County news March 7, 2016

Championship cut to 14 matches; T20 back to mid-summer block

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Butcher: County changes will help players focus on formats

The ECB has confirmed plans for a restructured county schedule from the start of the 2017 season.

The County Championship programme will shrink by two games per county to 14 matches a season, with the domestic T20 competition played in a block in July and August. The 50-over competition will be contested in April and May with a final at Lord's in July.

The ECB believes the changes will allow players a little more time for rest and practice, as well as meeting their request to schedule the varying formats in blocks to allow concentration upon specific skills.

But, even though it has taken months of debate to reach this compromise agreement, it offers only a temporary arrangement. Even before the new structure is introduced, plans for further changes are being made with the ECB board announcing in the same press release that the changes were confirmed that they have "also asked the ECB Executive to look at all options for the best future structure to support the growth of the game and sustainability of all counties."

Specifically, the pressure to introduce city-based T20 cricket will continue ahead of the new broadcast deal (which will start in 2020), with the ECB likely to distribute an outline of available packages to potential broadcast partners before the end of the year. This 'new' format may well be gone before the roadworks on the M1.

There is also a familiar look to many of the changes. Certainly the format for the two limited-overs competitions appears similar to arrangements tried - and abandoned - previously.

In the short term (in 2017, 2018 and 2019), the Championship will be played in two divisions with a top tier of eight and second division of ten teams. That means that only one team will be promoted at the end of the 2016 season, with two relegated. The competition will revert to two-up, two-down in future seasons.

While some county cricket lovers - especially county members - will resent the cut in the Championship programme, it is the changes to the domestic T20 competition that were always likely to remain most contentious.

A plan to introduce two divisions to domestic T20 cricket was abandoned at a late stage with some counties reluctant to lose profit-making local derbies. Instead it will be remain with a regional qualifying round followed by Finals Day.

While counties will celebrate the scheduling of the T20 competition during the school holidays - it currently starts in mid-May and has all but ended by the time that schools break-up - some will be some concerned by a return to the block format.

While it has, without doubt, proved successful elsewhere in the world, it has previously been abandoned in England and Wales after it was shown to be vulnerable to a spell of wet weather. There were also concerns that the block format asked too much of spectators' time and money within a short period. It remains to be seen if the return to a block schedule will threaten the policy of staging the majority of games on Friday nights. T20 audiences rose sharply in 2015 on the back of a more predictable fixture list.

The 50-over competition also returns to the early-summer position it occupied in the past. While the early-season scheduling will help players find form ahead of the limited-overs internationals - and it is worth noting that the ICC Champions Trophy (2017) and the World Cup (2019) are scheduled to be played in England and Wales in relatively early season - the early-season pitches may prove less helpful.

Again, the reason it was moved from early season was a concern that conditions rarely replicated international cricket. It may also be that the best England-qualified players are absent on international or IPL duty in the opening weeks of the season. It is hard to see a 50-over competition starting in April in England attracting hordes of spectators.

"The changes for 2017 will be good for fans, players and our international teams," Colin Graves, the ECB chairman said. "The season is easier to follow, the blocks help players focus on specific skills and there's a better balance across all three formats.

"There is a clear consensus that county cricket has to be sustainable and must support the whole game. There is an appetite for change and cricket is moving fast - we must not be left behind.

"Cricket needs more people playing, great teams and inspired fans in order to thrive; these principles support our plans now and for the future."

It is not clear who will be satisfied with the changes. While there may be some who conclude this structure is a fine compromise, it is likely that modernisers will bemoan the missed opportunity to push for a more radical solution, especially in T20 cricket, while the traditionalists will resent the cut to the Championship schedule and the partial abandonment of "appointment to view" T20. The cynical might even suggest that the decision not to embrace two divisions in T20 was an attempt to sabotage the success of an 18-team competition to render it easier to introduce a city-based tournament.

Certainly it is clear, though, that the ECB's search for a better schedule continues. As Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive, put it: "We now have a great opportunity to take a detailed look at a range of options and find the best structure for the long-term health of the domestic and international game."

A recurring theme in ECB dialogue at present is the desire for the first-class counties to be "sustainable." But measuring sustainability remains problematic in county cricket. While some would suggest many counties are over-reliant on their distribution of funds from the international broadcast rights sold on the back of the England sides - and, as a result, they argue that domestic T20 incomes must increase sharply - others would counter that the counties provide the England players and that the relationship between domestic and international is more symbiotic than the current executive appreciates.

As ever in English cricket, the debate continues.

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • pjrfd- on March 13, 2016, 22:07 GMT

    This is an astounding turnaround from their recent bold move,giving the away team the option of bowling first in 4-day cricket-the professed aim of which is,to do away with the preparation of green,seaming pitches(I guess it's still vulnerable to the preparation of a pitch which bats well for 4 sessions,then crumbles-but,there's noble intent),& the development of first-class spinners.Difficult to see,then,how taking 6 weeks out of July & August-the exact time when spiners should most thrive-for T20,is anything but a total contradiction of this aim.And I've yet to meet a person who agrees with a 2nd division where you play some teams twice,& others once.I do hope that,in '17,the team finishing 3rd,has played the bottom 2 teams only once,& the top 2 teams twice...& is only 1 point behind the team in 2nd,which has played the bottom 2 teams twice,& the winners only once.The statement claims "Championship remains the bedrock.." but it seems an indication that Div 2 is considered worthless.

