Alec Stewart, Surrey’s director of cricket, admits that the club has “lost the battle” in its attempts to prevent the ECB from embarking on a radical restructuring of T20 cricket in England and Wales, and fears that the sport’s quest for a brand-new audience from 2020 onwards is a “leap of faith” that has no guarantee of success.
Surrey, the richest of England’s 18 first-class counties, were one of three clubs who voted against the ECB’s initial proposals back in September, with Richard Gould, their chief executive, steadfastly opposed to the concept of hosting domestic contests at the Kia Oval that do not involve the club’s own colours and infrastructure.
Their reasons for refusing to tow the line were understandable. While other clubs have found it hard to drum up regular support for their so-called “appointment to view” fixtures on Friday nights during the early seasons of the NatWest T20 Blast, Surrey have attracted regular 23,000-strong crowds for such games, by tapping into the psyche of London’s many office workers who have come to regard three hours at the cricket as the start of their weekends.
“We don’t need it, because of what we do here,” said Stewart. “We are in a fortunate position with our marketing, sponsorship and ticketing departments all ensuring that, if you’ve been here on a Thursday or Friday night, there’s no better place to be.
“But we’ve got to look outside of just what’s good for us. I still don’t think the ECB know exactly how [the new competition] is going to work. And that’s the big issue. They are asking counties to vote for something that perhaps won’t be the finished product. The CEO used the term leap of faith, and that’s always pretty dangerous.”
Nevertheless, Stewart believes that the club has no choice but to accept that change is inevitable, and focus on ensuring that the new-look competition is as robust as it can possibly be.
“You have to go with it,” he said. “There are financial penalties if we don’t. Yes, we fought a battle as a club, and we accept we lost the battle, so we have to buy into what is going to happen as we move forward.”
Where the lucrative T20 market is concerned, a subtler measure of change has been introduced for the 2017 season with the restructuring of the T20 Blast as a single block of matches in July and August, rather than a once-a-week affair spread over the course of the season. And while this may be more popular with the players, some of whom (notably Kevin Pietersen) have found it hard to sustain their form over a protracted period, Stewart fears that Surrey will notice the change in this year’s bottom line. The new competition, he adds, may face similar issues.
“We fill the ground on the right days,” he said. “On Thursday and Friday, we sell out. But we’ve got three Saturday and Sunday matches this year, so we’ll struggle for those ones, I’m afraid. And for this new competition, with 36 games in 38 games, that means there will be Sunday, Monday and Tuesday matches, which we haven’t been able to sell previously.
“We’ve got to be positive about it. We can sit here and be cynical. If there’s a new audience out there that hasn’t turned up here, then fantastic. But the fact is, it’ll be running just as [football’s] Premier League is starting up again. If people don’t turn up to watch Chelsea, will they come here instead? Perhaps this new competition will find that new audience that do like coming on a Monday night.”
A lot of the ECB’s plans and proposals have been drawn up with the success of Australia’s Big Bash League in mind, and that even extends to their recent unveiling of the new All Stars Cricket concept, aimed at five to eight-year-olds and modelled very much on Australia’s Milo In2Cricket campaign.
But, according to Michael Di Venuto, Surrey’s Australian head coach, there are fundamental differences between the set-ups of the two countries that will make it difficult for the ECB to replicate the format lock, stock and barrel
“We have six states, and eight BBL teams, so the players don’t miss out,” said Di Venuto. “In this competition, only a quarter of the players [in county cricket] will play. Also, in Australia, in the summer holidays, not too many people leave the country. Here, with Europe so close, people tend to go away. It’ll be interesting to see how it all unfolds.”
At the age of 39, Gareth Batty, Surrey’s captain, does not expect still to be an active player by the time the new competition comes to fruition. But, he believes the changes being mapped out by the ECB could herald the sport’s biggest upheaval since World Series Cricket was launched in Australia in the year of his birth, 1977.
“I’m a player now but I’ll probably be a fan by the time it happens,” he said. “I’d say it’s the biggest thing in cricket since Kerry Packer, and I think the ECB have a huge responsibility to the game as a whole.
“We are very tribal in a lot of ways in this country,” he added. “A guy in Liverpool, will he support Manchester cricket or anything like that in Old Trafford? Probably not. But will he support Lancashire? Yes, he probably will.
“It goes back to those little pockets within our island. Good luck getting that right. If it bombs out, cricket will be damaged for a decade or more.”
Andrew Miller is UK editor of ESPNcricinfo. @miller_cricket
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