Calls for revised Topklasse format gain little traction
Bertus de Jong
The open letter to the KNCB from Henk van Eck published last week, despite meeting with the approval of many on social media and on our own forum, failed to make much of an impact at Monday's meeting between the KNCB and clubs.
The letter called for the abolition of the play-off system, return to a ten team Topklasse, and to Sunday senior cricket. It is not a new refrain, and is a debate which the KNCB doubtless hoped had been put to rest at the beginning of last season - where it was agreed to persist with the new format for at least four years. Whilst it will surprise few that there are many in the Dutch cricket community that still hold to this position, we should nonetheless be grateful that this particular can of worms remains firmly shut.
Nobody can doubt Mr van Eck's sincerity nor his qualification to argue the case, but the case for reversion remains a weak one. The substance of the argument rests on three claims; first that for many clubs the Topklasse season was, in the competitive sense, effectively over by the play-off phase; second that the restriction of the Topklasse to eight teams excludes deserving clubs from top-flight cricket, to their detriment; and third that the move from Sunday to Saturday play for the first half of the season reduces turnout and bar revenues whilst failing to help youth cricket. Looking at each of these claims in turn, it turns out none of them really stands up to scrutiny.
Most obviously, the argument that most sides in the Topklasse had nothing to play for in the play-off phase is, to be frank, in irreconcilable conflict with reality. Four of the eight clubs were locked in a tense four-way relegation battle throughout the second league phase, with the Topklasse survival of all four balanced on a knife edge. At the top of the table Quick and Dosti's securing finals spots early in the playoff phase has less to do with the format of the competition than the utter dominance of the two sides throughout the season, and the dead rubbers on the final weekend of the play-off phase would have been equally irrelevant under a simple league system.
Moreover, the current play-off system injected a remarkable degree of tension and drama into the usually placid mid-season, as five clubs battled for the safety of a single top-four berth; not to mention that the league final, which even Mr van Eck acknowledges as a success and was itself an innovation long resisted by more conservative elements, likewise finds no place in that backwards-looking proposal espoused in the letter. In light of the high-stakes, consistently competitive matches provided by the current format, one wonders whether its detractors have even been watching the same competition.
The case for an expansion of the Topklasse to ten teams is little better than the argument for abolishing the play-offs - seemingly resting purely on the desire to rescue HCC and VCC from the Hoofdklasse. Part of the rationale for the move to eight teams was to ensure that the Topklasse was competitive at both ends of the table, and in an ideal world no club would start the season assuredly safe from relegation - it is not in the interests of competitive cricket that the risk of relegation be effectively restricted to two or three weaker teams from the outset. Last season's dramatic photo-finish of course must be credited as much to providence as to the format, but it is difficult to envisage a similar four-team showdown happening in a ten team, straight-league Topklasse. It is the inevitable and desirable product of a close-fought competition that even good teams can go down, not a failure to be lamented; it is not a bug, it's a feature.
It is certainly regrettable that a club such as HCC will not be gracing next year's Topklasse, but it is not the first time they have endured relegation and few would bet against them bouncing straight back. There is, furthermore, absolutely no evidence that a stint in the Hoofdklasse has the negative impact on youth development that Mr van Eck implies. On the contrary, it is striking how many of the most promising young players in the country at the moment have come through from the Hoofdklasse. Indeed an oft-neglected aspect of the smaller Topklasse is also the effect that the stronger teams have on the Hoofdklasse. Taking the two top Hoofdklasse clubs out of the second division would deprive second tier clubs of the strongest competition, and indeed the occasional opportunity to play on turf wickets, and is liable to open an unbridgeable gulf in quality between the leagues.
Finally the long-standing debate regarding the scheduling of Top- and Hoofdklasse games on Saturday for the first half of the season is another that the board would have hoped had been put to rest. Mr van Eck argues that the move to Saturday play for the first half of the season, ostensibly to accommodate Sunday matches for youth cricket and thus mitigate the encroachment of the football season, has actually had little positive effect on youth playing numbers. But whilst it is true that the uptick in youth numbers has been marginal, the decline of preceding years has at least been arrested, and retention rather than recruitment was the primary purpose of the schedule change.
Likewise Mr van Eck's assertion that a return to Sunday play would greatly boost spectator turnout or bar revenue is not backed up by any clear evidence. Attendance records for Topklasse fixtures are not routinely kept, but the suggestion that Saturday games are comparatively ill-attended across the board is supported only by anecdotal evidence from the loudest and most aggrieved, and the presentation of the argument for Sunday cricket as a "board vs clubs" issue implies a consensus amongst clubs that simply does not exist.
The schedule change is generally seen as a qualified success by many clubs, and the current format has been a practically unqualified success in terms of delivering tense and competitive cricket. Arguments against any solution to the questions facing Dutch cricket are always to be found, but those in favour of a return to the old ten-team Sunday league seem to be rooted in little more than nostalgia. Whilst the current system may not be perfect, and its drawbacks in terms of attendance and similar practical issues affect clubs unevenly, in the absence of a superior proposal it doesn't look anywhere near broke enough to warrant fixing.
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