Somerset members to hear from ECB’s Graves and Harrison about the future of county cricket

ECBChairman of the ECB Colin Graves, along with Chief Executive Tom Harrison will spend the day at the County Ground in Taunton tomorrow (Wednesday 5 August), amid reports of major changes to the domestic game from 2017.

Harrison has been tasked with leading a root-and-branch review of English cricket, with an initial paper designed to stimulate ‘discussion’, making it clear from the outset that radical change is on the agenda.

The paper, issued in the spring, put everything squarely on the table, with nothing seemingly off limits, including a streamlined T20 competition and changes to the County Championship.

Tomorrow’s meeting will give Somerset CCC members an opportunity to hear directly from Graves and Harrison about their thoughts on the future of the game.

Press reports, which have emerged during the Harrison review, have suggested that the following changes may be firmly on the cards:

  • A city-based franchise T20 competition comprising eight teams played in a block in mid-summer, with a share of the profits being distributed among all 18 counties.
  • Possible continuation of existing NatWest T20 Blast alongside the franchise competition to allow the 18 counties to continue to host T20s.
  • A reduction in the number of County Championship fixtures, perhaps through artificial means (e.g. some sides not playing each other both home and away), by changes to the divisional structure (e.g. one division of eight and one of 10) or by adding three extra teams (a combined Devon and Cornwall team, plus Scotland and Ireland) to form three divisions of seven instead of the existing two divisions of nine.
  • Playing more one-day and T20 cricket in the height of summer at the expense of the Championship summer to address England’s apparent descent into one-day obscurity during the World Cup.

Clearly not all of these ambitions are reconcilable. Nothing has been confirmed, and some of these ideas may have since been discounted. It is, however, abundantly clear that major change is being considered.

It is the view of The Incider and our readers, according to an exclusive poll we ran earlier this year, that there should be no attempt to reduce or remove cricket from existing hubs such as Somerset.

Those who might criticise that view as selfish or backward-looking are doing the game a disservice. People care passionately about their county sides and have deep affiliations with their team. The ECB has a remit to grow the game and ensure it can be enjoyed by as wide an audience as possible. Restricting the number of people who can watch the game by withdrawing T20 from the shires – where grounds frequently sell out – removes access to cricket and a fantastic shop window for the domestic game.

Some people support a T20 competition with eight teams featuring the top talent, arguing that this would raise standards. In truth it would be attractive only to TV audiences and those within a geographical radius of the eight grounds in question. It would also put at risk the future of the other counties, who let us not forget, are a vital development ground for young talent. A better way to raise standards might be to divide the existing Blast into two divisions. Yes, that would remove the derby match element, which guarantees sell-outs, but a two division structure has helped quality rise to the top in the County Championship. It’s worth considering.

Playing the existing NatWest T20 Blast competition alongside a new franchise system may appease some of the counties, but it could lead to a fudge and only add to complaints from players about workload and travelling.Viva small

Big Bash comparisons

We need to move the conversation on from discussions about the Big Bash in Australia. It’s not comparing like with like. Australia’s geography is very different to the UK’s. Its population is largely situated around five major cities, so it makes perfect sense to have state sides based around those cities, plus Hobart in Tasmania. Franchises also have more resonance because people have more affiliation with their city, so supporting Sydney or Melbourne makes more sense to them.

T20 BlastEngland is very different. Cricket fans in Colin Graves’ own county are very happy to support Yorkshire, for example, but would be less likely to support Leeds if they live in Sheffield or Bradford.

In our own county of Somerset, as many people live within an hour’s drive of Taunton as the population of Brisbane. Again very different to Australia.

Also the weather is far better down under, allowing T20 to be played in a block. And it’s shown on free to air television, something which, again, is not the case in England.

As we’ve argued before on The Incider though, there are things we can learn from the Australian model, such as ensuring the matchday experience is fun, attractive to families and involves England players, who are sadly mostly missing from Blast.

Playing cricket in a block certainly has its merits. It’s certainly something which the players want as it allows them to concentrate on one form of the game at a time and would allow counties to attract overseas players for the whole competition. However there are risks if that block were to co-incide with a spell of bad weather which then decimated the schedule. That’s not speculation; it happened the last time we played T20 in a block in this country.

More white ball cricket?

Playing more white ball cricket, whether T20 or 50-over was an attractive argument given England’s appalling showing in the World Cup. Many claimed that England’s one-day skills were way behind the rest of the world who had moved on through exposure to the IPL and Big Bash.

Others meanwhile blamed England’s management for the team’s troubles down under and it’s fair to say that following the recent one-day series against New Zealand that the national side’s approach has dramatically changed.

Clearly the nation has rediscovered its love of the 50 over game and we expect to see it playing a more central role in the international calendar going forward. Any thoughts that it might become obsolete have been proved to be well way of the mark.

County Championship sacrosanct

LVChanges to the County Championship are perhaps the most worrying of all the press reports which have emerged during the Harrison review. Pushing the Championship to the margins of the season, played predominately in late spring and early autumn, would put the entire competition at the risk of the weather. It would be a boon for traditional English seam bowlers, but do nothing to aid the development of international bowlers who can operate on flat surfaces or ones which offer pace, bounce or turn.

Artificially changing the number of games teams play – so that not all sides play each other home and away – would also damage the integrity of the country’s blue ribbon event.

Counties will also be concerned that if the Championship is squeezed to the margins, with fewer matches, then memberships will decrease, potentially hugely damaging to some counties.

Guiding principles

No-one is arguing that the current fixture list is perfect. For example, two of Somerset’s Friday night T20 games were followed the following morning by a County Championship match, involving a dash through the night with no time to prepare for a change of format.

Reconciling a fixture list with all the competing demands of the domestic and international game was never going to be easy, and some compromises will have to be made.

But it seems to us at The Incider that some principles are sacrosanct:

  • The integrity of the County Championship as a competition and its ability to develop and prepare players for England
  • Access to cricket for a wide audience, not just on television
  • Growing interest in the game without sacrificing or losing the existing passionate support base in counties such as Somerset, Essex and Sussex.

If reports this week about Northamptonshire’s financial position are accurate, then it underlines the urgency of Harrison’s remit to generate more revenue for the domestic game. However that cannot be done at the expense of reducing access to cricket in the shires and alienating an already passionate fan base.

Somerset’s position is clear

Andy Nash
Andy Nash makes his position about franchises abundantly clear during the club’s media day in March.

Somerset Chairman Andy Nash said earlier this season in response to a question from The Incider said: “Somerset will have no truck with franchises whatsoever. Let’s be absolutely clear. We haven’t built what we have here in recent years to see the game move away to Vodafone Bristol.

“It’s clear there need to be changes to ensure the players are able to hone their skills in one-day cricket and we now see those skills being taken forward from T20 into the longer form of the game. But it’s vital the counties are given the chance to compete in whatever reshaped T20 we ultimately conclude is right.”

During their time in Taunton today, Graves and Harrison will have a tour of ground, visit all the club departments and meet with club officials.

At 2pm the ECB officials will host a talk regarding the leadership and future of the game, after which there will be an opportunity for Somerset CCC members to take part in question and answer session in the Colin Atkinson Pavilion.

Entry will be granted on the production of a current valid membership card.

We urge as many members to attend as possible and demonstrate how important this issue is to Somerset supporters.

Further reading:

Exclusive: Somerset fans say “no” to T20 franchises by Jeremy Blackmore (April 16 2015) – https://www.thein-cider.co.uk/exclusive-somerset-fans-say-no-to-t20-franchises/