The future of the MCC Universities (MCCU) scheme has been put in further jeopardy by the withdrawal of a major sponsor.
The scheme, already the subject of a review involving the ECB and the MCC, had benefitted from around GBP180,000 of funding over each of the last couple of years from Deloitte. But with that deal having expired there is fresh doubt as to the long-term viability of the programme.
In an attempt to cut costs, the MCC have decided they will no longer field an MCCU team in the 2nd XI Championship and have told ESPNcricinfo that their funding of the remaining aspects of the programme - understood to cost the club around GBP375,000 a year - should be considered "finite." The club had previously announced (in early 2016) that they intended to cut their funding by 50%, though the short-fall was partially mitigated by the Deloitte deal.
While an MCC spokesman reiterated their commitment to the scheme for the next three years - a move designed to reassure students who may have made university choices based on the accessibility of the programme - there is increasing nervousness among those involved in implementing the scheme over its future.
The MCCU project, founded by former England opener Graeme Fowler, allows young people to avoid having to choose between an education and a career in sport. By providing good-quality facilities and coaching at six centres (based in Cambridge, Cardiff, Durham, Leeds, Loughborough and Oxford) around England and Wales, students are able to complete their degrees (or similar) while sustaining their dreams of a playing career. Around 25% of current England-qualified players in the County Championship have come through the scheme with Heather Knight, Andrew Strauss, Sam Billings, Zafar Ansari, Tom Westley and Toby Roland-Jones among the obvious success stories.
The ECB do not currently provide any direct funding for the MCCUs. But they are conducting a review into the programme's place in the overall make-up of cricket in England and Wales. With some worried that games involving the students dilute the standard of first-class cricket and others worried about funding, it is possible that the MCCU centres may play combined teams - perhaps two instead of six - in both first-class and limited-overs cricket. It is also possible that the scheme is, in some ways, extended to further centres, with Southampton an oft-repeated potential location. Either way, it seems likely the ECB will need to agree to fund it if it is to survive beyond the next three or four years.
The role of the MCCUs extends far beyond on-field success. By ensuring more young sportspeople have an extensive education behind them, it helps avoids some of the pitfalls inherent at the end of sporting careers while some of those who do not go on to enjoy on-field success continue to serve the game as coaches, club secretaries and the like. And, at a time the game is keen to extend its training and support programmes to players leaving the game, it seems odd that such an obviously preventative approach is so vulnerable.
The timing of the news is also intriguing. Coinciding with revelations that Chance to Shine could be forced to cut some operations due to a funding shortfall it underlines the impression that, for all the cash flooding into the game at the top level - the ECB recently agreed a new broadcast deal worth 1.1 billion and the remuneration package of at least one ECB official exceeds 660,000 a year - the sport at a developmental level appears to be facing something of a crisis.