Martin Smith Column: Michael Vaughan was ahead of his time... and are we running out of it to keep cricket relevant for the next generation?
'˜Do they still do that county cricket thing?' So asked a teenage girl of her friend on Saturday as we passed Kiveton Park Colliery Cricket ground with a game on.
There is a timeless thrill to seeing, from a car or train window, someone running up to bowl. The whites against the green, the heavy roller in the corner, empty billowing deckchairs and the hope of tea.
Her friend wasn’t sure but she didn’t think so. No wonder. Recent England and Wales Cricket Board-backed surveys showing club cricket participation in serious retreat and only two per cent of children naming cricket as their favourite sport plus the financial difficulties of county cricket clubs - debts totalling over £150m – don’t present a healthy picture.
The cheating Aussies haven’t done the game any favours either. But is that all that cricket is now?
Dukes-tinted nostalgia at one end and organised cheating at the other? Every year we hear that cricket, to stretch the analogy, is losing its middle order, that the heart and soul of the sport is dying as the county game declines further.
These reports usually accompanied by a single hardy soul pictured in an otherwise empty county stand with his flask and his hood up. But people have been prophesying the death of cricket since the 17th century. Of course they might be right one day, but not yet.
On the back page of this newspaper six years ago former England and Yorkshire captain Michael Vaughan was calling for a new city-based Twenty20 tournament to be created to give the game a kick of modernity.
It actually looks like it’s going to happen from 2020 (obviously) and not before time - though we aren’t getting a team in Sheffield. Alongside a new participation strategy the ECB hopes that the league will match the Indian Premier League and the Australian Big Bash League and its estimated broadcasting cash is up to £50m a year. Better late than never.
The ECB’s aim for the new tournament is to complement county cricket, to help sustain it, not replace it and they have, for now, committed to maintaining the same number of Championship matches.
County cricket - all of cricket - is at a crossroads.
And the proposed T20 tournament is the ECB’s silver-bullet hope.
But with TV coverage stuck behind a paywall and Championship matches played when most people are at work it’s an old-style toss-up as to whether ‘that county cricket thing’ is still chugging along when the teenager on the train turns 21.