Don Topley: Conflict of interests between Minor Counties and Premier League cricket must be addressed

Matt Hunn bowling for Suffolk in Minor Counties cricket. Picture: NICK GARNHAM

Matt Hunn bowling for Suffolk in Minor Counties cricket. Picture: NICK GARNHAM - Credit: Archant

In his latest column, Don Topley looks at changes to the Minor Counties game - and potential issues with the format.

Back in the summer of 1981, Ian Botham was defining the Ashes with memorable performances all over the country.

That particular Summer school holidays I was playing cricket almost every day all over Norfolk and Suffolk and wanted to be Botham or Bob Willis as I represented two counties: Suffolk Schools' and Norfolk Young Amateurs

My family home was in Wymondham, Norfolk, but I was at boarding school in Suffolk, so I was forever playing in local derbies between the two neighbouring counties and it was terrific fun in my adolescence.

Last Sunday I reminisced as I travelled the A140 to Norwich to witness another Norfolk CCC v Suffolk CCC game, but in two matches of modern t20 in the national Minor Counties competition.

I kept away from the centre of that 'Fine City' as the Canaries were enjoying their celebration parade on their open-top bus! Poor Ipswich Town, relegated! No more hotly contested local derbies for now!

Minor Counties cricket, like the domestic professional game, is undergoing a serious facelift for next season. Minor Counties, like the major First Class counties, are faced with significant challenges, as cricket continues to try to remain relevant in today's society.

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Next season there is the name change. Gone, will be 'Minor Counties' to be replaced with the 'National Counties'. The word 'Minor' is removed as it has an allegedly negative connotation.

The current two ten-team Eastern and Western Divisions' three-day longer cricket will be split into two further divisions according to ability: Division One and Division Two with promotion and regelation.

The four groups will be drawn up at the end of this season according to performance. Historically, Minor Counties cricket used to be played over two days, which nearly always required contrived declaration finishes.

Today, they play three-day cricket which is a much better game but does require these amateur cricketers to take holiday, or time off work to participate on the Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. Remember these chaps will be playing on Saturdays in a long and demanding ECB Premier League game too.

Back in the day, club cricket was a shorter arranged 45 over affair within the county. Today, regional fixtures also require significant travelling to play a long Premier League cricket match.

I believe there is a 'conflict of interest' today with the ECB Premier Leagues and the historic Minor Counties. Can an amateur cricketer play a serious Saturday club game and then a three-day county game which will require two days off work? Four straight days a week of serious cricket is a huge commitment - even more so if he has a young family.

In reality, a good number of talented cricketers cannot offer or afford that commitment, which results in people choosing between club and Minor Counties cricket. Sadly, this results in diluted standards.

Our national governing body, the ECB, acknowledges the Minor Counties as a breeding ground for younger players. Like the professional major counties, each minor county is encouraged to select younger players as there are financial incentives for playing Under 23 and Under 26-year-olds.

Minor Counties are currently analysed by an average age of their County team each fixture. Again, could this dilute the standard and affect the system by selecting a 20-year-old and not an experienced and decent 30-year-old cricketer? Similar to the professional domestic game, ECB income is vitally important to both Norfolk and Suffolk.

T20 remains the flavour of the month all over the world and it won't be a surprise to see Minor Counties play more of the short format in the coming years, which occupies just a single day.

What you cannot take away from the Minor Counties younger age-groups is that they possess and produce many fine cricketers.

In and around the England set up today, the likes of James Vince, Alex Hales, Liam Dawson, Oliver Stone, Liam Livingstone, Reece Topley, Tymal Mills, and Craig and Jamie Overton all initially came from the Minor Counties age groups. That's something to be extremely proud off.

Incidentally, no bragging rights were claimed as Suffolk and Norfolk both won a t20 game in the cold, at Horsford.

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