A lot of work has taken place within focus groups over the past 18 months to try to improve on the structure of Open Competitions. The discussions continue and once specific recommendations are made then there will be a period of consultation. There is a certain urgency with this as teams want to know where they stand as early as possible.
There are many ideas doing the rounds for reforming the league and cup structures and it is not intended here to add to these. So no solutions. But it might be worthwhile to set down some thoughts on what principles need to be applied in reaching a solution.
First off we need to recognise that there is no one perfect solution. Whatever we do will be a compromise between competing objectives. Secondly, you cannot beat the Irish weather. if it rains and grounds are unplayable - all you can hope is to minimise the effect. Finally, a structure for today may not suit tomorrow. But it is important in any design that consideration is given to how the structure will cope with key risks e.g. clubs folding or an increase in representative fixture load mid season. With these caveats in mind what then are the objectives that we need to take on board in designing a new structure. These can be viewed under the following headings:
The first, and perhaps the most difficult question to answer is what is the right number of matches per team in a season. To answer this you have to take into account the availability of grounds and the different circumstances and preferences of players. Take the first point. The current structure of eight team leagues and associated cups is built around the idea of a model club that has five open teams, two womens teams, a social team and a youth section. Given the number of weekends in the season it is not realistic to expect any more teams than this on a single ground. Is this the right model and what would the consequences be of altering it. Of more immediate concern for the top few divisions - how to integrate club, interprovincial and international fixtures - to minimise clashes.
For players one is asked to design a system that caters [even at Premier Division] for full time professional cricketers, representative players who are working, club [recreational] cricketers who may have work and family commitments and students / youth players who may be available to play cricket after exams but whose development may dictate some limitations on the amount of cricket played.
Take one example - players who have to manage club and interprovincial matches. The minimum / maximum club matches [counting two T20 in a day as one] this season in the Premier League [weather permitting] is between 19 - 27. The maximum number of IP days [excluding trial / exhibition matches] is 21. Last year 22 players donned Leinster Lightning colours [some of these also turned out for Munster] so it is a minority but not a small number of players who may be asked to play a lot of cricket or forego some.
For the club player, through the divisions, what is the goal. A match a weekend [but not a double weekend] perhaps. At most levels you can be expected to play a minimum of 16 games and with a run in cup or T20 competitions perhaps another half dozen. In a season of about 22 weeks is this enough or too much.
In terms of the format there are two main issues - the relevance of the matches and their length. League competitions with two up / two down are good at retaining relevance through the season. There are few dead rubbers. Cup competitions have the problem of creating gaps in the calendar for defeated teams [should there be a second chance - a repechage or a plate]. Other than that every match has meaning. The league - cup format is attractive in that it guarantees a minimum number of matches and a final - but unless it is carefully drawn up can lead to teams losing interest early in competition.
Regarding the length of matches - this represents one of the biggest challenges facing club cricket, and not just in Ireland. The number of players in their 20s / 30s who are willing to give up a whole afternoon to play cricket is dwindling. If we want to keep them involved in the club game then consideration has to be given to the shorter form of the game. This also has the advantage of allowing for two games to be played on an afternoon - thus doubling the number of players involved. Getting the right balance between T20 and longer formats may indeed be the most difficult issue facing those charged with coming up with recommendations for the future of the club game.
Whatever structure is designed needs to be conscious of Cricket Leinster’s development goals - to grow the sport and to facilitate the development of young cricketers [some of whom at least may have ambitions for a professional career in the sport]. This is mainly about facilities and coaching but the structure of competitions is also important. We are trying out a Development league this season for the second time - we need to get feedback on how this is working. In terms of the development of the professional game - Ireland’s position down the international ranks at T20 level is a cause of concern. To what extent do we need to take this into account in the priorities accorded to T20 club competitions.
Finally, commercial considerations cannot be ignored. Sponsors, advertisers and services providers all look to the way the club game is presented. Again this mainly relates to the top competitions but is not confined to them. Naming conventions, having set rounds for league competitions [rather than allowing random fixtures], high profile events [i.e. finals] and regulations that facilitate [and require] clubs to provide information - live scores, team selections and results - can enhance the value of the product and bring more money into the sport and expand the support base.
None of this is easy and the whatever solutions are adopted will not please everyone. But at least we should be clear about what we are trying to achieve and be prepared to change structures again if the solutions don’t work out.
Eddie Lewis [Personal Capacity]