Is County Cricket Rubbish?

“The standard of county cricket is rubbish. Plain and simple.” So spoke Kevin Pietersen. The claim doubled-down on proposals he had made on Twitter calling for the domestic red ball game in England and Wales to become a franchised venture with eight city-based teams, two overseas players and “NO kolpak”. The reaction on that firebrand-friendly social media stream was as would be expected.

Let’s ignore the faux pas of the fact that Kolpak hasn’t been a thing since Brexit. Let’s also put aside that KP is carving out a career as a controversial pundit with shares in exclamation marks and that the column in which he expanded his ideas was a promo for a well-known betting firm for whom he acts as ‘ambassador’ [not entirely sure what that entails, perhaps there is an embassy somewhere] where a bit of a brouhaha would do no harm. Put that aside and let’s ask the question – does he have a point?

The logic of Pietersen’s argument went something like this: Test cricket is in danger of dying. Evidence of this was the build-up to the England-India slipping by unnoticed. Contrast this to the viewing numbers for The Hundred – “They’re UNREAL!”. County Cricket is not producing anyone who can bat in the top order successfully. Last time he played County Cricket the standard of the bowling was so poor he scored a triple hundred. The solution is to combine the counties into a small number of franchises, playing 8-10 games a year. Fewer cricketers will mean a better standard of play and produce more cricketers of test quality.

Of the claim that the attention given to The Hundred laid bare the moribund state of Test cricket, the evidence is dubious. Given KPs paid role as one of The Hundred’s over-excited commentary team, one could raise a cynical eyebrow and mutter about arsonists shouting fire but let’s not. It is true that in late July much of the conversation English cricket was dominated by the cheering and booing around the new competition but one would have needed to have curated a particularly focused media stream to say that the approaching England-India went unnoticed and as soon as the first test began, it was the domestic competition that slipped from the back pages.

That Test cricket has serious issues around the world is not in dispute, with too many games taking place against a background of empty seats, as has been the case for many years. However, Pietersen’s comments were squarely aimed at English cricket where Test matches sell out consistently even when the live televised spectacle is still hidden behind a paywall.

But this line of criticism – my viewing figures are bigger than yours – obscures the most important suggestion: that the men’s English Test side is in terminal decline because the County Championship is not producing people who can bat at the top level.

It doesn’t take a statistician to know that since the halcyon days of Strauss-Cook-Trott-KP-Collingwood-Bell, England’s top order has struggled to find consistency, with numbers 1-3 a particular problem. The openers had their particular anni horribiles in 2018 and 2019, failing to average over 30; the number three position mirroring that feat in 2017 and 2018. Politeness and optimism let us ignore the numbers for 2021 as, at the time of writing, there are still two Tests to go. It is not all bad news: positions three to six have all had seasons averaging in excess of 40 but it would take a committed Pollyanna to suggest all was well.

So, is the structure of the County Championship to blame? Are there too many teams with too many mediocre players? For anyone who was around English cricket in the mid-1990s, this is a familiar tune. The argument then was so convincing that the ECB reached agreement with the Counties to divide the Championship into two divisions to let the cream rise to the top in a tougher, condensed top division. Now, according to KP, it hasn’t worked and needs to be condensed further.

But how can we judge this? How can we tell if County Cricket is “rubbish”? Is it enough that the top order of the Test side is struggling? Then would a run of form from Burns, Hameed and Malan make it not so? Should we look at the numbers? If we do, they don’t make happy reading: top order averages have slid in the last few years. In the past decade opening batsmen have collectively averaged over 35 in only one season; the number threes of the County Championship passed that mark only three times. Not a great pool to draw from for the Test team.

As we know, though, correlation does not mean causation. Top order batsmen not sticking around at the crease for long does not automatically mean that the problem is too many players and the solution is to abandon the century-plus county system in favour of a franchise approach. Many others would suggest that it is more an effect of the four-day, red-ball game being pushed to the edges of the season meaning top order batsmen finding themselves skittled in the swinging conditions of April and May, Test batsmen asked to dig-in against international bowlers after months of whacking the white ball to all parts, and the opportunity for Test hopefuls to make their mark on later pitches only available as the season winds to a close.

Those numbers could also suggest that if batsmen are struggling it could be because the bowling stocks are strong; with the emergence of Wood, Curran, Robinson, Mahmood, Overton et al as serious international propositions as further evidence to boot. Pietersen was dismissive of the bowling, saying that when he made 355 for Surrey in 2015 he had “faced better club bowling”, though it is questionable if that season’s Leicestershire’s bowling attack should be taken as representative of the nation’s entire bowling stocks. If the standard of bowling is so poor then how is the system feeding through international class seamers?

It doesn’t mean he is wrong, either. It is just that you can use the recent struggles of the English top-order to buttress any argument that suits your preconceptions. Love the franchises around the world? Then that’s the way forward to make the Championship leaner and meaner. Hate the Hundred? Then it’s the sacrificing of the prime months of the season in pursuit of shorter and shorter formats. Is there even a problem with the structure at all? How different is the structure of the County Championship to what it was in 2010/11 when the England team was handing out a beating to Ricky Ponting’s Aussies in their own back yard? How did the old-fashioned County system manage that?

Regardless of the merits of the argument, would Pietersen’s plan work? There is an appealing logic to it – fewer teams would mean fewer cricketers, and inevitably a higher average standard as the weaker players fail to make the cut. Eight teams with two overseas: only 72 places up for grabs for England hopefuls each time. The pool for the Test selectors severely reduced but the hope being that the increased competition for places pushing up the standard. The big question would be if the increase in the average standard was purely a factor of the weakest players dropping out and not of the better ones getting better. That would lead to a smaller pool and…well…that’s all. Anyway, this is all hypothetical as the Counties are not going to vote for their own execution (Pietersen has argued that his scheme would only see the Counties combine and not disappear; potato, potahto).

What is missing from this is the whole essence of sport and what it means to be a supporter. This is a purely functional argument, but loving sport is not functional. Not happy that the County Championship is providing high enough quality batters? Get rid of it. Think there are too many mediocre players? Combine the Counties. Simples. Cause, effect. Sorted. Don’t want the County you have supported all your life to be combined with your neighbours? Get with the plan you traditionalist, make way for the next generation.

Sport is nothing without fans with deep and emotional ties to the teams they follow. It is not being a sentimentalist, a traditionalist or irrational. It the centre of any sport that is to thrive. These are the people that will see the sport through the lows and won’t just head off to chase the next shiny passing fad when results turn the wrong way. The attachment between supporter and team, forged through generations, matters. Next time the English football team fail to qualify for the World Cup, try suggesting that there are too many Premier League teams and that Manchesters United and City should combine for the betterment of the national side. Why is that so ridiculous but Essex, Northants, Derbyshire, Somerset, and others sacrificing their identity for city-based franchises a necessary way forward?

No, the County Championship is not rubbish. Yes, there issues of quality of batting but it is not rubbish. It is not rubbish because it matters. Perhaps the start of the solution is to start treating it like it does.

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