The North Sea Pro-Series, the ambitious collaboration between Cricket Scotland and the KNCB to build the foundation of a European inter-regional league, looks to be foundering in the face of dwindling budgets in Scotland and the Netherlands. But has the loss of TAPP funding finished off the NSPS?
Cricket Scotland and the KNCB's joint regional league might be regarded as something of an oddity, its place in the cricketing culture of the two countries unclear, and its professional status still more aspirational than actual. But nonetheless it has produced some memorable individual performances, a consistently high level of cricket, and even garnered a fair amount of media attention over the last couple of years. The de-facto title clash between the Highlanders and the Seafarers was streamed live by Quipu TV in 2014, a privilege only occasionally accorded to full internationals at associate level. Even ESPNcricinfo, who rarely concern themselves with cricket at the domestic level in either country, took to publishing scorecards and points tables for the parallel T20 and 50-over competitions.
After two successful seasons however, the competition is now struggling in the face of dwindling budgets. For 2016 the Dutch half of the competition has shrunk to just three 50-over matches and a single three-dayer, and whilst the Scots have expanded to three regional sides and will be playing all three formats, the international element of the competition has been stripped back to a single, as-yet-unscheduled 50-over finals series between the Dutch and Scottish winners, and the level of coverage has declined to the point where even scorecards can be hard to find. In short, the North Sea Pro-Series looks, at first glance, to be in real trouble.
Though in principle the premiere level of domestic cricket in both countries, the league has struggled to find a coherent identity, or to really capture the public imagination in either. It remains at core a feeder league for the Dutch and Scottish national teams, designed to afford a higher level of competitive cricket to promising young prospects and act as a bridge between club cricket and international competition.
Now arguably in its fourth season, the NSPS has adopted a different structure in each one. A year before the official launch of the competition the four sides played their first crossover fixtures, with the Northern Hurricanes taking on the Caledonian Highlanders in two games at at Amstelveen and the Southern Seafarers travelling to Ayr to play a 50 over and 20 over matches against the Reivers, with honours shared in both series. The following year both the Netherlands and Scotland were unceremoniously (if not entirely unexpectedly) ejected from the English one day competition, spurring the respective boards to intensify their cooperation and expand their nascent inter-regional fixtures into a full four-team league.
"With no Scottish or Dutch involvement in English domestic competitions this year, this is an ideal opportunity for us to stand on our own two feet and begin to develop a strong domestic professional competition for our best cricketers", Cricket Scotland's High Performance Manager, Andy Tennant, said at the time.
Then-KNCB CEO Richard Cox echoed the sentiment; "this is a real reinforcement of the Netherlands intentions to embed a professional playing structure in the 50 over and T20 formats and these matches together with our own Hurricanes v Seafarers games in-country will go a long way to bridging the gap between club cricket and the international game in support of our home grown structures into the future".
In fact initial plans had been still more ambitious, with feelers put out to gauge Cricket Ireland's amenability to the participation of the three Irish Inter-Pro sides in the competition, and still wilder speculation thrown around about inviting Denmark, Italy or the Channel Islands to form the core of a European regio-national league.
In the event the Irish proved lukewarm on the idea, focused on consolidating their own domestic development with an eye on the ICC's full membership requirements, and the cost of flying teams internationally repeatedly over the course of the season remains beyond the means lower-ranker European Associates. That the Dutch and Scots were able to press ahead was largely due to funding from the ICC's Targeted Assistance and Performance Programme, from which both boards benefited to the tune of about $500,000 per annum.
The first full edition of the competition saw the four sides playing a full calendar of home and away fixtures against one another in both limited-overs formats. The result was a successful albeit rather weather-affected competition, especially for the Highlanders who won both leagues handily.
The change of format for the second edition, switching to the T20 format exclusively ahead of the WT20 Qualifier later in the year rather speaks to the NSPS' status as a development league, subject in part to the needs of the national teams, and to the limits imposed by budgets and established domestic calendars.
In this respect the league has been remarkably successful. Scotland and the Netherlands ended up sharing the trophy at the Qualifier after the final was disappointingly washed out, ahead of more favoured sides such as Afghanistan and Ireland.
