English Franchise Cricket – Has Its Time Come?

Whilst I consider myself to have progressive views on most things, when it comes to cricket I can be quite traditional. I like the County Cricket system. It has its flaws but compared to some of the domestic circuits around the world it is streets ahead in terms of organisation and quality. Alright, the CB40 tournament is kind of pointless in a world where there is no 40 over International cricket (for now) but it does a lot of things right. However in the midst of dwindling attendances in the current T20 format, a new solution was mooted back in 2010 which was to go down the route of the IPL and have a new T20 competition build around a city-based franchise system. In April of 2010, The Telegraph reported that a committee comprised of the owners of the various English Test venues (Hampshire, Durham, Yorkshire, Middlesex, Surrey, Lancashire, Warwickshire and Glamorgan) as well as the MCC were discussing changes to the format to this end. Were we about to see the formation of the  ‘London Leopards’ or the ‘Birmingham Badgers’? Well, no. Not just yet anyway. The committee roped in Deloitte to send in a proposal to the ECB.

Two years previously, David Stewart, the then chairman of Surrey and Keith Bradshaw, the then Chief Executive of the MCC came up with plans for a nine-team format. Each team would be sold for around £50m each and would play 57 games across all the Test grounds. The smaller counties which would not have been involved would all get a cut of the £85m that the format was supposed to generate from match-day revenued and broadcasting rights. The plan was kicked to the kerb after fierce opposition from the smaller counties who rightly felt that they were being marginalized whilst the big boys took the limelight. The ECB seemed to agree as well, but then went on to get into bed with Allen Stanford and we all know how that turned out. This in essence is my main gripe against the franchise system. You cannot overlook the smaller counties in favour of those clubs who have chased Test cricket and keep borrowing money from banks and the public sector in redeveloping their grounds and rack up huge debts in the process. Why would you overlook counties like Sussex and Somerset who have sound business models, don’t live above their means, build up contacts with local businesses in and around their area and who through no fault of their own would have a significant chunk of their income cut away. If there was a way where all eighteen counties could have representative franchises then that would be a way forward. I don’t think it would be likely, and certainly not at £50m per franchise – it would have to come down to around half of that. Also, every ground would have to be used too. You may be able to have a situation where a hypothetical ‘Brighton Barracudas’ team would play at the Kia Oval (home of London’s second franchise – the London Lions but try telling prospective fans of the ‘Leicester Foxes’ that they are going to have to travel to Trent Bridge or Edgbaston to watch their team in action. This is also beside the fact that the bigger teams do not necessarily win the current T20 anyway. True, Hampshire have won it twice now but previous winners include Sussex, Leicesterhire, Somerset and Kent whereas Lancashire, Durham and Nottinghamshire haven’t really come close (Durham did make semi-finals day in 2008, though).

Another argument is that for the format to be truly successful, all the big hitters in the England team would have to be released for county or franchise duty, irregardless of whether they have just come off a long winter or are on a busy International schedule and could really do with a break. Without them, the draw just would not be the same, even if the World’s finest were already signed up for it. All this means at the end of the day that there will be more cricket and more limited overs cricket at that, which would hinder England’s quest to become the best in the world.  Having said that, India have called up talents such as Virat Kohli, Ravi Ashwin to their International squad as a result of impressive IPL performances for Bangalore and Chennai respectively, not to mention Dilshan Munaweera’s inauspicious start to his Sri Lanka career in the 2012 WT20 after being top scorer in the inaugural SLPL T20, along with the host of West Indian talent that have come through after the Stanford 20/20.

If a city-based franchise system isn’t all-inclusive, it could mean seasoned county pros such as Chris Nash (above) playing for another side, despite still being contracted to Sussex for the other formats. © Getty Images

The general gist of franchise cricket in England was to rejuvenate the County format with new and younger fans. The idea being that after a season of following the Manchester Marauders, young fans from Greater Manchester and maybe even Lancashire would then go come back the next season for a season following Lancashire in the 4-day format, after building up a rapport with less illustrious players such as Simon Kerrigan and Gareth Cross. One bone of contention might be stuck int he craw of those of us who already follow County Cricket as it is, and are used to seeing the players we are familiar with play for their respective counties. In the case of a franchise system, there might be a situation like the  IPL had from the start where ‘Icon’ players such as Tendulkar, Dravid, Gambhir, Ganguly and Dhoni would start off at their home franchises of Mumbai, Bangalore, Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai respectively but were free to move come the next auction which led to ludicrous situations where Dravid finished his T20 career at Rajasthan and Ganguly (‘The Prince of Calcutta’) at the Pune Warriors. Things would not be any different here. As a Sussex fan, the thought of seeing Matthew Prior at Yorkshire or Chris Nash at Somerset makes my blood boil. Even if it means that in turn, should there be a Brighton franchise ‘we’ might get to watch Eoin Morgan and Azeem Rafiq at Hove. It should be pointed out that this situation is generally accepted in Australia as squads for the Big Bash League and the Sheffield Shield are often mixed up, as well as in India for the IPL and Ranji Trophy. Any new prospective fans would not know who Gareth Berg or Richard Pyrah are and who they played or currently play for beyond the glittering franchise before their eyes.

