Durham must be saved and rebuilt
Behind the mask of Durham's painful relegation to the second division of the County Championship is the reality of the parlous financial state of county cricket in England. Some years ago, I wrote a piece for the Cricketer magazine arguing that 18 counties were not sustainable and that if a model was developed for first-class cricket today, it would not be close to the one that was conceived more than a century ago and with which we still identify.
The outcry after the piece was remarkable - some of it supportive but much of it filled with accusation and vitriol. I had earmarked the merging of various counties to forge a smaller, tighter structure for first-class cricket, thus creating breathing space for the necessary competitions and collecting the better players together to make for a generally higher standard of competition. Just as importantly, and given the unravelling of those counties unable to fend for themselves, fewer teams at a fully professional level would provide the opportunity to streamline the first-class cricket business model. A criticism often levelled at county cricket administrators is that they care only about money, but the options are not obvious. If they don't fight for every penny, it may be weeks and months - not months and years - before the Grim Reaper knocks at their door. As Durham almost found out.
At the time of writing the Cricketer piece, neither I, nor many of us, knew quite how rotten the game's finances had become. The assumption was, the bigger the club, the safer the club. But servicing debt has proved close to impossible in the professional game, which has spread itself too thin. It is well documented that Yorkshire, Glamorgan, Warwickshire and Hampshire, among others, have had similar problems to Durham but dodged the tear gas fired at the north-east of England from the ECB's London stronghold.
The house that Don Robson built, a house first conceived by the splendid Caller brothers, Ian and Roy, and many other outstanding men and women of the Durham County Cricket Club, which finally received first-class status in 1992, is a house that must be saved and rebuilt with stronger foundations than ever before. The ECB is certain that it has taken the first hard and brave steps to do exactly that, and the news that it has since written to Durham County Council and the North East Local Enterprise Partnership asking them to support an all-creditors solution to enable the club to move towards a more secure future is surely a part of some very necessary long-term financial engineering and support. Durham City Council and the North East Local Enterprise Partnership will now be invited to reduce the debt burden in a similar manner to the way in which Glamorgan escaped potential bankruptcy last year when Cardiff Council wrote off £4.4m debts as part of a restructuring in which creditors waived 70% of loans.
In Glamorgan's case, politicians conceded that the survival of the club was vital to the Welsh economy and to the sporting community. Thus, bankruptcy could not be contemplated. Similarly the Eastleigh Borough Council stepped in to help Hampshire pursue its course to a finished ground development project and a viable business model.
It is difficult to be sure that the punishment of relegation from the first division of the championship fit Durham's crime - if that is what we must call it. As George Dobell pointed out in his impassioned piece on these pages last week, a financial censure was as inappropriate as a deterrent was necessary. He then added: "Against what though is unclear." Against developing an out-of-town cricket stadium 20 years ago? Against bidding for international cricket? Against running up a bill it could not pay? Is not the ECB complicit in this debt? Yes and no. Yes then, no now. There is the ECB of one administration - now gone - and the ECB of this administration, which is clear and present. It has put out its marker. The ECB is like government; it changes and the rules change with it.
What seems to be needlessly cruel is the points deductions - and lumpy they are too - by which Durham will be handicapped next season. This is a ball-breaker of a decision and undermines the cricketers who are the fabric of the game and the supporters - in whatever guise, both corporate and private - who give it viability and flavour. I/we/the wider game should urge the ECB to reconsider the extent of the stricture. The players - the club - must start next season on an even footing with everyone else. Ambition is important and it must be equal. Ambition is the centrepiece of sporting dreams and all of us cricket folk are dreamers in one way or another. You might say this is not the time for the people of Durham to dream. Rather, they should roll up their sleeves. But then you wouldn't have played the game and felt, at first hand, the magic. The boys of Durham are the boys of summer and the boys of our future. Colin Graves and his board should give some slack.
I was directly involved with Hampshire's ambition to build a new ground. The idea was first conceived around a dinner table in Leeds in 1987, but the Ageas Bowl, as it is now called, was not open for first-class cricket business until 2001. Along with two senior figures at the club - Bill Hughes and Wilfrid Weld - I convinced the then chairman of the ECB, Lord MacLaurin, to guarantee us international cricket in return for our delivery of a state-of-the-art cricket venue. To give you some idea of how fast the value of money has changed, our first budget for the build was £14 million, of which £11 million was to come from the sale of Northlands Road and £3 million from private investment and sponsorship. It seems a laughable figure now. The end cost was close to four times that, and Rod Bransgrove had achieved remarkable things to keep the club alive. Worse, his Lordship moved on and those who replaced him were less forgiving in Hampshire's cause. Would we do it again, knowing what we know now? I really don't know. I suppose Rod should answer that. Perhaps the scale of our ambition would be modified without in any way allowing the emotional and practical context to be diminished.
The piece for the Cricketer that is mentioned above led people to think I cared little for county cricket, which was wrong. I cared so much that I wanted to find a way to keep it relevant and above water forever and a day. The only way to do that is to tighten it up. County cricket per se is no longer a way of life. It is not so long ago that lovers of the game wandered along to the county grounds and outgrounds for the final session, or final hour, of a day's play to share a glass of beer with friends who offered rippled applause to the strokes played and the catches taken. These are time-poor days in which we live, driven by myriad alternative attractions and demands. Durham and Hampshire are set in acres of glorious countryside, which rewards the aesthetic but denies the walk-up customer. County cricket is more of an inner-city thing than any of us realised - you don't necessarily know what you have got until its gone.
The city-based T20 tournament that the ECB hopes to launch in 2018 is the first sign of a new age of thinking. If the board pulls it off, county cricket's future will take on a dramatically different face. The advantages of fewer teams, playing at a higher standard, more glamorously promoted, featuring the best players from overseas, at the best venues with the smartest facilities will seduce all but the oldest school. Television will pay handsomely and the ECB's coffers will burst with plenty.
At present the £70 million surplus harboured by the ECB is thought to be excessive and many believe it should be better used to increase the annual and hard-earned distribution of income to the counties, which stands at £2-2.5 million per year. But the board is wiser than that, knowing full well that it remains a powerful gatekeeper but not a controlling force, and is therefore careful with its own exposure. Though not designed as a lender of last resort, the board has been able to bail out Durham with £3.8 million of its reserves. Who knows who may need such succour next? Then there is the new T20 dream to pay for, and round and round goes the wheel of the game of county cricket that chases its tail.
The ECB continues to juggle the numbers, aware of its responsibility to regenerate interest and participation at all ages and levels, while also looking to provide more income to the counties, who reasonably argue that they receive meagre benefit for the use of their collective assets. It is worth remembering that back in 2003, seven counties voted against playing T20 at all. It is a fair bet that a few would be out of business now if they had had their way then.
If the ECB was to be reconstituted as an independent board that owned and controlled the counties - in the way that it controls all business of the England team - we might well see English first-class cricket reflect the world in which it lives. Meantime, the ECB is obliged to simply keep everyone out there breathing. It will not always make friends in doing so.
Mark Nicholas, the former Hampshire captain, presents the cricket on Channel Nine in Australia and Channel 5 in the UK