The structure of English domestic cricket is changing in 2017. Central to the changes is the desire of the ECB, led by the ideas of former England captain and now director of English cricket, Andrew Strauss, to separate the different formats of the game as much as possible.
The aim is to improve the skills of the county players in both forms of the game in order that they may be better equipped to appear on the international stage.
Strauss’ aim seems laudable, and sensible, but what exactly are the difficulties that players experience when they play four days of Championship cricket followed by a T20 and then revert to the four-day format a couple of days later?
It’s difficult to imagine this unless you have actually experienced it, so to answer this question I spoke to three current Gloucestershire players who are very much in the mould of the modern multi-format cricketer: Jack Taylor, Benny Howell and Chris Liddle.
All three players welcomed the changes. They agree with Strauss that separation will give them time to divide their attention between the different formats which, as time has gone on, have become very different. (It should be said here that the division is really between on the one hand four-day and 50-over cricket and on the other T20)
Although the division seems to be getting wider, Taylor is quick to point out that four-day cricket is the basis of the game and the skills learned in the longer format can be expanded upon in T20.
The difference between four-day and T20 has become so wide that Howell sees them almost as different sports, “like traditional rugby is to rugby sevens” he says.
Liddle talks of the big mental transition that is necessary when switching between formats. “It’s a transition which is difficult to make, it’s difficult to explain but it’s a whole new mindset that you have to adopt,” says the Gloucestershire newcomer and former Sussex paceman.
The three players all talked of the different skills that have emerged, particularly in T20 cricket. They emphasised that batters play different shots: ramps, scoops, reverse and switch hits.
These all need practice and playing T20 games in a block should make concentration on skills development easier in that time block. Taylor, a player that has proved particularly adept at increasing his range of shots, thinks that present structure doesn’t allow time for such key skills development.
Howell gives an interesting example of how the different mindset needed for T20 finds expression in batting. He refers to the necessity for batters to align themselves differently at the crease in the 20-over game.
“You need to align your body differently at the crease so as to be ready to quickly adapt your shot selection to score from what the bowler delivers,” he said.
Bowlers too have had to learn new skills. Liddle sums this up in one word – variety.
He continued: “In T20 the emphasis is on different lengths, lines and pace whereas in the longer formats the demand is to keep aiming at the top of off-stump.”
Howell talked of his own skill development in the 20-over game. “I use ten different varieties of delivery and conceal each from the batsman in my delivery hand by covering up that hand.
“I don’t do that in the four-day game, or only perhaps in key situations where there is a run chase. I also vary the length of my run-up in T20 to generate variety and keep the batsman guessing as to what’s coming next.”
In addition, Howell talked of the difference in the type of balls that were currently used in the four-day and T20 competitions.
“The red Kookaburra ball used in the four-day game swings much more than the white Duke which is used in the T20. They are quite different to bowl with, and need adjustment when switching formats.”
Howell was also mindful of the need to concentrate on the practise of fielding skills or T20: “In the T20 you are running all the time, it’s so intense, whereas in the four day and 50-over game the emphasis is more on, for example, slip fielding.”
A couple of other points were mentioned by the players to support the Strauss-inspired changes. Taylor very much supported the idea that it will be easier to attract high quality international stars if the T20 is played in a block at certain points in the summer.
“I’m all in favour of this, it will be good for younger domestic players who can learn from the big names and will raise the standard of our cricket,” the all-rounder continued.
One valid point, mentioned by Liddle, is the social advantages of separating the formats. “Often players selected are different in different formats. This can be quite difficult, so team bonding should be easier with separating the formats.”
I talked to the current Gloucestershire players overlooking the playing area at Bristol on which WG Grace, Walter Hammond and Tom Graveney played in days gone by.
All played well into their 40s (Grace played his last Test when he was 50). Such is the intensity of modern game that even a career beyond the mid-thirties seems unlikely.
Would they prefer the game the way it was before the domination of the limited overs game? No, said Howell. “It’s demanding but it’s great fun to play in. I love it.”
Perhaps we underestimate the level of versatility needed by the modern players. What is clear is that it renders the old game of comparing players from different eras even more pointless.
The game is quite different and the players different too. Is it better to watch? That’s a question for the individual. But for the spectator it’s great fun.