Behind closed doors at the Lord’s headquarters of the England & Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and in county committee rooms around the country, the future shape of English county cricket is being determined.
Cricket fans, whilst having no direct voice in these discussions, will want to know what is being proposed. So let us take a look at the details of what has been happening, the changes that may be imminent and the possible implications.
As a starting point, the ECB recently circulated a consultation paper to the counties about the future shape of county cricket. County chief executives discussed it with ECB representatives at a meeting at Trent Bridge on Thursday 25 February.
The paper proposed a reduction of the four day county championship from 16 games to 14. In the top division, eight counties would play each other home and away. The second division would increase to 10 counties, also playing 14 games. The unequal size of divisions would be achieved by promoting only one team from the lower tier this year rather than the usual two.
The reduction in four-day matches would create space in the fixture list for a re-vamp of the NatWest T20 Blast competition. There would be two divisions of nine clubs, with promotion and relegation.
The competition would be played in two blocks during July and August. The eight teams reaching this year’s quarter finals would make up the top division, along with the best performing fifth team in the groups. T20 Finals Day might well be reduced from three games to two, with the final being preceded by a play-off match between the seventh placed team in the upper tier and the third-placed second division team.
Along with two automatic promotions/relegations, this would create a three-up, three-down pattern. The top division would most likely be called the English Premier League.
The Royal London 50-over competition would be moved to the start of the summer, to enable T20 matches to be played largely during school holidays when the weather is (theoretically) at its best. With the ICC Champions Trophy in 2017 and the World Cup in 2019 being played peak season in England, the Royal London competition would be seen as a good preparation for both of these tournaments in which England director of cricket Andrew Strauss is desperate for the national team to excel.
There was no mention in the consultation paper of a city-based franchise T20 competition, along the lines of the Australian Big Bash. The counties will have been aware, however, that when the current broadcast deal runs out in 2019, there will be pressure for further change. That pressure can only increase if any re-vamp now does not deliver something that rivals the large and excited crowds and high viewing figures achieved in Australia.
Many in the counties are supportive of the need for change. Recently, Warwickshire chairman Norman Gascoigne, at his club’s AGM, pointed out that “change is inevitable against a background of changed social patterns.”
And just this week, Nottinghamshire’s Chief Executive, Peter Wright, spelt out at the Club’s AGM what he sees as the harsh reality. “Cricket is at a crossroads,” he said. “The IPL and the Big Bash are going from strength to strength. In addition, participation in the recreational game is declining.
“I don’t want to be alarmist, but to emphasise that the next few years are to be ones of change if we are to ensure our wonderful game remains viable for generations to come.” He pointed out that long-term borrowing across the counties stood at £132m at the start of 2015, with £6m interest paid in 2014.
It has been reported that, when the ECB met with the counties last week, there were those who felt that the pace of change should be increased. Hampshire, Glamorgan and MCC were apparently all in favour of a city-based competition, along with Warwickshire, who have already re-branded their T20 team as the Birmingham Bears.
There was concern, however, that the move to two divisions in the T20 competition could deprive some counties of the local derby matches that are major money-spinners. The Lancashire v Yorkshire games are supposedly worth around £300,000 per game. When Gloucestershire entertain Somerset, they pocket in the region of £100,000.
There was talk of the counties needing compensation, possibly up to £1 million a year, for the loss of these fixtures.
The end result of the meeting between the ECB and the chief executives was that the county bosses wanted more clarity about the financial implications of the different options. County chairmen will meet on March 7 to look at any additional information and then the ECB board will make a decision.
There is an acceptance that, because the allocation of counties into two T20 divisions will be decided by the outcomes of this year’s competition, counties need to have certainty about this before the start of the 2016 season. What also seems clear is that there will be changes in 2017. The status quo does not seem to be one of the options on the table.
Lovers of the four day county championship will lament the paring down from 16 to 14 games per season. As for the proposed T20 changes, fans may point out that attendances for the T20 Blast were up last season and, despite the time-spread of the competition, overseas stars such as Chris Gayle and Brendon McCullum were attracted to take part.
Potential spectators may well be concerned about finding the money and the time to attend so many T20 games compressed into such a short timeframe. Furthermore, T20 Finals Day has become the sold-out focal point of the county season. If it ain’t broke, does the ECB really need to fix it?
Nevertheless, many cricket lovers will also accept that the long-term health of the game depends on new supporters being attracted and that T20 seems to be the best vehicle for this. They will also understand that, throughout its history, county cricket has gone through constant changes.
As Stephen Chalke observed in his admirable history of the county championship, there is no ideal structure, no ideal solution. And so cricket fans will have to wait and see what transpires from these latest discussions, in the certain knowledge that any changes made now will not be the last.