The first class game in a limited overs world

PCL logoThe World Cup runs and runs until the end of March. Just days after the Final in Melbourne, the IPL gets under way. It will employ the world’s best cricketers (or those with most box office appeal) until the third week of May.

Limited overs cricket, at its most exalted and most intense, dominates the attention of cricket followers around the world, even if its not being played on their continent. The late Mike Marquese described cricket in the late twentieth century as a pre-industrial pursuit surviving in an industrial world. Cricket in these early to middle months of 2015 seems to have caught up with the post-industrial, transnational, digitally rendered experience of life in the ‘developed’ world.

The first class game of cricket, the peak of the professional sport in the last century, progressing at a slower tempo, at quieter grounds, reaching an indeterminate result more often than a frenzied finish, might be thought of as squeezed and unregarded. But under cover of the cacophony of the limited overs game, first class cricket continues to beat quietly and insistently. This week, while World Cup quarter finals places are contended, Mashonaland Eagles are playing Mid West Rhinos; Khulna Division host Dhaka Metropolis; Nondescripts meet the SL Army at Galle; Cape Cobras invite ashore the Dolphins; Karnataka and Tamil Nadu compete in a final. Under the noses of the ICC’s grandest world tournament, New South Wales tackle Tasmania and Otago play Auckland.

Of the first class tournaments currently under way, there is a new entrant: WICB Professional Cricket League Regional 4 Day Tournament, as it is titled. This successor to what was once known as the Shell Shield is in the later stages of its ten rounds of matches.

Coverage of the tournament has been sparse. Cricinfo has not provided live updates, just end of day summaries. Its greatest claim to fame may turn out to be that it is the tournament that bankrupted the West Indies Cricket Board – in a round-about way.

Under Director of Cricket, Richard Pybus’s leadership, the WICB has set out to reinvigorate cricket in the Caribbean. A key step was to have a professional domestic game, to be funded by redistributing money earned from the international team’s activities. Securing that funding meant a new contract for its international stars and that was the contract under dispute when the West Indies players packed their bags and left the tour of India in November 2014, to which the BCCI have responded with a legal claim for damages many times the WICB’s annual income.

I hope, though, that the PCL gains recognition for something else: restating the importance of domestic first class cricket. For the first time since 2009, the league will comprise a full set of home and away fixtures, giving players the opportunity to play in up to ten matches for the first time in a decade.

Looking back over the last six decades, my assumption that there had been a decline in domestic first class cricket proved wrong. The only country where there is less first class cricket being played is England.

domestic 1st class matches-page-001

The figures shown in the chart reflect the number of matches a player could play, excluding later stages of any knock-out tournaments. In countries with more than one competition (e.g. India, South Africa), I have used the first class averages to indicate how many games were available to an individual.

The proliferation of international fixtures has meant that the leading players are no longer available for most domestic first class fixtures. But most of those players will have appeared there before they made the step up to international cricket. David Warner’s progression – leapfrogging the first class game – is not the norm. Cricketers who have come to the fore recently have a solid first class base: Rahane, Ballance, Steve Smith, Philander and Williamson.

It’s for this reason that the West Indies have introduced a new regional competitive structure that affords six months of professional cricket – more than twice the length of the preceding domestic season.

To find out more about the PCL, I put some questions to David Oram, cricket writer and broadcaster based in Barbados. His responses, made early in the PCL season in December, make interesting reading – not just about this new competition, but the whole predicament facing cricket in the region.

Declaration Game: How has the introduction of the PCL been greeted?

David Oram: With a mixed response. The Pybus Report’s idea of more competitive and professional first class cricket was greatly welcomed. The cricket needs radical improvement and for there to be more of it – six first class games per season per team was woefully inadequate.

Also, paying the regular West Indies first class cricketer a professional wage ought to help players concentrate on their cricket, practice more, etc., rather than be worrying about holding down a job and a playing career at the same time.

The reality however has been disappointing: the PCL has been dubbed by some as professional only in name – it is still the same inadequate, amateur cricket.

Pitches are still shockingly poor and the teams unrepresented by ‘stars’ off gallivanting in other overseas T20 leagues or representing the national team.

Most disappointingly of all, the idea that new franchises would strengthen the sides in the Caribbean did not occur. At the Player Draft (which I attended in Barbados) only two players were selected from outside their own territory from 30 picks: Guyana’s Ronnie Sarwan for T&T and Barbados’s Ramon Reiffer for Guyana. With Sarwan’s withdrawal, Reiffer is the only ‘overseas’ player.

