Emma Carter has outlined the changes that will take effect in 2017 here.
There will be a reduction of County Championship matches from 16 to 14 per team. The top division will be reduced to eight teams, with the remaining ten teams in the second division. NatWest T20 Blast matches will be played in two blocks in July and August, ending with a finals day as at present. The Royal London Cup group matches will be played in April and May, with the final at Lord’s in July. The group winners will automatically qualify for the semi-finals whereas second and third-placed teams will contest quarter-finals
The Clubs Speak Out (or not)
How have the county clubs reacted to the changes? For the most part, it would be true to say that they have remained fairly tight-lipped. Most have simply repeated the ECB press release on their website, with no comment. Essex are a partial exception, in that they have come out in favour of the changes, albeit somewhat half-heartedly. “The club support the need to evolve cricket in this country,” says a spokesperson. “We await with interest the results of this change. As an ECB decision, it is our responsibility to implement the new structure as successfully as we can.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the changes.
Only two counties, Yorkshire and Warwickshire, have made any significant comments.
At Yorkshire, Director of Cricket Martyn Moxon takes a philosophical view of the changes. He admits that he would have preferred to stay with 16 Championship games but regards the reduction to 14 as inevitable. He dislikes the idea of a ten team second division. He also states that he would rather have not have had more T20 games and is concerned that, as far as possible, Friday nights should remain dedicated to T20. Overall, however, he accepts that a compromise of some sort was unavoidable. He ends with the wise comment: “if there had been an easy solution, it would have been done years ago.”
Warwickshire‘s new Chief Executive, Neil Snowball, has put his name to an official Club statement in which he broadly supports the changes. “A reduction from 16 to 14 Specsavers County Championship matches will undoubtedly reduce some of the pressure on the schedule and allow players to have better preparation and subsequently more recovery time between matches.
“We also welcome the return of the Royal London One-Day Cup to the early part of the season. Not only will it benefit the England team in preparing for the ICC Champions Trophy in 2017 and the ICC Cricket World Cup in 2019, when both competitions will be hosted in England and Wales, but it will hopefully include more weekend fixtures and a greater opportunity for Members and supporters to watch high quality cricket.
“The Club has seen a huge surge in the popularity of T20 cricket in recent seasons and we are pleased to see that the majority of matches in 2017 will be played during the school summer holidays, which will make Birmingham Bears games even more accessible. We are also delighted to keep the West Midlands Derby against Worcestershire Rapids, whilst also keeping the quarter final stage and the very successful format of playing three fixtures on Finals Day at Edgbaston.”
He points out that, because of the changes, the Club is reviewing its Membership packages. There will also be a Membership Helpdesk at all matches.
The Fans Have Their Say
What about the fans? What do they have to say about the proposals? Not surprisingly, the various county forums have been busy. Because Yorkshire and Warwickshire are the only counties to have made any meaningful official comments, it is interesting to focus on what their fans are saying.
At Yorkshire, many of the fans are less philosophical than Martyn Moxon. One points out that T20 crowds are up massively after switching to a weekly pattern of fixtures. “So the powers that be switch back to a format that was unsuccessful.” There is also concern at the fact that two out of eight Division One Championship teams will be relegated. “A couple of rain-affected matches and you’re in the drop zone – nobody is safe.” Accepting that, as Moxon says, the outcome is inevitably a compromise, one fan opines: “there is only one group of people that win – that’s the players.”
At Warwickshire, there is disappointment on the fans’ forum at the loss of two Championship games. Echoing the Yorkshire fans, there is also concern that a quarter of Division One teams will be relegated each year and that this may lead to an overly defensive approach. But there is relief that the NatWest T20 Blast is (aside from the timing) unchanged, so that the matches against Worcestershire (Bears v Pears) will be retained and Finals Day, which has become the high point of the Edgbaston season, will still be a three-match extravaganza. The playing of T20 in blocks will, in the words of one fan, “test the pockets of the punters.”
Although the above is just a brief snapshot of a few of the views expressed, and many fans are maybe more likely to see the hole than the doughnut, it would still seem to be the case that the Clubs are putting a more positive gloss on the changes than the fans, whose level of dissatisfaction is not being echoed by the Clubs.
What do I think?
No doubt the fans will continue to debate the changes right into 2017 and beyond. Now it’s my turn.
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly
The proposal for the T20 competition to be split into two divisions has, thank goodness, been abandoned. Counties’ concerns about the loss of derby, and maybe even Derbyshire, matches seems to have carried the day.
The retention of T20 finals day in its current highly successful form is also to be applauded and it will be popular, especially with those who have been lucky enough to attend the expertly staged events at Edgbaston Stadium in the last couple of seasons.
Shifting the T20 competition so that more games are played in the school holidays, in order to attract new spectators, is also a worthy attempt to introduce more young people to the most accessible form of the game.
Repackaging ideas that have been tried and failed, whilst abandoning those that have been more successful, is seldom a great strategy. Playing the T20 Blast in blocks is a return to a structure that demanded too much of fans’ money and time in too short a period. The comment from Colin Graves that “the [new] season is easier to follow” was surely more applicable to the regular Friday night T20 format, the format that has now been thrown out. It also ignores the vagaries of the English weather. A wet fortnight at the wrong time could ruin the competition.
In order to accommodate the shift in the timing of the T20 competition, the Royal London Cup will become the Cinderella contest, relegated to the chills of early season. Many potential participants will either be playing international cricket or stoking up their pension pot at the IPL in India. The aim of preparing players for 50 over international cricket will only work if grounds men pull off a miracle and manage to replicate, in the early English season, the kinds of pitches on which such contests are played around the world.
A second division of the County Championship in which counties do not all play each other home and away, looks messy. Depending on who plays their stronger rivals and who dodges them, it could make promotion outcomes palpably unfair.
Colin Graves states that county cricket has to be sustainable.
To be sure, professional cricket as a whole needs to be sustainable. But the idea that the money generated by international cricket and passed to the counties each year is no more than a hand-out is a dangerous distortion that does not become any truer with constant repetition.
The counties are the breeding and nurturing grounds for the players who will feed through into the higher levels. Without ECB money the counties would, for sure, be bankrupt. But without the flow of quality players from the counties into the national team, England would be unable to perform on the international stage and the ECB coffers would be empty.
It would be just as nonsensical for County Clubs to say that county second teams have to be financially sustainable or for parents to be lamenting the lack of chimney sweeping opportunities that might enable their young children to be self-sufficient. The relationship between the counties and the ECB is surely reciprocal and symbiotic. The failure of Mr Graves and the ECB to recognise this obvious, but maybe inconvenient, truth is an ugliness that lies beneath the detail of the changes that will take place in 2017.
There is also the equally ugly possibility that the ECB might not be wholly heartbroken if the 2017 changes didn’t produce positive results. A failure of the new format would fit in very nicely with the negotiations for a new television contract, due to take effect in 2020, when the broadcasters may well be pressing for a T20 city franchise competition. A further reduction of the County Championship to a mere ten games (with three divisions of six Clubs each) is already also being touted.
In life, with the possible exception of vending machines, change is inevitable; cricket, too, is subject to constant change. All we can do is wait and see what the effect of these particular reforms will be. History suggests that changes to County Cricket last about as long as Hollywood marriages. We must hope that, in one form or another, County Cricket, which began in a fully organised form in 1890, will survive for many more years despite the attempts of the authorities to improve it.