Yet again changes are afoot in the county game. Since the new millennium, we’ve seen the Twenty20 Cup replace the Benson & Hedges Cup and grow from 5 games per team to 8, to 10, to 16, back to 10 then up again to 14. It was originally in a block but is now spread throughout the season. In 2006, the C&G Trophy switched to a league format having been a knockout competition since inception. In 2010, it was abolished completely, and the Pro40 was reformed into the CB40. Four years later 50-over cricket returned to the domestic game in the form of the Royal London One-Day Cup, played in a block in August. This year it will be more spread out, played concurrently with the NatWest t20 Blast.
And if all that isn’t enough, for 2017 the ECB are changing their mind again. I’ll start with the changes to the County Championship. The 4-day competition is the only one that has remained largely unaltered in recent years. Two up, two down with each team playing each other twice across 16 matches.
Over the last few seasons, however, county cricketers have expressed concerns about playing too many matches. Although the volume of cricket is no higher than in the past, they are legitimate concerns with teams often having to play Championship games having driven from a t20 the night before.
The question is, where do we cut matches? You can’t really cut the One-Day Cup – perhaps you could go down to 6 games but any less and cricketers won’t have enough time to display their 50-over skills. The t20 Blast can’t really be cut either, as counties rely on it for income (but I will discuss how we could reform this competition later).
That leaves the Championship, which takes up 64 days per season – 74% of match days excluding knockouts. Now, the problem is that members like the Championship. I love it too, and it works. But there aren’t enough days in the summer to accommodate 64 days of it on top of one day cricket and enough rest and recuperation days. The amount of Championship cricket means the season is a relentless treadmill with barely any time to rest, practice and take stock. No other domestic system in the world involves as much first class cricket as us. In Australia, South Africa, New Zealand, Pakistan and the West Indies domestic teams play 10 first-class games per season. In India it’s 8. In Bangladesh and Zimbabwe, 6. Sri Lankan teams play up to 13 but they are 3 days. Clearly, for our national team to be successful we don’t need to play so many first class games per season.
Perhaps realising this, the ECB are cutting the number of Championship games to 14 in 2017. In principle, I agree with going down to 14. As a Somerset fan I can live with 28 days of home Championship cricket as opposed to 32. It’s not a big difference. To do this they are changing the size of the divisions – Division One will have eight teams while Division Two will have ten. This means that Division One will remain a round robin, every-team-plays-every-other-team-once format. That’s fine by me. But I have an issue with Division Two, where each team will play 14 matches – so each county will play five teams twice and four teams once. Instinctively I am against that. In any sport this cheapens the competition as a team could have an advantage gained by playing better teams less or worse teams more. I know they will probably decide who plays who based on the previous season’s table but that doesn’t account for variations in the quality of teams from one season to the next.
It could be worse – at least Division One will maintain its integrity. Better this than 14 games each using the current divisions. But is there a way of cutting matches without harming the integrity of the competition? Well, three divisions of six has been suggested with each team playing each other twice, either as three leagues above one another or a Division One with two parallel leagues below it. It could work in theory but members will be dismayed with such a dramatic cut in matches from 16 to 10. Another suggestion involves three seven-team divisions, perhaps bringing in Scotland, Netherlands and a minor county. This way 12 matches can be played per season.
My solution, however, is to keep the number of games as it is and look to play the first two rounds of matches overseas in late March. This way you’re not cutting games but you’re spreading them out more, allowing more rest between them. I appreciate it may be difficult to organise 16 matches abroad across a couple of weeks, but it could only benefit county cricketers, and therefore the England team, to gain experience of alien conditions.
The new One-Day Cup format has two problems as far as I can see. The ECB have said that it will be played in ‘April and May’ – if a significant portion is played in April the team bowling first will have an advantage and pitches will not reflect international cricket. As a format that is meant to suit family days out, cold April days aren’t ideal. If the majority of the competition is played in May it will not be as much of an issue, though. The final will be in July which is a good move.
The second problem I have is with an odd change – the top three will advance rather than top four. The group winners will advance to the semi-finals, while second and third will playoff in the quarter-finals. It’s a seemingly pointless change that will only create more dead matches, reminiscent of (though not as extreme as) the farcical old CB40 format where only the top team from each group of seven was guaranteed to advance.
Now, the t20 Blast – without a doubt the most discussed of the competitions. The debate about whether we should try franchises has been running for years now but it remains counties for the time being. In 2017 the tournament will be played in July and August in two blocks ‘as per the current format’, according to the ECB, so we can assume it will remain 14 games per side. The shift to Friday nights over the last two years has proved successful attendance-wise, but it is not as good for TV and the majority of players dislike the constant switching between the 4-day and t20 formats. This new format will be played in the summer holidays, which will hopefully keep attendances high and players happy.
But it won’t stop the calls for franchises from many players, fans and, increasingly, county chiefs. The debate has been done to death so I won’t go into it here. What I will do is say how I would go about reaching a compromise to keep all parties reasonably happy.
I would have a two-division format, nine teams in each with two teams up and two down each season. Each team would play each other once, creating eight matches each, which, yes, is significantly less than what we currently have. Now, akin to the IPL, BBL, CPL and the BPL, I would televise every match in the top division across four weeks or so. It would be 36 matches played by the traditional county teams, followed by the usual finals day. The big difference between our competition and the BBL, IPL etc. is the lack of TV coverage – at the moment we have far too many games to show them all on TV. The advantage those tournaments have over ours is that they are easy to follow because every single match is televised. But this idea gives us the improved TV coverage without going to franchises. Hopefully TV revenues would increase, which I would split evenly around all the counties, and perhaps one day it could go free-to-air (maybe not the whole tournament but hopefully highlights and a few live matches at least). I know counties lose three home games with this format, but that is made up for by the fact that every match is shown on TV so fans can follow their team easily and lost ticket money should be accounted for.
I admit that the teams in Division Two get the short straw with this and that may be the price to pay. But perhaps if you add a promotion play-off between third-bottom of Division One and third in Division Two you could create some fluidity between the divisions so no one is rooted to Division Two for too long. Hopefully it would be feasible to televise some Division Two games as well.
I’m not saying this is guaranteed to work. It is merely an idea for changing the t20 Blast while keeping the counties intact. Personally, and maybe slightly selfishly, I am absolutely fine with the current format. It lets me watch my team at home in t20 seven times per season, with a few TV games on top of that. But there are dissenting voices out there that want change from the current format, and they are growing louder. If the counties continue to resist this kind of change it could usher in franchises when the current TV deal expires in 2020, and smaller counties like Somerset don’t want that.
So, overall, there are positives and negatives of the changes. With the competitions now being played in blocks, players are no longer constantly chopping and changing between formats. Less Championship cricket will allow more recuperation time but Division Two isn’t quite right. The One-Day Cup is largely ok as long as it’s not played too early in the season. And the t20 Blast should benefit from being played in the summer holidays but it won’t satisfy those calling for more radical change. I don’t think these will be the last changes we see to the county cricket calendar.