The Cricket Reform Group

I HEAR that England are about to change the structure of their management group once again. They will dispose of Malcolm Ashton, their statistical guru, and use two assistant coaches who will share his complicated, computer-driven work between them.


Mike Atherton, the former England captain, is the front man for the Cricket Reform Group. — Pic. LAURENCE GRIFFITHS/GETTY IMAGES-

I HEAR that England are about to change the structure of their management group once again. They will dispose of Malcolm Ashton, their statistical guru, and use two assistant coaches who will share his complicated, computer-driven work between them.


That is easily explained. Australia changed their structure two years ago, Australia are on top of the world, and therefore what the Australians do must be right. Never mind that English cricket is played in different conditions, by young men who don't develop as quickly in our gentler climate, on strange, bowler-friendly pitches by full-time players who do nothing else for seven months of the year.

No. The Australians keep winning therefore we must follow their pattern.

The same thinking lies somewhere at the back of the changes suggested by the organisation known as the Cricket Reform Group. (Show me a new organisation with a name like that and I will show you a bunch of publicity-seeking geeks).

They want fewer counties, fewer matches, fewer full-time professional players and more rest periods. Sadly, the England and Wales Cricket Board have agreed to meet them and discuss their ideas. (Show me a mainstream organisation which agrees to meet a rebel movement and I will show you mainstreamers who have run out of ideas).

The CRG has distinguished names. Its front man is Mike Atherton, who led England more than any other captain, and who has shown over several years writing his own column that he has worthwhile ideas. Bob Willis, another ex-England captain, and his brother David, who runs their entertainment group, have also climbed aboard while they have managed to capture the voice if not the membership of Lord MacLaurin.

He was chairman of the ECB for six years until a short time ago, and now he is chairman of Vodafone, one of the main cricket sponsors. The TV chat show host Michael Parkinson, who may soon be the president of Yorkshire, has added his personality to the Group.

Michael Vaughan, the England captain, has expressed similar views, but without wishing to make such swinging changes and, of course, he is not part of their organisation any more than Lord MacLaurin. But you will understand the wish for these two to be on board.

As you see they are a wide and disparate body. Atherton and Willis have qualifications that need no explanation. They made runs and took wickets for their country over long periods. MacLaurin played minor cricket and headed several cricket bodies before he was given the chance to lead ECB in a number of reforming moves. Parkinson, an engaging personality, opened the innings for Barnsley with Dickie Bird who went on to be the best umpire in the world for a while.

So you may think they know what they are talking about and that the ECB is right to listen to them.

Except that all of them now come from outside the game, none of them have any office on the inside and, so far as we can see at this moment, none of them intend to do any more than debate its future. Getting their hands dirty in the day-to-day running of the game they are happy to leave to someone else.

They will stick to their place in the commentary box, observe from their ivory tower and make damning remarks whenever cricket life goes pear-shaped.

In other words they fall into that old definition of power without responsibility which is why I feel sorry that ECB have decided to listen.

Cricket in my country does not need massive reform. Because Australia only has six first-class teams there is no reason to think that England, with three times Australia's population, can make do with fewer. In fact our 18 first class counties for 60 million people seems to be exactly right compared with Australia's six for 20 million.

I have seen change justified because South Africa recently reduced their first class structure from 11 teams to six — "to intensify the competition." I hope it works for the South Africans, but there is no reason to think it will work in England.

The same arguments were run when county games were extended from three days to four. Have we won back the Ashes since that change was made? No. Have we looked as if we might win back the Ashes? No.

The ratio of wins to defeats has risen since Duncan Fletcher began his reign as coach and will no doubt be even higher after the series against Bangladesh. But against the top half of the table England have not shown any evidence since the change to four-day county games that there has been any benefit.

Looking back into history it is easy to see that Pelham Warner, Douglas Jardine, Len Hutton and Mike Gatting all took sides to Australia and brought back the Ashes when three-day cricket was the norm in England.

It was not the system, it was the men who mattered and all the tinkering with the laws, the rules and the methods will not help in a major way unless England find the right players.

So I am afraid that I shall be taking no notice of anything said by the Reform Group although such is the recent history of failure by the ECB that I have often wondered why some new Kerry Packer figure did not step forward and offer to put cricket back on a firmer footing.

The Professional Cricketers Association has come closer than most bodies to putting their finger on the faults in county cricket. They have issued a statement recently which shows that they and the ECB are still not speaking to one another in any meaningful way and asking that this situation should change.

Their chief executive Richard Bevan said: "We all share similar objectives — that is to work on behalf of our stakeholders to promote and develop the game. However, instead of regarding it in parochial terms, we need to view our roles as partners in a dynamic and growing business. The only way this partnership is going to flourish is if the partners communicate effectively with each other. Given cooperation and improved communication between us all, I'm optimistic that the game has a prosperous and sustainable future.

"Anyone lobbying for a reduction in the number of professional players employed by the counties needs to understand how second XI cricket will be compromised. If finance is the main concern, surely our attention should be switched to the number of overseas players employed by the counties."

Was that not the point I was making in this column only a few weeks ago. Of course, you would expect the PCA to protect the jobs of its members but they are no longer a short-sighted, inward-looking, navel-watching organisation, as the following story will show.

One cricketer was so concerned by his own lack of success that he decided his only course was to commit suicide. He actually went so far as to lock himself into the bathroom of his flat and cut his wrists.

Luckily for him, his flat mate returned and broke down the door to rescue the lad. Even more fortunately, he was given intensive help afterwards by the PCA: counselling, financial advice, accommodation and constant inquiries to make sure his worries were not getting him down again. That anonymous player is now intensely grateful to his union, as you might expect but there is an interesting sidelight to this story.

It was revealed in his Sunday newspaper column by Mike Atherton who was given the facts on only one condition — that he did not reveal the name of the unfortunate cricketer. For Atherton to uncover that story and to treat it as sensitively as he did shows the mark of a considerable journalist in the making. He is also the most admired commentator and his autobiography has been widely praised. You also only need to see him once with his year-old baby to realise he is a considerate and affectionate father. He obviously has a major career in front of him as well as a worthwhile and prosperous life. It almost makes me sorry that he and I can hardly have an exchange of words on any inconsequential subject without falling out. But who knows; one day perhaps.

So I will offer him a word of advice and we can quarrel about it later.

Stick to cricket journalism, Mike and forget about the attempts to reshape county cricket. I'm not even sure that the domestic game needs fewer teams, fewer players, and a new format. But, Mike, if you happen to spot an opening batsman in your own style, don't hesitate to let the right coaches know. That is the expertise you still have to offer and don't forget, you can always write about it afterwards.