County Championship: Twenty Years of Two Divisions

In 2000 the structure of the County Championship changed with the introduction of two divisions. The intention was to create more competitive cricket throughout the whole season and vastly reduce the number of dead rubber games where little, if anything, was left to to play for other than pride.

During lockdown Stephen Hubbard decided to sit down and create a simple formula to identify those teams who have performed most effectively in the twenty seasons of two-tier Championship cricket. And to find out where Somerset fit in any league table.

We are on lockdown. From a cricket fan’s perspective there’s no play. There is no prospect of play. 

What is a fan, a supporter to do but reflect on the past? Navel gazing at its most extreme?  Maybe but that is what I did.

Obviously one motivation is to reassure myself that Somerset is one of the best Championship teams in the country; after all if 2020 had been a normal season that it would have been our thirteenth consecutive season in Division 1.  No other team has managed that.  I think all Somerset fans find it galling that a run of fourth, third, second, fourth, second, sixth, sixth, sixth, second, sixth, second and second has not been crowned by topping the Championship.  Do others feel, as I do, that having shaken off the mercurial performances that have historically characterised the county, a triumph is long overdue?  Surely the days of magnificent, hard-fought victories interspersed with miserable, craven defeats are now behind us?

So, I turned to data.  For the year 2000, for the first time the County Championship was played in two divisions.  That fact and the turn of the century created a starting point.  How have the counties performed since then?

My statistical approach was to award a single point to the champion county, two to second place and so on, ending with the team bottom of Division 2 gaining 18 points, the penultimate place 17 points and so forth.  So throughout, fewer points show a better performance and the highest numbers show poorer performances on the field of play.  Obviously, there is a virtue in the simplicity of this approach, it also makes light of the change of the numbers in the divisions made at the end of the 2016 season.  It overlooks the complication of any changes to the points system, so fails to reward some outstanding performances; the runaway triumphs by Surrey and Essex in 2018 and 2017 gain no extra esteem than Middlesex in 2016 or Nottinghamshire in 2010 when we missed out by slim margins.

20 years of data.  Who did well, which teams have disappointed their supporters? 

One always expects Yorkshire and Surrey to do well, they win championships and, true to form, both have won 3 pennants in this 20-year period, as have Sussex and Durham, each of whom have had purple patches.

But my points system offers a view of the consistently good teams and here the following teams have great records.  Lancashire come out best, they have spent 16 seasons in Division 1 and have always followed relegation by an immediate return to the top group. Their worst finish of eleventh place (second in Division 2), really makes a difference as every other county has fallen into the bottom four at some point.

Close behind them is another powerhouse county in Warwickshire.  Two Championships and likewise, just four seasons in the lower division including 2000 and 2001.  It is a splendid record.

Naturally Yorkshire have a similar record but their 3 championships is wholly typical of the team from the nation’s largest geographical county.

Anyone who is not a Somerset supporter will be surprised by our performance, fourth on my scale. Our five year stay in the lower ranks between 2003 and 2007 really spoils our record as it encompassed a 16th, a 17th and an 18th place.  If one looks at performances over just the past ten years, Somerset out-perform the big counties with Test Match grounds by a good margin (actually, they out-perform every county).

Surrey are hard on our heels in a twenty-year assessment and have garnered 3 Championships en route. Six seasons in Division 2 spoils their record with a couple of 16th place finishes amongst their dog days between 2009 and 2011.

Somerset sit in fourth in Stephen’s table

Few readers will be surprised by the teams who fared worst in this assessment, and Derbyshire, Leicestershire, Glamorgan and Gloucestershire have racked up 16 last place finishes between them.  This comes as something of a relief to any Somerset supporter who may well be aware that our collection of wooden spoons since 1891 stands at 12, a number exceeded by only two other counties. Of the four counties named at the head of the paragraph three have spent just two and the other just three seasons in the top flight.  Congratulations to our neighbours up the M5 in breaking into Division 1 whenever the Championship is next played.