The competition also seems to do a good job of bridging the gap from club cricket to the national team and bringing along young players, with players such as Ali Evans and Michael Leask securing regular Scotland spots on the back of Pro-Series performances. Talking to some of the young Dutch players, they turn out to be equally enthusiastic about their experiences in the competition.
"I love being part of the Hurricanes team. You get close with the guys. You really notice this when you are playing against other hurricanes during the club season" said Hurricanes opening bowler Quirijn Gunning. "Its a big step up from club cricket, and any exposure at a higher level is better for your game."
Team-mate Leon Turmaine agrees; "It's completely different. The fact that you're playing with and against pretty much half of the national side is a huge leap in quality. It's a large learning curve. Especially the professionalism is something totally different to club cricket, playing against better players has made me think about my game more and showed me what’s necessary to do well at a high level."
But as a attraction in its own right, the NSPS is still a long way from being self-sustaining. With spectator turnout on both sides of the North Sea initially markedly less than for club matches, though naturally the league's habit of mid-week scheduling doesn't help in that regard, neither board has had much success attracting commercial sponsors for their teams or the competition as a whole.
As countries with cricketing traditions going back well over a century, both the Scots and the Dutch face a somewhat perverse disadvantage when it comes to promoting such new initiatives in the face of long established traditions and loyalties compared to the enthusiasm with which fans in younger cricket countries take to newly-established competitions. This consideration, in part, influenced the decision to revert to the more traditional three-team regional structure in Scotland, replacing the Reivers with the Western Warriors and Eastern Knights, as Tennant explains.
“Partly of course we're just looking to get as much bang for our buck, put simply, to play as much high-quality cricket as possible, but we're also hoping that going back to the traditional regional structure will make the league more attractive to fans and potential sponsors”.
Though the move has yet to yield reward in term of significant commercial interest, early signs are promising. Attendances are up and, at least on weekends with more clement weather, can comfortably exceed those seen for club cricket, Tennant says.
And the change has been well-received by players and coaches too; Western Warriors boss Colin Mitchell recently told CricketEurope Scotland, “The lads are delighted to be going back to a geographical definition and it already seems to have brought them closer together. There’s a feeling that you are playing for your district and that appeals to the boys. We have a sense of unity and identity that will hopefully work to our advantage.” Knights coach John Blain likewise said “I’m delighted we’ve gone back to the old format.”
Conversely the Dutch have arguably missed a trick by distancing the Hurricanes and the Seafarers from their original North Holland/South Holland identities. In seeking to avoid excluding cricketers from outside the Randstad, of whom there are still worryingly few, the KNCB have sacrificed any link with the traditional North/South fixture - which has been played intermittently since the 19th century.
Even more so than in Scotland, the competition has yet to really connect with the conservative Dutch cricket-watching public, for some of whom even international matches often hold less interest than the venerable club competition. Yet as the Dutch Topklasse reverts from eight to ten teams next season, the consequent dilution of quality at club level will make the survival of Pro-Series all the more crucial from a development perspective, and just conceivably more attractive for those looking to watch some genuinely competitive cricket.
Perhaps inevitably given comparatively greater financial pressures faced by the KNCB, partly as a consequence of the loss of ODI status, the Dutch side of things has rather lagged behind the Scots both on the field and in organisational terms. The Scottish sides, or at least the Highlanders, have generally been more settled in their selection and coaching than the Dutch, who have chopped and changed both their playing and coaching personnel quite freely between the two in previous seasons and, perhaps not coincidentally, the Highlanders have a clean sweep of trophies from the league so far.
But despite early teething problems, the Dutch sides, after looking comparatively makeshift and improvisational early on have begun to coalesce into stable sides and the KNCB remains committed to the regional concept. Mid-week player availability remains a constant headache for both sides, but both have now at least developed settled player pools, along with fixed support staff, regular training sessions and a with a developing sense of esprit de corps, the Hurricanes and Seafarers look to have shaken off the air of the ad-hoc that hung about them at the outset of the project.
