Am I alone in thinking that the present structure of an English (and Welsh) cricket season leaves much to be desired? One reads this in the press and on social media and I would love to hear what the players and coaches think. Dropping franchise cricket into the schedule will only make it more congested, however short the actual games are.
Rather than what feels like an expedient approach from the ECB, I’d like to look at the principles behind my approach.
Firstly and I apologise for starting at the end of the season, the last match of the season would be a Finals day. I don’t mind if it is the 50 over (Royal London One Day Cup) or T20 (Vitality Blast) competition. It used to be the Gillette Cup, presently it is the Vitality Blast; either provide a fitting highlight to bring the season to a conclusion. The County Championship should conclude its matches during the previous week as games after the big day have an “after the ball is over” feel to them.
Secondly, each competition needs to provide equitable and testing competition. Presently, the SpecSavers County Championship is a proper double round-robin competition in Division 1 but not in Division 2. The RLODC is a single round-robin and the T20 a flawed not-quite-double round-robin, which I regard as most unsatisfactory.
Then I would like to see the 4 day game played throughout the season, so players experience the long form in the widest range of conditions. The present situation is that most games are packed into late spring and early autumn, meaning that, not only are these less likely to be the best cricketing conditions but that it is less likely to be hospitable for spectators. I am firmly of the opinion that the divisions should be equal in size, each of 9 teams. The long, warm and dry daylight filled days of July and August are ideal for playing cricket all day and school-children can sit, as I did, in a safe, comfortable environment.
One approach which is taken as gospel in terms of building an audience, is the idea of regularity; such as “if it’s Monday night, it’s comedy night”. This worked very well for the Sunday League in the past. Whilst Sundays have changed since 1969, the regular programming approach is used regularly. It works for Wetherspoons Curry Club every Thursday, it works for theatres, cinemas and clubs. Why the ECB think it won’t work for cricket baffles me.
On a historical front, I wouldn’t advocate returning to the proper knock-out format of the original Gillette Cup, which will leave some teams without enough games to satisfy their players or spectators that season.
Also, variety is important, so maybe different approaches can be taken to the schedules of the three competitions. If, as I advocate above, the County Championship is to run a well-spaced spread of games throughout the season, then another competition can have it’s block and the third its regular slot on Friday or Saturday.
Another principal would be that teams do not face each other repeatedly in different competitions. If the County Championship remains as two divisions, and I will state quite powerfully that I am really proud of Somerset’s long sojourn in the top division, then the short form competitions need two differing structures. One might be three conferences of 6, the other two groups of 9. Regional conferences may be convenient but a random draw would ensure teams face a variety of opposition.
What does work well is the final stages of the Vitality Blast, bringing the two conferences together at quarter final stage before a single day of three matches as a grand day out.
Having laid out the parameters how would my ideas pan out?
At present we play 14 four day matches, 8 x 50 over matches and an odd 14 x T20 matches, plus finals if qualified. This is a minimum of 78 playing days over a season.
Keeping the County Championship, our premier competition, unchanged, 14 games and, we hope, 56 days of play. Let’s suggest the 50 over competition is changed to three conferences of six counties, playing home and away gives 10 more games, then a T20 competition of two divisions gives us 16 games. A total of 82 days of play, excluding finals, which with modern squads having 21 or more players should be acceptable.
This year the season has stretched from 13 April, which is too early, to 28 September, which is too late for competitive cricket. I envisage a season of 22 weeks (w/c 22/4/2019 to w/c 16/9/19). So players who participate in every match (captains and wicket keepers tend to do this) would be playing just over every other day. Is this a fair load on them? Modern squads of 21 or more players should find this an appropriate workload.
I envisage County Championship games most weeks, predominantly during the week; the dedicated fans who watch Championship matches will always be there, it’s what loyalty means. The early season 50 over game could be played on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays with counties free to favour those days their fans prefer and the T20 games can be in three blocks of 6, 5 and 5 games.
However, throw a block of “The Hundred” into the middle of this (it is scheduled to be a high-summer, schools holiday block of games) and one wonders what will give way. Surely one competition has to continue, despite counties being stripped of about 100 players. Ten remaining county grounds might get home games, particularly as three of the counties whose grounds will be homes for franchises currently use no out-grounds (Warks, Hants & Notts).