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North Sea project can take off . . . if money flows

The man behind cricket's new international Pro Series has declared the inaugural season a "qualified success" but admitted ways must be found to make it commercially viable.

A Highlanders side featuring some of Scottish cricket's young, up-and-coming talents won both trophies in a successful first season of the North Sea Pro Series. However, its creator has warned that the format could suffer from a lack of commerical investment. Pictures: Donald MacLeod
A Highlanders side featuring some of Scottish cricket's young, up-and-coming talents won both trophies in a successful first season of the North Sea Pro Series. However, its creator has warned that the format could suffer from a lack of commerical investment. Pictures: Donald MacLeod

The North Sea Pro Series, contested by Scottish and Dutch professional teams, was the brainchild of Andy Tennant, Cricket Scotland's director of cricket, introducing a professional domestic set-up that would allow established and aspiring national squad members to prepare for the international game.

In many ways the performance of the Highlanders, who won both the T20 and the 50-over competitions - losing just one of their 12 matches - was telling in itself in terms of allowing talent to emerge.

"We've probably got more established international players in the Reivers side and the Highlanders probably featured a few more of the young, hungry up-and-comers so that's an interesting thought for us initially to look at that and how the Highlanders have played their cricket," Tennant acknowledged.

It's all the more important given the timing, with Scotland having just qualified for next year's World Cup and with the new head coach Grant Bradburn about to take up his post in time for next month's meeting with the Netherlands.

"There's a sense now that we have a real opportunity due to those [players] we have for the national team, through World Cup qualifi­cation, through potential Test status for young, up-and-coming players to the fact that we've got a new coach coming in - so there's a new broom," said Tennant. "That in itself creates opportunities both for established players to prove themselves over again and for younger players to see a chink of light and it gives those who didn't fare so well under the previous regime another chance at it."

As for the competition itself, the weather has not always been kind, but in terms of what Cricket Scotland and their Dutch counterparts were seeking to achieve, it has served the purpose of feeding those opportunities well.

"It would be a qualified success," is Tennant's assessment. "I would be happy with most of the things I've seen. It's a learning process. What we're trying to do is drop the learning we've taken from the national team, and the professionalisation of that, into these teams so it brings continuity all the way through and I'm sure the Scottish Rugby Union would have been having those conversations 10, 12 years ago."

He sees considerable comparison between what is happening in Scottish cricket now and the transformation of rugby after it went open almost 20 years ago.

"It would be fair to say we've tried to learn as much as we can from the good and the bad things that were done by the SRU at that time because the parallels are quite striking, clearly. We are trying to do what they've done and try to do it better," said Tennant. "The days of stepping from a club game of cricket or rugby to playing a Test match or a Six Nations game have gone because the growth of the skill levels in the professional game has been exponential over the last five years and obviously T20s fuelled that a little bit.

"From our point of view we have to have a really strong stepping stone from club to international representation. The stronger this level is and the more like international cricket it is then the better chance we've got of producing good young players."

He does not, however, anticipate the sort of problems Scotish rugby had to confront with its club-versus -district battle which did so much to impede the development of the professional game in the early days, suggesting that "we're pushing at a slightly more open door".

Meanwhile, the decision of the Irish to prevent provinces from participating in the competition offers further echoes from the rugby experience.

"I'm hopeful that they will have a look at this competition and think 'what they're doing is good and we want to be a part of it at some stage down the line . . .' and that we have some kind of competition against the Irish provinces next year. Whether it's full-blown league matches or not I can't say, but again the parallels are uncanny with the Pro12. "We need to pool all the resources to make sure our emerging and established players get the highest level of domestic competition they can and I think this competition is the answer. If the Irish were to come in I think they would enhance that."

Such an outcome could help the commercial development of the Pro Series which, as Tennant readily admits, is vital to the competition's sustainability.

"That is key," he said. "The ICC and other people aren't just going to keep throwing us money willy nilly so that we can just throw it at some players, fixtures and programmes. It's a five- to 10-year programme but we want to create a real interest around this, we want to create a fan base around the two teams, we want to create an identity for them both and we want to create some commercial success.

Again he notes that rugby has gone through a similar process, but he knows, too, that cricket will have to progress much more rapidly than it did if this project is to succeed.

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