July 24, 2009

And then there were three

We seem to be heading to a three-tournament format; whether it's out of concern for Test and county cricket is a bit beside the point

"ECB Board meeting" may not be the first words you'd expect to read in the aftermath of England's first win against Australia at Lord's since 1934, and they may rank as the least sexy start to any column. But, apology over, the meeting that takes place next Wednesday could provide unexpected ammunition for those who have argued over the years - and there haven't been many of them - that the county game really is less interested in its own survival than in the success of the England team.

The turkeys-don't-vote-for-Christmas analogy has been applied to county cricket's chief executives and chairmen often enough, yet the talk after this week's discussions involving the domestic game's big cheeses is that the 18 first-class teams are finally prepared to streamline a fixture list that at times has been as penetrable as Fermat's Last Theorem.

"The consensus of opinion," declared the ECB chief executive, David Collier, earlier this week, "was clearly for three competitions, with a desire to preserve the primacy of Test cricket and the LV County Championship." This proposal still needs to be ratified at Wednesday's meeting, but the implications are significant. We already knew the Pro40 - loved by chief execs because it was well-attended, but increasingly irrelevant to the players - was in its last year. Now it looks as if the county game will settle for one Twenty20 tournament per season instead of the two that had been mooted. Sanity, it seems, has broken out.

The upshot would be a structure that roughly mirrors the formats of the international game - cricket in whites played over a few days, plus a 50- and 20-over tournament - as well as a bit (but not a huge amount) more breathing space in the calendar for England's overworked domestic players. County cricketers will still play more than any of their counterparts around the world, but revolutions take time. And in cricket they can take even longer than that.

"It's always a battle," says Mark Newton, the Worcestershire chief executive, as he assesses the traditional nature of the relationship between the counties and England. "When central contracts came in, that was a battle too. But we will do what is best for England. After all, it's the England team that keeps us in a job and helps provide us with a ground. We've always supported England and will continue to do so. It's what we are here for - it's in our mission statement."

That admission may surprise those who have suspected over the years that county cricket's real mission statement can be reduced to one word: survival. And one other county chief executive yesterday claimed that the views on any new domestic structure would be "mixed", adding: "As long as there's enough cricket to pay the bills."

The upshot would be a structure that roughly mirrors the formats of the international game - cricket in whites played over a few days, plus a 50- and 20-over tournament - as well as a bit more breathing space in the calendar for England's overworked domestic players

But there is a twist, because - for the moment at least - the ECB are denying that the P20 is dead in the water: far from it. One plan is simply to replace the Twenty20 Cup in its current format - three group stages followed by quarter-finals - with two divisions of nine teams each, which is how the P20 was originally conceived.

The official line is that the decision to scrap the idea of two Twenty20 tournaments has nothing to do with a recession-driven lack of sponsors or a failure to attract the all-important Asian broadcasting networks, and everything to do with fitting the fixtures into the season so that, as Collier argues, the primacy of first-class cricket is maintained. Tests in early May could become a thing of the past, following, among others, the poorly attended game at Chester-le-Street against West Indies earlier this year, and that would mean some sensitive tinkering of the calendar later in the summer.

When it was put to one chief executive contacted yesterday that the board was suddenly placing altruism ahead of commercial gain, he commented: "I'll let you read between the lines on that one." In fact, a P20 tournament would still guarantee each county at least 16 matches - home and away against the other eight in its league - which will more than make up the financial shortfall caused by the scrapping of the Pro40 (eight games per team per season).

So would it be cynical to suggest that the counties are having their cake (by backing a structure that gives their overworked players more rest and thus places more onus on the quality needed to produce Test cricketers rather than on the current glut of quantity) and eating it (by raking in as much cash as before, if not more)?

"That would be harsh," says Newton, who justifies the proposed changes another way. "When I talk to people around the ground at New Road, the impression I get is that the county set-up has become a bit complicated. No one knew which days meant which tournament and so on. If you go to three competitions, it is simpler for the spectators to watch and understand. Now we'll have a set-up that reflects the international scene and will be split into chunks across the season."

Whatever the motives behind the proposed changes - and face-saving cannot be discounted after the P20 was originally trumpeted as a potential rival to the Indian Premier League - the results ought to benefit the domestic structure. The turkeys haven't quite voted for Christmas. But one step at a time.

