Dan Kingdom: County Cricket’s latest structure – good for the game?

After consultation with the counties, the ECB have announced a new structure for county cricket from 2020 onwards. Most of the changes were rumoured, but there are a couple of curveballs in there as well. I’m not convinced these alterations will benefit English cricket.

When the County Championship was two Divisions of 9, every team played every other team an even number of times (twice), which is a basic requirement for a fair sporting competition. This had the downside, however, of uneven rounds of fixtures, meaning that one team always missed out every matchday. It wasn’t ideal to miss the final match of a season and it ensured the table was almost always lop-sided.

It was then decided that 16 4-day games was too much of a squeeze. To reduce the number of games, 2 divisions of 9 became a Division One of 8 and a Division Two of 10. This had two benefits: extra rest for players and (generally) even rounds of fixtures. The downside was that Division Two teams play some other teams once and some twice, but at least Division One – where the holy grail is won – was unaffected by this problem.

Now it seems that it’s been decided that relegating 25% of teams from Division One is too many – not that it’s much of a change from previously (22.2%) – so we’re in for another change, with a 10-team Division One and an 8-team Division Two on the horizon. Each team will still play 14 games each. Which means that the ultimate prize in county cricket will be devalued. A seeding system, presumably based the previous season(s), is being explored, but teams’ fortunes change year on year and this can never be as fair a system as simply playing each other team an even number of times.

As expected, the 50-over competition will be played concurrently with The Hundred (intriguingly referred to as the ‘New Competition’ in the ECB press release). This means the top 96 English t20 players won’t be able to play in the 50-over competition, which you’d imagine would cause a big drop in standards and could punish the sides who produce the better players. Surprisingly, the ECB have stipulated that no overseas players will be permitted in the 50-over competition, lowering standards even more – presumably so they’re available for The Hundred.

While in some ways it will be nice to see more youngsters on show, that’s not the reason most fans follow professional sport. They want to see the best players playing. They don’t want to see an entire format become a glorified Second XI competition. The ECB, it seems, don’t care about 50-over cricket beyond the 2019 World Cup. While I’m sure England’s ODI team will be one of the best in the world for a while yet, taking the best players out of this format domestically could prove damaging in the long-term (if the new competition catches on, of course).

I do see a couple of benefits to the new 50-over format. The ECB state that the counties won’t necessarily be split regionally, which means that counties won’t play the same teams year in, year out in both limited overs formats. Somerset haven’t played Derbyshire, Leicestershire or Northants since 2015; it will be nice to have the chance to play all the counties again.

Increased use of outgrounds is a possibility, too, meaning that county fans with no interest in The Hundred may at least get a greater chance to visit some much-loved grounds around the country.

The Blast is staying the same, meaning that the lop-sided format won’t be fixed with each team still missing out on hosting one other team each season. Finals day remains, which is welcome.

The final change is an odd but interesting one, with each county visiting a minor county to play a 50-over match which will effectively act as a warm-up for the competition proper. An attempt to engage with the Minor Counties is welcome but this doesn’t feel like a particularly ground-breaking move. It is a step in the right direction, though.

How this all comes together I’m not entirely sure. The Hundred (with the 50-over competition alongside) will be played for five weeks in July and August, presumably coinciding with the summer holidays. This means that it would run from around 20th July until the end of August. But surely eight 50-over games per team, followed by a few knockout games, doesn’t need this long? Taking into account a few days either side of The Hundred for preparation and the like, I’m not sure there’s enough space outside of this window to comfortably accommodate the entirety of the County Championship and the Blast.

The Blast, I assume, will return to a Friday night slot throughout May, June and the first half of July, with County Championship games played from Sundays to Wednesdays. If this isn’t the case, the County Championship will be pushed to the margins even more than it currently is. If it is the case, it will once again be difficult to attract overseas players for the Blast and the constant switching between formats is not ideal for the players. England have struggled to produce Test-quality batsmen in the last few years; playing half the Championship during April and September and the other half in May and June interspersed with t20 will make this even more difficult.

It’s all a bit of a mess. My solution? Well, obviously, I’d scrap the new competition. Revert to two divisions of 9 in the County Championship, play the first two rounds overseas in March to ease fixture congestion, then play it throughout April, June, the first half of July, and September. The 50-over competition can keep the same format and stay in May. I’d even up the Blast so that every team plays 16 games and play that throughout the second half of July, and August. Simple.

The 2019 summer is going to be a feast of cricket, with the World Cup and the Ashes to be played almost back-to-back. It looks like there will be six weeks of pure County Championship cricket to be played alongside the World Cup throughout June and the first half of July, with the 50-over competition done and dusted beforehand and the Blast to be played afterwards, alongside the Ashes. Enjoy it while you can because it could be the last summer of English cricket as we know it.