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Yorkshire chiefs propose Championship shake-up

Martyn Moxon, in front of the Headingley offices where the plan was hatched Getty Images

Yorkshire, often regarded as the staunchest defenders of the County Championship, have put forward proposals for a conference-style format intended to "reinvigorate" the competition and ensure unity among the 18 professional clubs.

Mark Arthur, Yorkshire's chief executive, and Martyn Moxon, director of cricket, have stressed the conference plan is their own brainchild, and not the official policy of the club. But both Arthur and Moxon are Board members, the plan is lavishly publicised on Yorkshire's own website and details have already been outlined to the ECB.

Official or unofficial? Such political niceties might be necessary - especially when the chairman of the ECB, Colin Graves, has such close links with Yorkshire - but they will be lost on most cricket supporters as they pore over arguably the most comprehensive proposal yet revealed.

The Arthur-Moxon plan would see three parallel conferences of six begin the season, and another three conferences of six - divided on merit - conclude it, with prize money for the winner almost doubling to 1m.

One bugbear for some influential figures within the ECB will be that the plan gives each county a total of 15 matches - one more than at present - in a fixture list that is about to become more crowded than ever.

Andrew Strauss, the director of England cricket, is known to favour a fall to as low as 10 games. Even the former England captain Michael Vaughan, who briefly served on the Yorkshire board, tempered his initial show of approval by suggesting that a couple of early-season matches would be best played overseas.

Arthur believes the structure could be introduced in the summer of 2020, alongside the much-hyped new T20 competition, which has left the smaller counties that are not involved in the city-based tournament insecure about their long-term future.

"We feel that it would keep everybody engaged in the game because there are certain counties that feel threatened - wrongly, in my opinion - by the new T20 city competition," Arthur said on Yorkshire's website. "We believe in 18 first-class counties, and this would keep everybody together.

"Martyn Moxon and I put it forward to the ECB a couple of months ago. We put it forward purely from a personal point of view, not from a Yorkshire point of view."

Yorkshire's senior administrators have taken heart from reports that six of the smaller counties are in favour of some style of conference system, led by the Sussex chief executive Rob Andrew.

It is likely that they have revealed their own plans to catch the mood, as well as guard against less palatable versions gaining ground.

Andrew believes that the advent of more TV money from the new T20 competition will enable counties to compete on more equal terms - especially if a salary cap is retained - and will give them a better chance of retaining their top players.

Increasingly, in a two-divisional structure, players are more receptive to transfers to a bigger county and compensation levels are poor, perhaps undermining a commitment to developing players.

Arthur also feels that a conference system will protect more powerful counties like Yorkshire from the risk of relegation because they are providing so many players for England internationals.

"From our experience, we provided five or six players to the England set-up once again in 2017, yet we were nearly relegated," he said. "We're very happy to provide those players, but to do that we have to be playing in the first division and not the second.

"We've also seen in the last few years that some teams in the second division have given up red-ball cricket with an eye on the white ball. If they are going to truly be centres of excellence for cricket, they need to have some sort of aspiration for the Championship game."

Arthur argues that the Conference plan will give the Championship season "a real climax" and that even in Divisions Two and Three, there will be prize money and the following season's placings to play for.

"It would mean one more game, greater interest from the public and will provide the 18 counties with genuine competition," he said.

Fifteen matches in a calendar awash with two T20 competitions might well prove ambitious, however. A similar alternative - two equal Conferences of nine, selected by the same method, followed by three Divisions of six - would bring a reduction to 13 matches and might gain more favour within the ECB.

On the back of a 4-0 Ashes series defeat, though, the most pressing question should be whether this proposal would raise standards and contribute to the smallest possible leap between the best county sides and England's Test side.

Unless some of the sides who habitually spend life at the bottom of Division Two seriously raise their game under such a proposal, mismatches could abound in the first stage of the season.

The prospect of more money into county cricket via T20 is not about to change that, unless it led to a transformed commitment to player development from all 18 counties at a time when the game is unhealthily reliant on the production line from private schools, the club game is under strain because of changing cultural behaviour, and efforts to rebuild cricket's popularity among young people with such schemes as All Stars Cricket remain in their infancy.

And there is always the warning of what happened the last time Conferences were debated with any real intent. Twenty years have passed since Lord MacLaurin, as chairman of the ECB (and like Graves with a background in supermarket retail), championed a similar cause.

Wisden Cricket Monthly went full-on tabloid with its one-word headline on the front cover. "Barmy!" was the verdict, with the added thought: "If it goes ahead, England will never beat Australia". But the county game is in such flux, the mood this time is harder to gauge.