NOT only spring but change is in the air for English cricket. Real, radical change. Not just the tinkerings of another working party but a reformation such as English cricket has never seen before.
Lord MacLaurin and Tim Lamb, as chairman and chief executive of the new England and Wales Cricket Board, will not publish their 'Strategic Plan' for the game until late summer. But the Telegraph can reveal that the main points are already becoming clear:
England players, sooner or later, will no longer be contracted by their counties but by the ECB.
It is a bold and businesslike plan designed to bring about ``the quick evolution, not revolution'' which Lamb believes is urgently required. It can also be safely said that MacLaurin will push it through - if anybody can. But that is the great proviso.
English cricket is a large pond which looks healthy on the surface. It now has a £60 million annual turnover, of which two-thirds is generated by the England team. Advance sales for the series against Australia already stand at £9.7 m; the first three days of every Test except Headingley are sold out, and the first four at Lord's and The Oval (for the first time ever tickets are being sold in advance for the fifth days there). So this summer is virtually a sell-out, even though England have under-performed so much that they have not won a Test series in the last decade except against India and New Zealand. Thus, in other words, there is little or no financial imperative to change.
Underneath the surface, therefore, the waters may continue to stagnate. County cricket, and some club cricket, is a mass of age-old practices and long-established customs where seniority takes precedence over merit. New competitions have been added in an attempt to aerate the water but, like dumped bicycles, have clogged it up further.
In accordance with western-style corporate management, MacLaurin has ordered an examination of each constituent part of English cricket to see how it can be improved, before reassembling the whole. The English game should not be a fetid pond but a pyramid, so that the young talent can clearly see the way for them to reach the top.
The England Team
``Our international players are playing too much cricket,'' says MacLaurin, as does almost every close observer of the England team. From January next year their schedule is probably their most demanding ever, thanks to the final workings of the International Committee of the former TCCB: 16 Tests in 13 months (five each against West Indies, South Africa and Australia) and more than that number of one-day internationals. Something has to give. In the recent past it has been the players reduced to mediocrity; in future it will be the counties.
``I think it's inevitable as the game moves on,'' said MacLaurin. ``The time hasn't come yet, but if my thoughts are correct, and more and more international one-day cricket has to be played by the England team, it's almost certain that the players will have to be contracted to the Board.''
This analysis, and solution, have to be right. England players are alone in having to serve two masters: not only do they have to work for Tesco but also do a weekend shift at Asda. The voluntary agreement, whereby a county rests a player at the request of the England chairman of selectors, still leaves the onus on the player to earn his county keep and please his second master.
It is already a reality that most players cannot serve both county and country. England's three match-winning bowlers of the last generation, John Snow, Bob Willis and Ian Botham, all reserved their best for England by not trying for their county. Alec Stewart in the last year has scored 1474 Test runs for England at 54 and 484 first-class runs at 28 for Surrey.
In the last two seasons combined, once the Tests have started, Mike Atherton has made 581 first-class runs for Lancashire. It only remains for the counties to recognise the reality that once the international season begins, a regular England player cannot give his best to his county, and should not be expected to.
Can the load be spread further by dividing England into separate Test and one-day sides? ``We pick a one-day side at home, and in the ideal world there will be,'' MacLaurin thinks. ``The opportunity is there for the England selectors (to pick a separate one-day team) at the end of the West Indies tour next April,'' adds Lamb.
MacLaurin's regular meetings with the England players - ``at first there was a bit of diffidence'' - should reduce the gulf that existed between them and the old Test and County Cricket Board. However, in spite of the enormous mistakes of the last three winters, there is no plan as yet for the England players to elect a representative to sit, along with the captain, on the International Committee which arranges future tours.
``There is a lot of work to be done on the development of cricketers per se,'' MacLaurin goes on, to which end present and future England players were invited to a two-day management course this week. The surly arrogance of which England have so often been accused on recent tours has probably had its roots in insecurity and a feeling of not being appreciated by their Board.
But MacLaurin's purpose was plain when he declared at the Cornhill Player of the Year ceremony last Monday: ``The players are our top priority and we must start to look after them in the best possible way.''
