It seemed a long way off when Nottinghamshire's squad photograph was interrupted by a snowstorm at Trent Bridge on Thursday morning, but the English season starts next week with a round of eight County Championship fixtures with the competition under more scrutiny than ever.
After two years in which the structure of the domestic first-class game was altered by the pandemic, the Championship reverts to two uneven divisions in 2022, with ten teams in Division One and eight in Division Two. This format was originally planned to be introduced in 2020, and finishing positions for 2019 have been honoured, much to the relief of top-tier counties who have struggled in the last two years and the irritation of second-flight teams who have punched above their weight.
Notts have more right to feel aggrieved than most. They were relegated in 2019 after a winless season, but made significant strides in 2021 as they finished third, four points behind champions Warwickshire in a six-team Division One after topping their early-season conference.
"We've accepted it," Peter Moores,
Notts' head coach, told ESPNcricinfo. "We'd have liked the decision to have taken the two years after 2019 into account, but we also accept that we got relegated in 2019. Everyone's got their head around it now and we've all decided that we have a job to do, which is to win that division."
"We're all disappointed that we're in Division Two but those were the rules that they came up with, and that was the vote that was carried out," Mick Newell, their director of cricket, added. "There's no point blaming the ECB. It wasn't their vote; the counties voted for this system. We feel that last year we were the third best team in the country, but we've got to prove it again. If we play as well as we did last year, I think we'll be okay."
What comes next is anyone's guess. Andrew Strauss, the ECB's interim managing director of men's cricket, announced earlier this month
the launch of a "high-performance review" into the English game at all levels, due to be published in September so that recommendations can be implemented in time for the 2023 season, but it remains at a nascent stage.
The ECB issued a statement on Thursday morning dismissing as "speculation" and "not true" newspaper reports that the Championship could be split into a 12-team 'Premier League' and a six-team second division. County chief executives were told the same thing in a meeting on Wednesday.
"The terms of reference for the Strauss report are not out yet," Rob Andrew, Sussex's chief executive, said on Thursday. "There'll be a game-wide consultation - coaches, players, media, PCA, fans. This is going to be a massive piece of work. I understand why you want to ask questions on this but it's all speculation.
"Anybody that is writing anything in newspapers at the moment is making it up. Until this process starts and the consultation is worked through to whatever the end result is, you're all speculating."
But for second-division counties, the lack of clarity is a frustration. Their finishing positions in 2022 will determine which division teams play in next year, but it may not become apparent until the final weeks of the season whether teams need to finish in the top one, two or three to get promoted. In the event of a radical restructure - three divisions of six, for example - it may be that no teams in this season's Division Two are promoted at all.
"Everyone will be thinking a little bit about 2023 without really knowing what they're playing for,," Newell said. "I'm not sure we're going to get [clarity] very soon. But clearly, there will be that realisation that if you're not in the top two, you will definitely not be in a Division One in 2023.
"Division Two is going to be interesting. Durham are obviously coming back well; Sussex have strengthened their batting which had been a problem; Middlesex I think will be good with their new coach. Nobody is saying it's a foregone conclusion that Notts will be in the top two, but it should be a good, competitive division."
"If we won the division this year and then didn't go into Division One, after getting more points than anyone else last year [across both phases of the season], then you'd think the system is wrong," Moores added. "The whole idea of divisional cricket is to get the best teams in it but we've got to keep it really simple: we've got to try and win Division Two. What happens outside of that will be dictated by other people and then we'll take it from there."
Additional reporting: Alan Gardner
Matt Roller is an assistant editor at ESPNcricinfo. @mroller98