It will probably prove little surprise to readers that Worcestershire are far and away the yo-yo county par excellence with twelve changes of division over these 20 years; their highest place is seventh and lowest seventeenth. Despite their six promotions, they have only once managed to keep their place in the top echelon for more than a single season (2012, after finishing seventh the previous season), nor since 2004 have they remained in the lower tier for more than two. 

Other teams are somewhere in the middle. Since their promotion in 2016, Essex have been brilliant with two first places and a third, Nottinghamshire capped two second place finishes with a Championship in 2010.  Other teams have had purple patches too; Durham’s three championships between 2008 and 2011, Hampshire followed their second place in 2008 with a third, a fifth and a third but fell away after that meeting relegation at the end of 2011 and between 2013 and 2018 Yorkshire did not finish below fourth.

In summary, every county has played in each division and been relegated at some stage in the past twenty seasons, and seventeen have been promoted (the only county never to be promoted in the two-division format being Leicestershire). Nine counties have come out top of the pile over this time, which I think has to be good for the game.  I’m just sorry that Somerset is not one of them, I would dearly love to be able to discard the perpetual bridesmaid tag.

*Footnote: Durham were forced out by the ECB, they did not fail on the pitch. Their subsequent poor run of form should be seen in light of their financial weakness.

So has the two-tier format been good for cricket and reduced the mundanity that was so apparent in the days of one division? Here’s a few more facts and figures for the conversation:  

• Nine clubs have won the title. The most successful number of campaigns fall to Durham, Surrey, Sussex and Yorkshire who all won three times. Behind them are Essex, Notts and Warwickshire (twice each) with Lancashire and Middlesex enjoying solitary trophy winning seasons.
• Only three clubs have retained the title: Sussex in 2007, Durham (2009) and Yorkshire (2015).
• Four counties have been relegated the season after being crowned county champions: Yorkshire (2002), Notts (2006), Lancashire (2012) and Middlesex in 2017.
• Notts (2005) and Essex (2017) are the only two counties who won the County Championship in the first season after promotion.
• Two counties have been crowned champions and also been the basement boys too. Durham, champions in in 2008, 2009 and 2013, were bottom of the pile before this in 2002 and 2004. Sussex were the first team to finish 18th in the new format in 2000 but made up for this disappointment by winning the title three times in five seasons in 2003, 2006 and 2007.
• It won’t be any comfort to Somerset supporters to note that we have the most top two finishes in these twenty seasons having achieved this six times. Unfortunately all were in the runners-up spot. Lancashire (once top, four times in second) and Warwickshire (twice top, three times in second) have been in the top two five times.
• Somerset’s run of twelve consecutive seasons in the top flight following promotion in 2007 is the longest by any county. Durham had an eleven-season run from 2006 to 2016 but their run was cut short when the governing body relegated them to the second tier after perceived financial mismanagement.
• The longest run of division two cricket is Leicestershire who have been in the lower tier for sixteen seasons having started the first four seasons in Division One.
• Leicestershire finished bottom of the league seven times in these 20 seasons and Derbyshire five times. And these two lead the ‘wooden spoon’ table of most outright bottom-place finishes since 1895, when the league was increased to fourteen teams. Derbyshire have the unwanted record of 16 basement campaigns and Leicestershire sit one below them with 14. Somerset’s 12 is one more than Glamorgan and Northants with 11 each. Leicestershire have also been joint bottom with Hampshire and Somerset but these do not figure in the table as Wisden do not count them as outright bottom.

So bearing these and other figures in mind I would say the two division format has been great for the county game. No one team has dominated at the top of the table and there has been plenty of movement throughout. The one factor going against it could be any argument that some of the counties towards the bottom of the league are finding it hard to progress. Derbyshire and Leicestershire, for instance, who both appear to live in the shadow of their Test Match ground neighbours Nottinghamshire. And Glamorgan have found themselves in the bottom two seven times since 2006, twice in 18th. But some confidence and optimism for the teams at the foot can be drawn from Gloucestershire who were promoted in 2019 after fourteen seasons in the bottom flight proving that progress can be made.

Let’s hope our mates in Bristol get the chance to prove their worth in the top division of the County Championship in 2021.