The very weak Leeward Islands in particular were expected bolster their squad with imports – but declined to do so. Coach Ridley Jacobs’ rationale appeared to be that, ‘if we don’t pick our local boys, no-one will. We need to look after our own cricketers’ development’. If this was his point, I can see his logic. But it betrays the ceaseless insularity of all the Caribbean territories.

At the moment the jury’s out on the PCL. It’s a good idea, but it is never going to be a solution to the problems facing West Indies cricket.

DG: Is there much media or public interest in the matches?

David Oram: Attendances are dreadful. A wet Wednesday at Wantage Road gets about twice as many watchers as the Kensington Oval does for a four day game between Jamaica and Barbados. But then it’s little surprise when the games are so poorly promoted.

And yet, like the English County Championship, everyone still wants to know the score. Far more follow the scores via the papers or internet, than ever attend. But interest is massively down from the heyday of West Indies cricket – a reflection of the lack of success, the poor stuff being played and the relative lack of star names on show.

Also poor is that many territories have dropped live radio commentary of island matches. When I came to Barbados three and half years ago every home Barbados match had live radio commentary. No more. The two main radio stations (VoB and CBC) believe their listeners would rather hear music and talk shows than cricket – and more importantly, their advertisers agree – so they have dropped commentary coverage. One or two still feature some games (I believe in Jamaica and Guyana?) but this has further diminished cricket as part of Caribbean popular culture.

DG: The PCL is funded from the money the international players ‘agreed’ to forego, which was the cause of the India tour debacle. Will that affect the international players’ commitment to the tournament when they are available for selection?

David Oram: Good question. Maybe, but probably not. Those that masterminded the ODI strike play precious little first class cricket in the region anyway. Pollard has played something like four games of first class cricket in five years; Sammy about the same and Dwayne Bravo even fewer. They are not interested in playing ‘proper’ cricket and would far rather be handsomely paid to sit in a dug-out, not playing in Chennai or Sydney than be fielding for a day and a half at Sabina Park. They have given nothing back to the regional game and while they pay obvious occasional lip-service to the prosperity of West Indies cricket, in truth they couldn’t care less.

One or two players who bridge the first class and one day format do support the PCL and will turn out as and when required. Ramdin is a good example of this. Generally, those who know that their cricketing wealth will come from Test cricket do play the four day games, while the ODIers and T20ers do not. The advent of the PCL hasn’t changed that.

DG: What are your views on whether the expanded season is sustainable?

David Oram: I believe so. The WICB and Richard Pybus have invested a lot of time and thought into this overhaul and while it won’t remedy most things in West Indies cricket, it certainly won’t hurt.

There is little chance that the ODI players will get the money deducted from them returned to them, so it is financially sustainable. Even if an inquiry recommended those monies be returned, the WICB would point out to the grassroots professionals that it’s THEIR wages that are disappearing and effectively the international players would leave, or be ejected from WIPA, so the majority are paid. This is cricketing socialism and is a far fairer system and should be welcomed. Bravo, Pollard, Sammy, Gayle etc. have a very limited shelf life, so their influence two-three years from now will have disappeared.

Interest-wise, the public have long given up, so there’s no change there. I would expect the expanded four day PCL tournament to continue with its increased number of fixtures for some time – certainly three-four years to give it a proper run. It may remain for ever.

But be under no illusions, the increase has not come about because of an increased appetite for the game in the Caribbean. It has happened because the West Indies is facing immense cricketing challenges on and off the field and, unfortunately, commentators, broadcasters, writers and cricket watchers in the general public have all long since lost hope of seeing any light at the end of the tunnel.

Thank you to David Oram for his contribution to this piece. David writes passionately and expertly on West Indies cricket at Roland Butcher’s Hook, tweets @colblimp1983 and contributes to Mason and Guests, Voice of Barbados’s weekly cricket talk show.


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About chrisps

TouchlineDad to three sporty kids; cricket blogger and coach; and the alpha male in our pride.

3 responses to “The first class game in a limited overs world”

  1. Brian Carpenter says :

    I enjoyed that, Chris, and it’s a timely reminder that I should be following Roland Butcher’s Hook, something which I’ll now rectify.

    The West Indies have pulled things round a little in the World Cup, but I still can’t help feeling that the DNA of the game there is permanently damaged, and David’s comments do little to dispel that.

    Finally, a minor point, but there should presumably be a ‘not’ in the first sentence of the very final paragraph.

    • chrisps says :

      Thanks Brian. The WI decline is troubling, but I was impressed that their most recent response wasn’t to consolidate around short-form cricket, but to try to support a wider improvement, with the PCL.

      Thanks for spotting the mistake.

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