County news March 7, 2016

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

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