Lawrence Booth is a cricket correspondent at the Guardian. He writes the acclaimed weekly cricket email The Spin for guardian.co.uk

Comments have now been closed for this article

  • Thomas on July 25, 2009, 22:41 GMT

    Tests in may are fine. Just don't charge the earth for seats to see a C grade side.

  • Alex on July 25, 2009, 1:19 GMT

    Well, its sense that should prevail. In Australia, we have three comp's to cover the various forms of the game played at top level. The T20 comp, the ODD comp and the Sheffield Shield, which plays a 4 day game with a 5 day fina. I acknowledge that the Australian domestic cricket only has 6 teams, and while this has been talked about with expansionist dreams, the main fact is they have kept it simple, stupid. The English County Cricket have finally acknowledged that and it looks like a sound descision has been made.l

  • Nick on July 24, 2009, 21:03 GMT

    The big decision next week will be the number of 20/20 games and the competition format. Under the original plan each county would have played a minimum of 26 20/20 games next season. That was always too many but I expect the reduction to be less than what many are expecting. Here's a simple format: Each team plays the other sides in its regional group home and away (as now) and every other side home or away. Each side will then have 11 home games in a 22 match league. This is about right from a marketing perspective in a season long competition and will allow festival grounds to have a good share of games. The counties will be ranked in one overall league table. At the end the top 4 teams go through to finals day or, if there is scope, the top 2 teams automatically qualify with 3rd v 6th and 4th v 5th play-offs to determine the other two qualifiers.

  • Darren on July 24, 2009, 11:00 GMT

    "We already knew the Pro40 - loved by chief execs because it was well-attended, but increasingly irrelevant to the players - was in its last year." In other words, we poor fans are irrelevant! 40-over cricket is popular because it's a good game. It gives fans a proper day out and batsmen the opportunity to build a big innings unlike T20 cricket and it cuts out some of the dull middle overs of a 50-over game. Let's keep 40 overs, scrap 50 overs and lobby the ICC make ODIs 40 overs.

  • Jeff on July 24, 2009, 9:55 GMT

    I know this will never happen, but this is what i'd like to see:

    The number of 1st class counties reduced to 9 (and based around the 9 test grounds in England/Wales)

    Each team plays 16 4 day matches (home & away) starting on Wed & ending on Sat. In conjunction, they play 16 50 over games, each one on the Sunday after the 4 day match ends, against the same team.

    If you want, there could be a 50 over final between the top 2 teams a week after the regular season ends.

    Have a break in June to play Twenty20 - add Scotland, Ireland and Netherlands to make 12 teams and play the same format as the World Twenty20 (it seemed to work ok.)

    Obviously this would indeed need 9 turkeys (counties) to vote for christmas, but I can dream, can't I?

    And the concentration of talent amongst fewer teams can only be good for the England team...

  • Andy on July 24, 2009, 9:16 GMT

    Three competitions has to be the way to go. Two Twenty20 competitions was always a mad idea. It would also be great if the 50 over competition wasn't primarily played in cold April and May - and more use was made of weekends and Bank Holiday Mondays. And the Championship is pretty good in its two-division form - no argument from me there - but a word of warning on this... anyone who talks of "Conferences" is insane. This will just perpetuate the confusion about who is playing who/what league the team is in etc etc. Leave the Championship as it is.

  • Neil on July 24, 2009, 8:22 GMT

    Here's my five pence. The 18 counties should play each other once in a four day match in a single division, once in a 50-over List-A match with two divisions (9 teams) and once in a Twenty20 Match with two divisions. This equals 84 days of cricket out of the 180 or so days available in a summer season. Additionally, a county 2nd xi should play a three day match at the same time as the 1st xi plays a four day match, and against the same opposition (Kent vs Surrey at the same time as Kent 2nd vs Surrey 2nd). Counties should be given the freedom to hire as many overseas players as they want for positions in both 1st and 2nd xis. Over the longer term, the amount of first-class teams in the UK should be doubled by granting first class status to the minor counties, who would form a second division. A promotion/relegation system between the two divisions would also occur.

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