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City-based T20 on hold as Blast attendances soar

A packed Hove ground on T20 night Getty Images

Sussex fans in the first NatWest Blast quarter-final were ordered by an ECB employee to take down a banner protesting against the possibility of a city-based T20 tournament in England as unease over the future direction of the English game spilled onto the terraces for the first time.

Perhaps the banners can be stored away for the time being, in any case. Traditionalists on the terraces can relax - a huge rise in attendances for this season's NatWest Blast has begun to counter calls for revolution.

The banner stating Say No To City Franchises was smuggled into Hove and displayed at times during the first Blast quarter-final between Sussex and Northants, but when the protests continued at the Sky TV after-match presentation, an ECB official politely intervened. Although no reason was given, disrupting the post-match coverage was presumably seen as an act too far.

Tension among traditional county fans about the future direction of T20 cricket in England has been an underlying theme of the summer as the ECB has undertaken a summer of private consultation in its search for a way to rid the professional game of joint debts of around £110m and reports have surfaced of a possible eight-team city league.

But the panic, for the moment is overstated. County chief executives and chairmen have been assured by the ECB heirarchy that there will be no rush to make changes before the Sky TV broadcasting deal ends in 2019.

Strong resistance among the counties was partly responsible for that, as those eager for change, such as the new ECB chief executive Tom Harrison, recognised the futility of his revolutionary zeal, but there are other reasons too.

There are two major international tournaments in England in that time - a Champions Trophy and a World Cup - and to damage those by internal wrangles would be unforgiveable. The commercial landscape is also changing rapidly and the argument over some form of free-to-air coverage is still raging.

This year's NatWest Blast has also made great strides - attendances have risen by around 20-25% with some counties, Birmingham and Yorkshire among them, showing particularly marked rises.

Sky, who already pay more than £260m over four years for broadcasting rights to English cricket, were reported last month to favour a deal for an eight-team city-based Twenty20 competition intended to rival IPL and the Australian Big Bash. The proposed deal would have seen the new Twenty20 league shoe-horned into a compact July window, with assurances that centrally-contracted England players would be freed to take part by a reduced international schedule.

Counties could potentially be around £2m a year richer if such an outcome came to pass. This would effectively more than double the annual share-out from the ECB, but the suggestion caused trepidation among many counties that under such a scenario they could be left with a lot of money but reduced credibility.

A proposal to run two T20 tournaments - one involving city franchises, one retaining the 18-team structure - would also entail the slashing of the Championship to 12 matches and could render the county tournament a second-class citizen and, as such, risk its eventual collapse.

All that encouraged whispers of a rebellion against the new ECB power brokers, not just Harrison, but head of commercial Sanjay Patel and chairman Colin Graves, leading Harrison to write to the counties to seek to appease the most implacable opponents.

Graves, who has repeatedly said that county cricket needs to pay its way, is thought to favour a city-based T20 series which would be played in a block with nightly TV matches and aim to attract the biggest international stars.

The term "franchise" is misleading, however. Even under the most radical English model, teams would be owned by the ECB, or the counties hosting the matches, not by private companies, so ensuring that money remained in the game for the general good.

One compromise still being pushed in some quarters is simply to adopt two divisions of nine with promotion and relegation and market the First Division far more aggressively, but even that compromise might not necessarily be adopted if the rising attendances this summer continue into next season and empower those who argue the current system can succeed.

A switch to two divisions carries an assumption that the counties with larger international grounds would eventually come to the fore, but there has been little sign of that this season, with only three of the eight qualifiers for the NatWest Blast from the Test match counties.

More will become clear when a working party under the chairmanship of the Warwickshire chief executive, Colin Povey, reports in the autumn - perhaps one of the last acts before Povey stands down as Warwickshire's chief executive.

This story was updated at 1700 on August 13 with additional information