County cricket desperately needs radical thinkers to save game

Arron Banks
Arron Banks' views on how the game is being run are sulphurous - Tori Ferenc for The Washington Post via Getty Images

The recent departure of David Jones as the chairman of Gloucestershire County Cricket Club not only highlighted tensions within the running of the club, but also within the wider world of English first-class cricket. That something has gone wrong in the world of red-ball matches, and indeed in the concept of country cricket generally, will come as no surprise to regular readers of these pages or of this column. But at Gloucestershire, this decline now seems to have unleashed a torrent of anger and, in the eyes of some, to have become an existentialist question. Gloucestershire do seem aware that their financial position is appalling, and that the relationship between those who run the club and its members could be far better. They are not, however, the only county with such problems.

However, one Gloucestershire supporter has decided to take the bull by the horns and try, if he can secure the consent of members, to radically change the way the club is run. In a lengthy message on social media that went out on Friday, Arron Banks, the insurance magnate who financed a large part of the successful Brexit campaign in 2016, has invited members of the club to a dinner on his Gloucestershire estate on June 4 to discuss the future of the county club. Last year Mr Banks agreed to provide some sponsorship for the club. He wrote in his letter: “I regret to tell you that, having reviewed the accounts of the club and met both the CEO and former chairman, Gloucestershire is in very poor shape.”

He argues that it is in a “downward spiral” with an apparent objective of “managed decline”. He asserts, quite rightly, that small county clubs cannot survive solely on revenue from cricket, and that some may go under. He is, rightly, highly critical of the England and Wales Cricket Board, whose obsession with milking increasingly mindless and silly one-day competitions – including the obviously doomed Hundred – to raise money that might subsidise the red-ball game has prevented them from working out how to make red-ball cricket more attractive. One passage in his letter – with every word of which I and countless other serious cricket lovers will agree – is especially potent.

Michael Atherton
Michael Atherton bats for Lancashire in 1999, the last year of the single 18-team division of the championship, something Arron Banks is keen to restore - PA Photo/Phil Noble

He writes: “Four-day cricket is often slow and turgid; it should, in my view, be played over three days with a minimum of 110 overs a day, to speed it up and give more value for money. All 17 sides should play each other home and away in alternate seasons, and to create incentives in the absence of a two-division set-up ECB funds should be distributed according to where a side finishes in the table. Touring sides should be contractually obliged to play the counties, as always used to be the case, and Test players should turn out for their counties whenever not playing for England. All of those factors might improve the attraction of the first-class game.”

He wants Gloucestershire to build a new ground, rather like Hampshire’s Rose Bowl, with a conference centre and hotel, facilities for other sports (to ensure year-round use) and a centre for women’s cricket. Given his strong belief in the traditional game, Mr Banks wants this new ground to host a Test match and for the club to win the County Championship (which it has never done, even in the days of WG Grace and Wally Hammond), and to develop a hybrid structure that allows a form of membership: though he makes it clear that the radical re-birth he envisages will require control by business professionals, not “well-intentioned amateurs”.

Gloucestershire players celebrate victory at the end of the match during the Vitality County Championship division two match between Northamptonshire and Gloucestershire
Gloucestershire celebrate victory over Northants in May, two of three clubs, Somerset being the other, never to have won the championship - Andy Kearns/Getty Images

Mr Banks says he will call an EGM if the members show support for his plans, to secure the necessary backing for such a change. If they have any sense the members will back him, because he is right about the alternative, which is that the Gloucestershire club will, without radical surgery, simply cease to exist. So, I fear, will others unless they take their fate in their own hands, and the pool of Test players will contract, with England selectors (if there is by that stage Test cricket to select for) forced to choose Test players from among those who solely play in what he dismisses as “a slogging contest between two teams dressed to resemble baseball players, with fireworks going off.”

‘It is time to shelve this arrant nonsense’

When I spoke to him he was sulphurous about how the game is run: “The ECB needs fundamental reform. Woke political correctness seems to be running amok with diversity, equality and inclusion more important than the cricket and the fans. Frankly, cricket is a terrific sport that brings people together and we need to be proud of it. It is time to shelve this arrant nonsense and the counties need to come together to ensure this happens. You would be hard pressed to find a board member of Gloucestershire that was even a cricket fan, it’s all about ticking the right box nowadays. We somehow lost our way and forgot what cricket was all about.”

He added that “the ECB are trying to kill county cricket in a strategy that might as well be called death by a thousand cuts. They have made no effort to create a marketable product for a reason, which is that they want it to go the way of the Dodo!

“The economic model of the average county cricket club relies on a handout from the ECB each year, without that money many clubs would not survive.”

Doubtless some will find this too radical an idea – in which case they should see how Hampshire, for example, have benefited from such diversification. Doubtless the ECB will complain that Mr Banks traduces them, but the governing body has floundered in recent years. Domestically, the Hundred has proved a joke that will wear thin well before the present TV deal kills it in four years’ time. And the ECB has yet to come up with anything to challenge or moderate India’s crushing dominance of cricket internationally, a dominance that takes no account of the needs of the English county game. If a vital part of our sporting heritage is not to be lost, others such as Mr Banks must seize the initiative.

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