Rod Lyall 21/09/19
Let me begin by declaring an interest: on most aspects of the Dutch competition I have strong and frequently-expressed views, and on the topic of a ten-team versus an eight-team Topklasse I was the sole dissenting voice on the Board when it decided in 2016 to move from eight to ten.
So the debate which the Board initiated last week is one with plenty of personal resonance, although the central questions affect everyone with an interest in the future of the Dutch game, and the eventual outcomes ought to be those which ensure the growth of that game, both in quantity and quality.
Club representatives took part last Wednesday and Thursday in two consultative meetings, to discuss a series of proposals from the Board:
- to reduce the top divisions again, from ten teams to eight, probably with some form of play-offs;
- to play top division matches on Saturdays throughout the season, instead of only in the first six weeks;
- to restructure the Twenty20 Cup, limiting it to 16 teams;
- to consider establishing a separate competition for ‘development teams’, essentially the second elevens of clubs with a youth section; and (most radically of all)
- to introduce over a five-year period a set of criteria to be satisfied by any club before they would be allowed to play in the top three divisions.
These are far-reaching and, in my view at least, mostly laudable proposals, but the fact that they received a somewhat mixed reception from the club representatives was due, not only to innate conservatism and the undoubted tendency of some to consider only what was in the interest of their own club rather than the needs of Dutch cricket as a whole, but to the fact, admitted by KNCB secretary Robert Vermeulen, that the initiative had had a ‘less than optimal’ preparation.
The Board had established a Taskforce to review the competitions back in February, but various factors had conspired to prevent it bringing its deliberations to a coherent conclusion, and the Board had now decided that if changes were to be made, the first steps needed to be taken immediately.
But the problem was that the arguments for change had not been fully worked out, and certainly had not been presented in advance, and many remained unconvinced about the need for change at all.
One starting point was the increasing pressure from the programme of the national men’s team, which could affect as many as eight of the 21 or 22 playing dates next season and more in 2021, even without taking into account the potential impact of the Euroslam T20 competition, assuming that it goes ahead next year.
That demanded, the KNCB’s interim competition manager Bart Kroesen argued, greater flexibility in the domestic competition schedule, something which could scarcely be achieved with a ten-team competition with its minimum of 18 playing dates.
That calculation immediately leads, however, into one of Dutch cricket’s perennial debates, about whether, and to what extent, the competition can fairly be allowed to continue when national team players are unavailable to take part.
As the demands upon those players increase the impact upon their clubs grows correspondingly, especially when the national team management seeks to limit players’ role in club matches they are released to play, as for example permitting bowlers to complete no more than five overs.
In some cases this amounts to a contractual problem: if a player is contracted both to the KNCB and to a club, which commitment takes precedence, and will the Bond be prepared to take on the whole cost of that player if his availability for the club drops below a certain level?
There are, from this perspective, broadly two alternatives: either the top competitions can be played only when all players are available, in which case there may be room only for 14 or so matches and the limitation to eight teams becomes essential, or it is played through with or without the members of the national team, in which case a ten-team competition is feasible but there are serious concerns about its fairness (summed up in the much-used Dutch term competitievervalsing, or distortion of the competition).
Whether this is the right basis on which to decide the league structure is itself a matter of dispute, and one to which we shall return in a further article, but other arguments, such as the claim that the expansion to ten teams in 2016 has failed to produce the projected increase in the number of young Dutch-produced players taking part, or that the ten-team league is more or less competitive than its eight-team predecessor, either come down to highly subjective judgements or rely on evidence which the Board is not yet able to produce.
Everyone agrees that a key objective of the domestic competition ought to be the creation of an environment in which talented young Dutch cricketers can develop and prosper, and most agree that this is not enhanced by the elimination, in order to comply with the Netherlands’ stringent anti-discrimination laws, of any check on the influx of overseas players.
But there is less agreement about how best to achieve that objective, and a good deal of fractiousness (to put it mildly) about the Board’s apparent inability – at this stage at least – to convert broad strategic objectives into a coherent, consistent, well-argued plan for a stable, equitable league structure.
The previous reduction of the top leagues from ten teams to eight, in 2010, was the result of a long, comprehensive consultation process, which ran from August 2008 to March 2009, and even then some of the conclusions were immediately undermined by compromise and continuing resistance from some intransigent quarters.
The reversal of that change in 2016 was much more ad hoc, but both bear witness to deep-seated divisions in the Dutch game, and the absence of a clear consensus on the best way forward.
If the current Board can achieve that it will be greatest contribution to the future of Dutch cricket it could possibly make, but it may take more than a couple of meetings, or even a winter of debate, to achieve that goal.
We will attempt, over the next couple of weeks, to contribute to the discussion by considering each of the Board’s proposals in greater detail.