It is almost universally agreed that too much county cricket is played in 'the comfort zone', and not every ball contested intensely. In his droll yet serious new book, A Lot of Hard Yakka, Simon Hughes writes: ``A jovial, lads-on-tour approach helps you to cope with the endless travelling and nights in miscellaneous town centres. Yet a dedicated single-mindedness needs to be switched on for the gladiatorial confrontations on the pitch. Gradually, as the season wears on and the years go by, the two mentalities merge into one and the direct focus fades. You end up with teams of Des O'Connors: amiable, repertory performers who don't excel at anything.''
A revolutionary proposal is for a championship of two divisions, upper and lower, with promotion and relegation. Strong counties would grow stronger and the weak go to the wall, losing their members and better players. A good thing too, say the unsentimental, like Ian Botham.
MacLaurin believes, however, that ``county cricket is part of the fabric of our society'', implying that the first-class counties should remain 18 in number - which would also allow for future growth. How would he invigorate the championship then?
``I haven't got strong views one way or the other at the moment,'' he declares but, when pushed, he cites the model of American baseball being divided into two conferences of equal standing. ``In the middle of a season the balls could be taken out of a bag to arrange two divisions for the following season. The counties could play each other twice in each division, then there'd be semi-finals involving the top four sides and a final.''
A drawback is the artificiality of it, and the whiff of compromise. The present championship, if nothing else, is the genuine product of historical forces. A stimulus would be to make the ECB's annual hand-out (currently £1 m per county, plus £300,000 for those with Test grounds to maintain) dependent upon championship place. If the hand-outs ranged from £1.25 m for first place to £750,000 for bottom, and the money passed on to the players, the title would be worth an extra £40,000 or so per player.
Whichever proposal is put forward in the 'Strategic Plan,' it could be enacted straight away. The 1998 fixture list is on hold.
Base of the pyramid
``Personally, I think the interface between top recreational cricket and the first-class game is the most important part of the pyramid,'' says Lamb, not without reason. A young cricketer either has to join a county staff and go through second XI cricket, which Hughes characterises as ``idle hits against pavilion fences, casual fielding practices, filling each other's gloves with shaving foam''; or else condemn himself forever to Saturday afternoon, limited-over club cricket.
An ECB thinktank is still working on the subject for the 'Strategic Plan', but ``the most plausible,'' reform, as Lamb calls it, would be for each first-class county to run a premier league for its 10 or so leading clubs.
Their league games would be spread over two days without any limitation on overs, for as MacLaurin says: ``Certainly the Australian system has much to commend it.'' Only then will bowlers try to bowl sides out instead of contain them, and batsmen learn to bat all day.
The problem is that the Lancashire League chairman Peter Westwell spoke for all too many league officials when he told The Guardian three weeks ago: ``This league has been here for 105 years and around these parts we don't change quickly. The ECB should leave us alone.''
The solution, if there is one, has to be to appeal over these parochial heads to the players. The ECB should specify that £50,000 of each annual handout should be offered by a county in prize-money - say, £3,000 for each player in the team that wins its premier league - together with a place in a 64-team NatWest Trophy.
If top club cricket could become a nursery, the second XI competition could be reduced to eight or nine matches on Sundays and Mondays, allowing players to have jobs until they become first-team regulars. The second XIs of the 18 first-class counties, together with the 20 minor counties, could be divided into four regions, the winners meeting for a semi-final and final.
But whether MacLaurin's impact can extend beyond the county chairmen into the depths of age-old league committees will be one to watch. His talk of pride in English cricket, and the need to maintain the status of the national summer game, may prompt little response in some northern fastnesses.
When it comes to first-class, professional cricket, however, he is not a man to accept defeat. ``The county chairmen realised there was a problem and asked me to tackle it. In business you put forward a plan to your shareholders and get on with it if they accept it. If they don't accept it, they have to find another chairman.''
If the pond of English cricket is ever to be cleared out and re-stocked afresh, that time would appear to be now - or never.