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September 27, 2012
A desire to preserve the primacy of Championship cricket is likely to see England's first-class counties opting out of the Champions League and returning to a 50-over domestic one-day competition.
While Yorkshire and Hampshire will shortly depart to participate in this year's Champions League it is quite possible that it will be the last time that the counties are involved. They have already decided not to participate in 2013 and, while the door is not closed on future involvement, it will require the Champions League to be rescheduled to start a couple of weeks later so as not to clash with the finale of the County Championship.
In 2013, in order to avoid a repeat of the earliest starts in history in 2011 and 2012, the county season is likely to commence on April 9 and finish in the third week of September. The Champions League, which has a window in the Future Tours Programme, starts in the second week of September and has, over recent years, caused the entire county season to be altered and abbreviated to cater for it.
Talks about the restructuring of the county game have been in progress for some time. The ECB commissioned former ICC and ECB chairman David Morgan to compile a report and make recommendations about the future structure around 18 months ago but his plans for reducing the Championship programme were met with little support.
The debate has obliged the counties to define their priorities as never before. A consensus of sorts has now been reached with the majority agreeing that a two-division Championship of 16 games involving promotion and relegation must be a non-negotiable feature of the season. It is also highly likely that, from 2014, the majority of the domestic T20 competition will be staged on Friday nights and Sunday afternoons over much of the season rather than in a 'high summer' window.
Not only did the rain that bedevilled the 2012 FLt20 silence many of those who feel the competition should be played in a window, but there is an increasing acceptance that the counties are no longer able to attract the best overseas talent even for a short T20 tournament. While all the evidence suggests that the first USA T20 competition, scheduled to be staged in 2013, is going to be a somewhat shambolic affair, the ECB are wary of the long-term effects of the rival event, with agents reporting that many of the leading overseas players will be attracted to the USA rather than the UK with the offer of large salaries.
As a compromise for accepting the Championship and T20 structure that many of the counties would like, the England team management are hopeful of persuading the counties to return to 50-over List A cricket from 2014. While there is very little enthusiasm for the format among the counties for commercial reasons, there is a grudging acceptance that the domestic game should mirror the international game and, with the England management having lost the argument over the structure of the Championship, some willingness to compromise.
In an ideal world, the counties would like to remain involved in the Champions League, too. Not only does it offer the possibility of large prize money, but players and coaches have spoken of the developmental benefits of playing different players in different conditions. For those county players not on the international radar, it might even represent the highest-quality cricket they experience.
The counties' involvement in the league has been contentious for some time, though. Not only has the scheduling been an issue, but there has been a growing concern that teams are not operating on a level playing field. While several teams from the three countries with a stake in the competition - India, South Africa and Australia - are entered into the main event, teams from other nations are obliged to come through an extra qualifying event for which there is no prize money. Furthermore, while some teams are allowed four overseas players, the counties are allowed just two. In 2011, Mumbai Indians were allowed to register a fifth overseas player.
While the prize money on offer for the event is, on the surface, very attractive - the winners receive $2.5m and even teams knocked-out in the group stages get $200,000 - the ECB receive only $1m for the involvement of both counties and there have also been delays in the payment of prize money.
The counties meet to agree the format in October with the ECB board expected to ratify the format at the end of November, by which time they will have reviewed the consumer research they conducted this summer. After a process of consultation that has dragged on longer than a county season, there is no desire to seek further dialogue.
George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfoFeeds: George Dobell
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
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