It’s FA Cup 3rd Round day and football is gearing up for one the most romantic days of the season. The weekend in early January is ingrained in many fans memories as the setting for misty-eyed giant killings and an excuse for the entire footballing community to come together. This year, the day raises new questions for me as a cricket fan.
I think most people will be aware of the continuing debate between traditional 18-county cricket and the franchise model when it comes to the English T20 competition. The arguments are regurgitated ad nauseam and the entire debate now seems a little facile. Until something is actually changed in the English model, it is hard to compare.
However, one idea that has caught my attention over the last few months, is the proposal of an FA Cup style competition for T20 cricket in England. Michael Vaughan, a man whose recent opinions I have taken with a hefty pinch of salt, has been the most vocal advocate of this cup style model as has Cricinfo writer George Dobell. In his column for The Telegraph late last year, Vaughan raised his concern at the drop in participation in the amateur game and tabled an idea for an all-encompassing knockout competition as a solution to reverse the trend.
In theory I think the idea could be a superb pick-me-up for the grassroots game. Club players would bristle with excitement at the chance of getting to play at Lord’s or Old Trafford if their side can make it to the first round proper. As Vaughan suggests, by including Minor Counties and teams from the ECB’s Premier League’s, you could have an exciting preliminary stage to decide say the best 14 amateur sides and then bring in the counties for a first round of 32 teams.
Not only would this idea stimulate excitement and interest in the amateur leagues, it would also potentially stop the counties becoming complacent and one-eyed. It’s an open secret that most county sides only select their academy intake from their own youth set-up, a few elite private schools and a very small pool of local clubs. If an amateur player had the chance to prove his worth against the professionals, maybe even on TV, then it may just force the counties to look beyond their often-narrow view of the club game.
If the radical move to adopt such a competition were taken, then I would actually advocate doing it in conjunction with franchising the existing T20 Blast. A franchise tournament with say 10 teams, could run as a round robin competition in a self contained block during the summer school holidays. This would give the tournament the best chance to thrive and attract larger audiences. In this model, counties would retain the same squads for the Championship, One-Day Cup and T20 Knockout Cup but the T20 Blast would involve different teams and squads, with an auction being held to every season in the style of other T20 leagues.
Although not a full proof solution, I believe this model should be taken very seriously. It still provides the existing counties with at least a game of T20 a season and more than likely 2 or 3, but the franchise Blast would attract big name stars due to it’s self contained nature. This is the closest you will be able to get to catering for all tastes.
The FA cup style T20 would provide a vital injection of enthusiasm and cash in to the grassroots game and can provide an unprecedented platform for amateur players to shine on the biggest stage. When played in conjunction with a franchised T20 Blast, the Knockout cup will provide a sense of romance and tradition for many older spectators and preserve the traditions of all 18 counties. The integrity of the counties would remain untouched as they still compete in all 3 forms of the game.
I am not suggesting that this model will be adopted any time soon or even that it is the answer to all of cricket’s problems. I am simply offering an alternative model by which I think the English game would thrive both commercially and in terms of participation. One of the most difficult challenges in cricket administration is trying to please both the moneymen and the 1,000’s of players across the country. This model, I believe, could reignite interest at an amateur level, which has been flagging since the highpoint of the 2005 Ashes.
A knockout Cup would certainly create a buzz amongst amateur players, but a franchised T20 Blast would create a buzz amongst the casual observer. For the first time in 10 years, cricket could be being discussed in pubs up and down the land in the same style as the FA Cup has been for decades.