Tim Wigmore with regular views from the second tier
Tim Wigmore’s weekly look at the game below the Test-playing nations
Arevolution is coming to English domestic cricket. Many will not like it, but the introduction of a new, streamlined domestic T20 competition looks certain. But the ECB should be aiming higher: they should not simply be seeking to transform English cricket with a new competition, but to lift up the entire European game. Such an approach would give new energy and dynamism to the T20 tournament, and, by growing the European game, ultimately be in English cricket’s financial interests, too.
The first step is simple. Ireland and Scotland should be sounded out about fielding a team each in the T20 competition. Rather than before, when Ireland and Scotland played in county cricket as their national teams, the sides should be clearly identified as based in Ireland and Scotland, rather than being them: a subtle but important difference.
These teams should be free to have as many overseas players as every other team, although, ideally, all of the other sports would be taken by players eligible to play for the national side.
Adding in the Celts would enrich the competition. It would add a new dimension of national rivalry, and allow fans to plot, Six Nations style, weekends away in Dublin or Edinburgh. Healthy crowds would certainly come: Dublin, Belfast, Edinburgh and Glasgow all have population centres that are bigger than some of the English grounds likely to be awarded T20 teams.
These are areas where interest in cricket is sizeable – there are famously more cricket clubs than rugby clubs in Scotland, and Ireland has twice got 10,000 people to see ODIs against England despite them being held outside the height of summer – and it would be nurtured by inclusion in a shiny new T20 competition.
It would also be a brilliant way of expanding the game. Despite getting a welcome extra $250,000 from the ICC to pay for fixtures next year, Scotland remain starved of matches. Since the ECB booted them out of the domestic county competition in 2013 – a small-minded act in keeping with the worst of the ECB in that era – Scotland’s summer fixture list has been desolate.
The team is young and dynamic and, as they showed by thrashing Hong Kong and almost toppling Afghanistan and Ireland in the World T20 in March, wellsuited to T20 cricket. They deserve better than an existence as non-playing cricketers: Scotland only had 10 days of competitive cricket in the entirety of last summer.
The scraps that Scotland are seeking – like their A team being included in the 2nd XI County Championship – are unbefitting for a country ranked 13th in the world in both T20I and ODI cricket. Cricket Scotland have made admirable efforts to expand the sport’s appeal, and scotch the myth that it is an ‘English game’ once and for all. The trouble is they have no matches for new converts to cricket to watch.
Although Ireland have a burgeoning fixture list against Test nations, there would be huge benefits for them in an Irish team taking part, too. Ireland are desperate to expose their fringe players to a higher level of competition and need to hone their T20 cricket, easily their weakest format.
Until Ireland exited the county game in 2009, their matches against counties often attracted sizeable crowds. Inclusion would be a huge boon to cricket in the Emerald Isle, too, exposing players to boisterous crowds and the pressures of being televised before they had graduated to international cricket. As in Scotland, an Irish T20 team would make it easier for youngsters to envisage a career in cricket, nudging them to choose the game over other sports. The depth and quality of Ireland and Scotland would be boosted by playing in a premier T20 tournament, with and against some of the the best T20 cricketers in the globe.
The teams would be very competitive, too. Both have performed well in international events in recent years; while Scotland have lacked Ireland’s victories over Test nations, they performed doughtily both in the World Cup last year and the WT20 this year. Allowing Ireland and Scotland first refusal on their own international players for the tournament would give them unity and experience playing together that the new pop-up sides might lack.
The prospect of playing in such an exciting tournament would also help to encourage more players with Irish and Scottish ancestry across the globe, including in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa, to commit to the countries; right now, there is scant motivation for anyone with Scottish heritage to uproot themselves to Scotland.
And ensuring that the teams had access to overseas players – just like Rahul Dravid, who played for Scotland for a summer of county cricket in 2003 and declared himself “blown away” by the interest in cricket there – would both improve the quality of the sides in this competition, and boost the development of young Irish and Scottish talent.
But the ECB should not only invite teams from Ireland and Scotland because it is the right thing to do to aide the growth of cricket in Europe. They should also invite them for reasons of narrow self-interest.
If the ECB wants to make as much cash from the new tournament as possible, it should extend a welcoming hand to Irish and Scottish teams. There are 12million people in Ireland and Scotland com-
The prospect of playing in such a tournament would also help to encourage more players with Irish and Scottish ancestry to commit
bined, so ensuring that a new T20 tournament was designed for this audience too would make it substantially more lucrative. Spicy trips to Belfast, Dublin, Edinburgh or Glasgow, played out in front of rowdy, English-baiting crowds, could become a highlight of the new tournament.
Greater Celtic interest in cricket would also help England in other ways. More cricket fans in Ireland and Scotland means more people who want to watch the sport – not just this new T20 competition, but indeed, England internationals, too. So the ECB’s TV rights would be worth more.
Nurturing cricket in Ireland and Scotland could also allow the ECB to make substantial cash from playing them in internationals, rather than fulfilling fixtures out of a sense of duty. Cricket Ireland expect Lord’s to sell-out for their historic visit there for an ODI against England next May. When England play their Celtic rivals in football or rugby, the games generate huge swathes of cash. In time, the same could be true in cricket.
It would be an odd approach to expanding cricket’s appeal that completely neglected the third biggest city in the UK: Glasgow. And it would be a wasted opportunity if the huge reforms to English domestic cricket were oblivious to the increased popularity of the game in Ireland, Scotland and beyond. The ECB has an opportunity not merely to reform English domestic cricket, but to become pioneers, forming the first transnational T20 league, and developing a tournament with cross-continental appeal.
Here is an opportunity for the ECB to do what is right for the sport, and enrich themselves in the process. All that is needed is a little vision.
Tartan triumph: Scotland beat Hong Kong in the World T20
City breaks: Edinburgh and, inset, Dublin wlll bring added value as destinations among new T20 franchises
The way they were: Ireland and Scotland were part of the Friends Provident Trophy