Promotion, relegation proposed for England's T20 tournament
England's 18-team county system will survive in a revamped 20-over competition if recommendations from an ECB working party are accepted next month - but only if promotion and relegation is the price the counties agree to pay.
The proposed rejection of an eight-team franchise, or big city, T20 cricket comes with a recognition that the counties must accept the rigours of two divisions based on merit - rather than the regional system currently adopted - if they are to retain a future at the centre of the English T20 game.
The proposals have the pragmatic support of Andrew Strauss, the England team director, who believes they will not only improve the standard of England's T20 cricket in the build up to the 2019 World Cup but will also prevent England's domestic T20 competition disappearing into obscurity.
A report in the Telegraph has now confirmed that the long-awaited consultation paper has now been circulated to the counties. County chief executives will be asked to support what is essentially a proposal of minimal disruption to England's professional game before the decision goes before the Board on March 7. Changes would be introduced from 2017.
The working party also rejects the notion, strongly advanced by some of the bigger counties, that those city-based grounds with the biggest capacities should automatically be given First Division status on the grounds that these venues - if full to capacity - provide a better spectacle and a more attractive TV product.
Meritocracy - based on the ability to win cricket matches - has for now at least won the day. It has perhaps been a blessing for the smaller counties that football, against the odds, has set an example, as Leicester City's advance to the top of the Premier League has delighted neutral supporters throughout the country.
Modest adjustment these proposals might be, but the ECB hierarchy - led by the chief executive Tom Harrison and chairman Colin Graves - is desperate for even this small mercy to be adopted on the grounds that lucrative global TV rights deal can more easily be secured when viewers can identify with a slowly-changing elite of counties.
The IPL's example, where new franchises appear annually for a variety of reasons, sometimes linked to financial irregularities, suggests that some degree of flux is not an issue. A debate over will nevertheless take place over whether two-up, two-down is preferable, as in the Championship, or whether moves should be made to restrict changes to only one up, one down.
The initial contention of the ECB executive, championed by Harrison, was that to maximise revenue English cricket required a new-look tournament based on the Big Bash model and centred around eight city-based teams, so ensuring quality. A working party with a strong county make-up has unsurprisingly rejected the argument that English cricket cannot spread standards across 18 profesisonal clubs..
Two divisions based on merit, with more media attention on the First Division, is a potential compromise that has long been signalled. If the solution is adopted, but fails to be a commercial or public success then not too far down the line it is easy to envisage schisms in the English professional game.
A new broadcasting deal, after all, is timed for 2020 and negotiations will soon begin in earnest. Those who favour a Big City future are not about to abandon that view.
Until 2020 at least, however, the 18 counties remain. They are expected to retain the county name - Warwickshire apart, who already use the Birmingham tag for T20. In theory there would be nothing to prevent all the counties simply playing as the city and town of their home ground. For some, notably Yorkshire, there would be a wish for exemption.
In a PCA survey last year, a comfortable majority of professionals - around 65 per cent - believed a tournament with global appeal could simply be achieved within the current county structure by introducing promotion and relegation.
The challenge from the players, however - 85% support for a change which has yet to be resolved - was to play that tournament in a block and involve England players as much as possible.
A move to an elite collection of city or franchise teams has long been opposed by the counties on the grounds that it would put the entire professional system in England in jeopardy by relegating the 18 counties as second-class citizens, making their gradual demise inevitable.
Such an outcome would have a negative effect on the development of players on which all forms of the game depend as well as rendering the investment in many county grounds largely wasted.
There is little to suggest that the next generation of cricket lover is irredeemably wedded to the county system, but that they await to be won over by the excitement and sense of occasion they crave in England's T20 tournament.
To reject the recommendations from the working party, chaired by Andy Nash, the Somerset chairman, would leave England's professional circuit facing an uncertain future that could make it increasingly irrelevant and conceivably bring about its eventual downfall. Tradition is being assaulted from all sides by the commercial argument..
Most counties have already assembled their overseas players for the NatWest Blast in 2016 - a challenging task in itself considering the lack of availability for a tournament that stretches over a large portion of the season. Panic buying is therefore unlikely, although some counties - Yorkshire a prime example - still have overseas slots available.
Those not yet at full quota have long suspected the possibility that the eight teams reaching this year's NatWest T20 Blast quarter-final are likely to gain automatic qualification for Division One, with a potential play-off between the fifth-placed teams for the final spot.
The loss of local derbies has long been advanced by counties as an argument against two divisions based on merit but this has been rejected by the working party as an essentially defeatist attitude by England's professional clubs at a time when the rest of the world is revelling in the opportunities offered by the burgeoning interest in T20 cricket.
Chelsea do not fret about not playing Fulham. Newcastle and Sunderland, the Manchesters United and City, Aston Villa and Birmingham and many others have long learned to cope at times without each other's company. If the derby match in cricket is so important perhaps the questions should be addressed about the weak appeal of the other matches.
Grumbles that under a new arrangement some counties will concentrate on success in T20 rather than produce Test players for England have also been heard but any shift in priorities is arguably an inevitable consequence of changing times. Twenty20 is an irresistible force even for those who wish to resist it.
Fear that some counties will chase T20 glory to the detriment of the longer forms of the game have led some to propose a league table based on results in all competitions - a solution for county cricket's ills that was first advanced in detail by Matthew Engel in The Guardian about 30 years ago and which failed to capture the public mood.
In any case, there is a simple way to control such an unwanted outcome. If a two-divisional structure in T20 attracts more lucrative TV deals then the desire of some counties to concentrate on T20 could easily be corrected by offering massive increases in prize money for the Championship - and, should it be desired, 50-over cricket as well - to make success comparable to that in T20. All paid out of central funds.
As counties already receive additional payments for other factors, such as the number of players produced for England, such control mechanisms would be merely an extension of current policy. The outcome would be that the wealthiest counties would be the ones winning cricket matches.
David Hopps is a general editor at ESPNcricinfo @davidkhopps