  • Richard1485 on March 11, 2016, 8:38 GMT

    I am not sure that there is a perfect solution to this. The problem with scheduling T20 matches during the school holidays is that this is when people 'go away'...typically you do not go away to big cities, cricket fans would go to places like Scarborough, Blackpool, Eastbourne, Hove, Bournemouth, Colwyn Bay etc and catch a couple of days cricket. Not having any cricket on a Saturday is crazy, its the day when the under 16s are generally free to attend, as they do for professional rugby and football matches. I agree with other comments, cricket at Scarborough is sublime. July 3rd and August 23rd are inked in my diary. As my 16 year old said to me as we waited to get into the Durham match there last August...'we are queuing to get into a cricket match, unbelievable'.

  • PJtheBarbarian on March 10, 2016, 17:01 GMT

    @TRENTBRIDGE11 I certainly agree with you about the lack of consulation with the fans. I also agree with Mr Dobell that the format makes a T2O condensed into July/August very vulnerable to the weather, but at least it will be easier to engage a foreign star for the whole thing rather than a different one turning up each match. Actually, I see making T20 franchised-based as the solution to many of the issues under discussion. 3 formats (long format, 50 and 20 overs) is just too much at both domestic and international level. Have a window during the season for an IPL-type competition, but make sure it doesn't eat too much into the rest of the season, enabling the CC to retain its present format, and have a (shorter) 50-over domestic competition too. By the same token, I'd get rid of T20 at international level too and let the franchises do the job. All we need is good admin at an ECB and ICC level to get an annual calendar which suits everyone, but that seems beyond them at the moment.

  • PJtheBarbarian on March 10, 2016, 10:39 GMT

    @PATRICKCLARKE You're right, the Durham fixture at Scarborough has seen some memorable matches in recent years. Whichever games you choose, enjoy them while you can!

  • trentbridge11 on March 9, 2016, 17:04 GMT

    Playing the T20 in a block in July and August when families are on holiday will result in a drop in attendances and that will be all the ecb need to bring in franchises, which is what they are determined to do. What happened to the fans consultation which led to weekly games and a huge increase in attendances?

  • Cricinfouser on March 9, 2016, 12:48 GMT

    @PJTHEBARBARIAN Thank you for that kind invitation. I've been intending to go to the Scarborough Festival for many years and did come close to attending one or two of the excellent fixtures with Durham there in recent years without making it, sadly. I'm thinking seriously of going to the Middlesex fixture in July this year. It does clash with a much nearer fixture for me at Guildford but other than that, my wife will be working so I'll have full freedom of options so I may very well make it to Scarborough this time.

  • PJtheBarbarian on March 9, 2016, 11:31 GMT

    @PATRICKCLARKE Fully in agreement. Allow me to invite you to the Scarborough Festival next year and we can feast on county cricket played in its most sublime of forms. A knowledgeable crowd, a perfect setting and a four-day match which ebbs and flows and brings out the best of both teams. I doubt anyone in the ECB has the remotest interest in attending a county championship match any more, It's all the more galling as Colin Graves did a fine job on the financial side at Yorkshire. A pity he now seems to have lost respect for the true fans of the game.

  • Cricinfouser on March 9, 2016, 10:41 GMT

    Having followed some of T20 Finals Day on TV last season, the fact is that the only moment I can remember from the whole day is when the Somerset mascot fell over some netting in the mascots race when on the point of taking the lead from the Yorkshire Viking on the final straight and then kept falling again because his foot was entangled in the netting. Yes it was hilarious, but is this what County Cricket has come to after a proud history approaching 150 years? That the whole county season is crafted around the primacy of an event whose only memorable moment for me was a piece of farce. I don't comment much on T20 cricket but if it is going to be allowed to eat up, debase and destroy the rest of county cricket I'll call it what it is. Junk cricket, by which I mean not that it is rubbish but that is similar to junk food. You can have an agreeable snack in McDonalds but it is then instantly forgotten, whereas dining in the Ritz or Fouquet's is fondly remembered many years later.

  • gallarate on March 9, 2016, 8:15 GMT

    I can understand having even number in the Championships divisions a it means all teams can be in action at any one time.. 14 games works in an 8 division league - the new div 1 -but not really in the new division 2. I think division 2 should be reduced to 8 teams in the future - relegate 2 teams then have one relegation spot with a county coming up. Have one up and one down div 1 to 2. Maybe room for a play off - 1 v 2 for divison 1 and penultimate div 1 v 2nd div 2. Sad but might be the way to go.

  •   Jono Makim on March 8, 2016, 22:54 GMT

    @SirViv1973, Firstly it would be 66 round robin matches, so if you could get in say 10 games a week, one each evening monday to thursday and two matches each fri, sat, sun then you'd be well on the way to having it completed in 7 weeks, maybe an extra big saturday or two along the way where you have say 4 games in a day would work out and shorten it up a bit. Even if it did go for 7 weeks I don't think that would be a concept killer as long as you have a test series running along at the same time to keep traditional fans/viewers happy then you don't really notice that it is stretching out, at least that's the feeling I get with the BBL. I think your more limited number of teams and shorter program would be fantastic but I'm just not sure how it will keep everyone happy. I guess you could chop off the Scottish and Dutch (being pragmatic here, as I'd love to see it) and go with a ten team format, I think an Irish team would be fantastic though and would draw sell outs for most matches.

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