This season also sees the two Dutch sides face off in a one-off three-dayer ahead of the Netherlands Intercontinental Cup tie against Afghanistan, which will be the first competitive domestic multi-day cricket played in the Netherlands since time immemorial.
The Scottish half of things nonetheless remains a few steps ahead, not only maintaining competition in all three formats, but this year renewing talks with Cricket Ireland about putative Irish involvement, possibly in the form of a post-season finals series between the Scottish regional champions and the winner of the Irish Inter-Provincial competition, with La Manga metioned as a possible venue.
Inevitably as the rumours of the Scottish-Irish talks reached the Netherlands they have been met with degree of trepidation in some quarters, with the more paranoid and pessimistic worrying that such collaboration might develop into an alternative to the NSPS rather than an expansion, and speculating that the Dutch sides faced a risk of being left behind entirely. There's no indication of such thinking on the Scottish side however, and Tennant is upbeat about the the CS-KNCB relationship;
"It's a good relationship, [KNCB high performance manager] Roland Lefebvre and I talk frequently, and we're keen to ensure the link continues. The Dutch sides have been competitive, we're pleased with the level of cricket and impressed with the commitment of the KNCB, especially as we understand they've suffered even more than us financially."
In fact the prospect of an eventual Scottish-Irish-Dutch championship round, ironically enough, is probably the closest one might hope to get to the genuine European inter-regional league initially envisioned by the most optimistic, given current constraints of scheduling and finance. Certainly that's the attitude of the KNCB themselves, who see potential in such a development to build toward their original objectives.
KNCB CEO Alex de la Mar stressed that fellow European associates such as Denmark and Germany had not been forgotten, and went so far as to say "I would not be surprised, a few years down the line, to see the Pro-Series become a genuinely European competition." The Danes and the Germans, along with other European Associates such as Jersey, Belgium and France, are in fact already familiar with the Dutch regional sides thanks to their participation in the Continental T20 competition in Schiedam, itself a fine example of independently-organised international cricket on the continent.
Tennant echoes the sentiment, albeit with a hint of caution. The talks with the Irish are still at the earliest of stages, Cricket Ireland having preferred to concentrate initially on building their own competition.
"In the long term we'd like to involve all three countries, and given scheduling and financial situation at the moment a finals series looks to be the most achievable way of doing that. A trilateral series isn't something we're looking at for this season, but 2017? - It's a possibility."
Tennant also made reference to the two boards' still more expansive long-term ambitions for the competition, and specifically the potential of the rapid growth of the game in Germany. But whilst the desire and potential is there, together with the proven (and to some somewhat surprising) independent organisational capacity demonstrated by the two boards, the fact is that the financial means are still lacking.
The ICC have been fairly vocal (by ICC standards) about their hope that Associate boards will increasingly take over responsibility for organising bilateral and regional competitions on their own initiative as both the budgets and remit of ICC regional bodies are cut back, supposedly in favour of increased direct disbursements to national bodies. The current state of the North Sea Pro-Series attests to the determination of the Dutch and the Scottish boards to step up in regards the former, whilst unambiguously giving the lie to the latter.
Despite repeated assertions that top associates would materially benefit from the new financial arrangement, it would appear that the Netherlands and Scotland, currently 1st and 3rd on the WCL Championship table, are having to make do with less.
What is striking is that even as they have lost out significantly in the financial "restructure", both boards retain such optimistic and inclusive ambitions for the NSPS - not only remaining committed to the future of the joint initiative, but hoping in the long term to build on it for the benefit of their fellow European Associates.
The forced reinvention and adaptation of the Pro-Series in the face of circumstance and financial constraint has led to an objectively diminished format this year, but one that might readily be expanded upon and is in fact remarkably well suited to realising its original ambitions if financial circumstances improve.
The competition's underlying value as a development league for the two countries' national sides likely accounts for its remarkable resilience even in the absence of ICC funding or significant commercial partnerships. Yet even as it serves that purpose more than adequately, those involved on both sides of the North Sea see the potential for it to become much more.
Let's hope others see it too.