Picture the dilemma. You’re given four pegs – a round one, a square one, a triangular one, and one that’s shaped like an oblong. Your task is to neatly fit all four pegs into a series of holes. But you can only see three openings. And even those look like a tight fit.
What’s worse, the people who really care about the pegs (well, three of them anyway) absolutely detest the new oblong thing. But the person who gave you the pegs insists that the oblong is by far the most important and you need to find a place for that first.
So what do you do? Here’s what Sir Andrew has done…
Strauss has predictably created a pig’s ear of a solution that satisfies precisely nobody (except the designers of the ham-fisted funny-shaped peg), and then claimed that his solution is the only way to save the farm’s bacon.
He’s also claiming that his plan is the silkiest of all silk purses possible. Even though it’s no better or worse than all the other plans proposed by amateurs in the pub, on the back of fag packets, or even worse, on blogs like this one.
And that, my friends, is the High Performance Review in a nutshell. It’s a just another ‘meh’ proposal based on a series of porkies that have largely been left unchallenged – like the oft trotted out fallacy that oblongs remain the best way to engage a whole new audience of current vegetarians.
The truth, of course, is that whilst The Hundred may indeed have grabbed the attention of some new Mums and kids, it’s not doing nearly enough to justify the enormous collateral damage it’s causing, especially as its success is nearly all down to presentation / marketing and its exposure on free-to-air television.
Let’s look at the latest statistics, for example. TV ratings are already down on last year (by 20% on the BBC), attendances are slightly down, and it’s only attracted half as many viewers as the Test match highlights on the same channel – thus demonstrating that short forms of cricket aren’t necessarily as popular as the ECB believes.
And yet, The Hundred is set to bestride the calendar, unopposed, like Napoleon, until 2028 at the very least. Everything else has to fit around it. No wonder Strauss’s plan is about as convincing as the hyperbole spouted by competition’s sycophantic commentators.
So what, exactly, are we going to get if Strauss has his way:
The 50 over cup in April
The Blast starting in May
The Championship (cut down to 10 games and a playoff) in June, July, and September
The Oblong in August
Inspired? Me neither. Nor am I particularly pleased that Strauss wants to split the Championship into three divisions. Let’s not forget that England have played their best Test cricket over the last few decades when we had two tiers of equal numbers. If it aint broke, why fix it?
The problem, of course, is that shoving an oblong-shaped dagger into the heart of the domestic schedule hasn’t so much as broken the calendar as murdered it. And are they doing this to improve standards, create a more compelling competition, or even help the England Test team? Nope. They’re doing it simply so they can reduce the number of fixtures to 10. Because it’s the only way to accommodate the oblong that nobody asked for in the first place. Sigh.
Make no mistake about it, folks. This High Performance Review is therefore totally flawed – a complete waste of time and effort. It didn’t approach the job with a blank piece of paper so it was never going to create an optimal plan. Its proposals therefore benefit neither the England teams, the counties, nor the most important people of all: the supporters who fund the game through ticket sales, Sky subscriptions, licence fees, and merchandise.
Having said that, if I had to say one nice thing about it (and one accepts that no solution was ever going to be perfect anyway), the High Performance Review does have one ‘not as awful as it could have been’ aspect to it…
The idea of having a six team ‘super league’ (my description) supported by two feeder leagues of six isn’t as terrible as creating three regular divisions would be. After all, consigning six counties to a third (or bottom tier) would’ve been very uncomfortable and possibly hastened their demise. Now there’s a much bigger bottom tier (of 12 feeder counties) so smaller counties won’t be cast adrift to the same extent.
Meanwhile, although creating a six-team top tier will inevitably help the rich to get richer, at least this will be somewhat offset by the very real prospect of one big county being relegated from the top table every season. With just six teams and 10 games (several of which may be rain-affected) any county could be relegated in any given year. This could create compelling watching.
Overall, however, the drawbacks far outnumber the benefits. And you don’t need to have an IQ greater than Tom Harrison’s bonus to figure out why:
Let’s start with playing the 50-over cup in April. It’s just not going to work very well. Run-scoring, particularly in early-April, can be a lottery at times, and the conditions won’t resemble anything England’s World Champion ODI side will encounter anywhere else in the world. In fact, the weather is likely to be colder than I am on oblongs.
I’m also unsure about playing first class games alongside the Hundred. This is just a meaningless sop to county members concerned about the reduction in red ball fixtures. In reality, the cricket will be a pseudo-second XI affair played out by teams missing several of their best players. It will be about as much preparation for Test cricket as feigning interest in Bridgerton to appease the Mrs.
I’m also slightly concerned about what all this means for The Blast. Let’s not forget that Blast attendances, which almost reached one million in 2019, were cannibalised significantly by The Hundred this summer. And for what? A competition that only attracted half a million attendees despite having a marketing budget that dwarfs the average IPL pay packet thrown at it.
The bottom line, therefore, is this. Andrew Strauss has tried his best to create something vaguely acceptable but it was always going to be impossible given the constraints. Instead, what he’s actually demonstrated, and what the process that’s led us here has demonstrated, is that English cricket’s priorities are still upside down. And the culture of spin – don’t forget all those porkies – remains very much entrenched.
Don’t be fooled into thinking otherwise. Oink. Oink.