County cricket in fight for survival

By Patrick GeareyBBC Sports News

The 2011 domestic season has started with the counties facing an uncertain future after 15 of the 18 sides suffered losses for 2010 - some totalling millions of pounds.

The figures have sparked fears a club could go bust and many in the game are calling for domestic cricket to face up to the financial realities or face the consequences.

Two of the biggest names, Lancashire and Yorkshire, are among those worst affected.

The Red Rose county are expected to announce a loss in excess of £2m and are embroiled in a battle over the future of their Old Trafford base.

Across the Pennines, and the White Rose county have already announced a similarly sized deficit and the club's players had to dig into their own pockets to pay for a pre-season tour.

For those clubs without a ground regularly used for international cricket, the era of paying big bucks to lure some of the world's top players is over.

Kent, who have previously hosted the likes of former Australia captain Steve Waugh and Sri Lanka bowling legend Muttiah Muralitharan, will do without an overseas signing this season after announcing a big operating loss for the third successive year.

Instead, they are concentrating on bringing through young talent from the academy. The likes of Chris Piesley and Daniel Bell-Drummond will vie for places alongside more established names like James Tredwell and Geraint Jones. The county see it as necessary but also forward-looking.

"It's all about securing the future, not just of the young players but the future of the club as well," Kent captain Rob Key said.

"Every county is going to have to go about things in a different way to when I started as captain five or six years ago."

Some clubs, including Kent, are unhappy at the England and Wales Cricket Board's reduction in 20-over cricket from 2012 - which was announced in March - because they see the shortest form of the game as their biggest earner.

The ECB, for its part, wants to decongest a packed domestic calendar and it is confident that the financial health of the county game will improve when the rest of the economy gets stronger. But chief executive David Collier has stressed the need for lessons to be be learned.

"I think what it has shown is that counties have to pay even more attention than we do normally to our business planning cycles," Collier stated.

"We [the ECB] do make sure that we distribute as much of our finances as we can.

"In 2011, for example, there will be an additional £4m going into county cricket. That's good news for the counties and I know a lot of clubs are looking to that to get themselves back on their feet."

That dependence on the national governing body and the income from the deal for TV broadcast rights with Sky Sports is telling.

It is obvious that the county game no longer attracts the kind of crowds or interest that it did 20 or 30 years ago. The game is shorn of its best players, who are centrally contracted to the ECB, and so is formally subordinate to the national side.

The IPL opening ceremony took place this week
The IPL opening ceremony took place this week

The county championship begins just as the Indian Premier League gets under way and it cannot match its glamorous subcontinent rival for star names, cash or television coverage.

But, all this financial gloom comes at a time when the English domestic game is producing some of its best players. It supplied the talent that fuelled in the winter and sparked envious glances from down under.

Those involved with county cricket will hope this season will underline that strength rather than the off-field weaknesses.