The supposed ability of the franchise system to attract new fans has put it at the center of plans to take the beautiful game stateside. One of two of the largest untapped resources that the ICC would bend over backwards to try and drill in to (the other being China but a case could be made for African cricket as well). My knowledge of the situation regarding cricket in America is sketchy, but few have written about it as expertly as Cricinfo’s Peter Della Penna. It is easy to see the attraction of hosting T20 cricket in the US. Big economy, big expat community, and its not so different from cricket’s deformed cousin, baseball. What it doesn’t have are cricket pitches, and a general interest or knowledge in the game. Looking back at the history of cricket in the states however, there are instances of cricket having some brief periods of popularity such as with the Philadelphia Cricket Team of the late 1800’s and the early 1900’s who toured England on three ocassions and which included the emergence of one Bart King who is apparently considered the best cricketer America has ever produced -even if there haven’t been many challengers to that particular crown. The USA has hosted a couple of two-match T20 series, both featuring New Zealand; the first against Sri Lanka in 2010 which was supposed to be a 3-match series but the third match was cancelled due to substandard floodlights at the Lauderhill ground in Florida. The series ended 1-1 with concerns raised about the pitch amongst a couple of low-scoring matches. The second series took place last year in August against the West Indies. The pitches did not seem to be a problem but New Zealand still lost 2-0.

Cricket in the USA will get a healthy following from the expat community, as shown by that long-forgotting T20 series between New Zealand and Sri Lanka in Florida, 2010. © AP

In 2010, a deal was announced where the USACA along with the New Zealand Cricket Board, some wealthy investors and Anil Kumble would hold most of the rights to cricket in the states, including plans to hold a franchise-based T20 competition. Alas it turned out that it was too good to be true for the time being as last month as one of the main investors, Rajiv Podar was withdrawing from the whole thing, and that the USACA had been getting about half of the $2m per year initially agreed with Podar. This does not necessarily spend the end of cricket in the US, or even the end of the T20 league, but it is a major kick in the teeth following all the fanfare that surrounded the initial announcement. It is somewhat of a forward thinking initiative on the part of the New Zealand Cricket board, who seemed to have come to terms with the dwindling cricket market at home and sought to expand into new territories. Rest assured the ICC would bend over backwards to get it to work. Its just a shame that they have ignored more viable developing cricketing nations such as Ireland and Afghanistan in the process, but that I suppose, is a rant for another time.

Overall, should a Franchise T20 system come to these shores, I would not mind provided it included all the counties and not just those with Test arenas – which is not impossible if the asking prices remain sensible. London, Nottingham and Manchester’s franchises would doubtlessly fetch more money than Brighton’s, Leicester’s and wherever Kent would go to. No matter how much money those that get left out would be subsidized with, it would not be nearly enough. After all if the idea is to attract more fans everyone should stand to gain. That though is a major hurdle to clear and it simply would not make viable financially especially in this climate. Even in India, with the termination of the Deccan Chargers and the Kochi Tuskers Kerala franchises from the IPL, it shows that cricket’s biggest market has a ceiling when it comes to franchises. So getting 18 different franchise owners in a country that is very much  one of Test cricket’s last bastion and will start to bore of too much T20 far easier than the Indian fans, it might be asking too much. The termination of the Deccan Chargers franchise (which has since been  bought by the Sun TV Network and has been renamed ‘Sunrisers Hyderabad’) shows that a momentous IPL win in 2009 cannot make up for some bad seasons. Last year they went into the IPL with only one wicket-taking bowler in Dale Steyn who bowled admirably throughout. But he had very little backup from anybody else. Ishant Sharma was injured, Rusty Theron was underused due to the limit on overseas players and Amit Mishra was awful. That and the fact that runs from Sangakkara, Cameron White, Sikhar Dhawan and JP Duminy was inconsistent. With this in mind, it is easy to see how in an 18 team format, lack of success for a few season would make the owners get itchy feet an leave. Apart from the Clydesdale Bank 40 over tournament in 2011, Surrey have hardly won anything, despite getting a lot of money and spending a lot of money. A couple of seasons of underachievement the Surrey franchise – which would be based in London – and the owners would be looking at upping sticks leaving one of the biggest prospective franchises in the lurch. This situation would be present no doubt all over the league and sooner or later the whole format will either come crashing down or the ECB will decide to shorten it and we are back to square one. This is why whilst I think it could happen and if it did, it would only be with the blessings of the bigger counties and that simply isn’t the right thing for County Cricket as a whole.

Gloomy skies and empty seats. The following the day-to-day proceedings of the County Championship remains somewhat of an acquired taste. © Getty Images

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