County news February 25, 2015

Major overhaul afoot in county game

Play 03:15
Hopps: England's professional game faces the prospect of a major shake-up

The ECB is actively debating a reduction in the amount of Test cricket in an English summer - down from seven Tests to as low as five - to make room for a more integrated professional structure which could see England players performing in a restyled T20 competition.

In a wide-ranging review, where nothing is seen as sacrosanct, a return to three-day first-class cricket and a single-division County Championship is also on the table for discussion.

That a two-division Championship, which has widely been accepted as responsible for raising standards as well as serving the needs of the England team, is even up for discussion will leave many aghast and is bound to be the subject of fierce debate.

These ideas - termed by the ECB as a "conversation process" - form part of a wide-ranging review into the future of English cricket with the stated aim of providing quality over quantity and championing the cricket that people want to watch. The talking is scheduled to stop by the end of the year with a five-year plan then announced for 2016 to 2020.

The initial ideas are included in a document - Strategy Conversation Summary - seen by ESPNcricinfo which also raises the prospect of four-day Test cricket and a suggestion that the next World Cup - to be played in England in 2019 - could be played over 40 overs.

The debate will be stepped up over the introduction of a Big Bash style T20 league - to be call an England Premier League - almost certainly played by eight or 10 teams, and an FA Cup-style knockout tournament.

And in a move that may shock Sky, the current broadcast partners, the county chairmen have suggested that future TV deals should see coverage shared between free-to-air and subscription providers. The presentation talks of: "A balance between terrestrial and satellite: at least two broadcasters".

Other suggested changes includes a rebranding of the ECB - the current brand is seen as toxic - as Cricket England & Wales.

The discussion document is proof that the new duo at the helm of the ECB - the chairman Colin Graves, whose election was confirmed on Tuesday, and chief executive Tom Harrison - are prepared to countenance what could conceivably become the most widespread overhauling of the professional game in England in modern times.

Behind the open-minded review, with everything on the table, is a sense that they already have a clear idea of the direction they wish to travel - and that they could soon face opposition from county chief executives and county members.

The overall aim is to raise ECB income to £175m a year - a rise of almost £50m - to see the board's reserves lifted to £44m and for England to win the Ashes and the World Cup in 2019.

All the ideas have been discussed by county chairmen and the ECB board in recent days and are included in a document circulated to key decision makers. Some will have a longer shelf life than others.

A series of consultations are due to follow over the next few months, with presentations to county CEOs - a group not obviously included in the discussions, arguably to the detriment of the process - in October and decisions announced in January 2016.

While many of the aims are laudable - seeing the sport regarded as the benchmark for social integration, a fully professional women's game and establishing cricket as the undisputed No. 2 sport in England and Wales - some will cause widespread shock in the game.

The move to two division, four-day cricket was viewed as a key factor in England's resurgence in the early years of this century.

Any decision to move to a three-day format - with teams expected to bowl 110 overs a day - will be seen by many as a retrograde step and the antithesis of the aim of trying to mirror Test cricket within the county game.

The aim of seeing England players regarded as "folk heroes" may also raise some eyebrows.

The document also suggests that some Championship cricket at least could be played as day-night - so with a white ball - and that all county grounds should be equipped with floodlights.

The intention that "the number of counties in financial pain" should be "halved" is one that could be interpreted in different ways and will raise doubts about the survival of the 18-team professional system in its current form.

I don't think Colin Graves will be a particularly despotic leader - he's not been like that at Yorkshire
Martyn Moxon, Yorkshire's director of cricket

Graves is not as autocratic as some paint him. Nevertheless, his business approach at Yorkshire, where he is about to step back as chairman to concentrate on his new ECB role, has been notably straightforward with a preference for decisiveness and unashamed addressing of the problems above conciliation and compromise.

Martyn Moxon, Yorkshire's director of cricket, reflecting on life at Headingley now that Graves' attentions are turning elsewhere, tried to put his reputation into context. "I don't think he'll be a particularly despotic leader - that's not how he's been at Yorkshire," Moxon said. "He's inclusive and discusses things with people. Ultimately he will then make the final decision. He's a top man to work with and for."

One county chief executive told ESPNcricinfo: "T20 and Test attendances might be down in Yorkshire, but actually they are growing elsewhere. These ideas have not been filtered by common sense."

While not detailed in the discussion document, it is understood that the aim for the EPL would be to pay smaller counties not to participate and allow their players to join larger clubs for the duration of the specific competition.

Another senior figure at a non-Test hosting county remarked: "If that happens, our county ground will be a car park within five years."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo

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