five star hotels and perfectly prepared meals. But none of the Lillywhite 12 found time passing slowly, even though they left Southampton on September 21 and did not return to London until June 2.

Did they complain? Of course they did. Players have always whinged.

Now, as tours shorten and air travel improves, England hardly need to take more than 14 players as a maximum. A minimum of good management ought to be able to work with two reserves, provided a wicket-keeper is on stand-by somewhere close.

I often feel they would perform with more purpose if they lightened up a bit, forgot how important they were and simply played.

Perhaps a touch of Cricket Max might help them achieve that target.