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County Championship likely to be cut to 14 matches

Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive, has admitted for the first time that the ECB wants to trim the Championship programme to rase standards and make more breathing space for a rejigged fixture list

George Dobell
George Dobell
20-Aug-2015
Tom Harrison, the ECB chief executive, has admitted for the first time that the ECB plan to cut the amount of fixtures played in the County Championship programme.
Speaking to BBC's Test Match Special show, Harrison confirmed reports first revealed by ESPNcricinfo that the schedule would be altered to make room for a reshaped T20 competition played in a block in mid-summer and to allow more time for rest and recovery between games for county players.
Harrison also warned the first-class counties not to rely on the ECB bailing them out of financial trouble and confirmed that the ECB were re-thinking their stance on cricket's involvement in the Olympics.
"The desirable position is to have a block in the middle of the summer given to a particular format,'' Harrison said. "Where our proposals are going is to try and deliver an element of this and create some space in the calendar. Controversially that probably means playing one or two less first-class matches.
"Sixteen games is a lot and if you take that down to 14 the implications are not significant. Supporters want to see players playing to the limit of their ability every time they go out onto the park.
"Players are more worried about getting through the game than putting in the limit of their performance to sustain themselves until the end of the year."
Teams currently play 16 four-day first-class matches in a Championship season. While ESPNcricinfo has previously understood there was a desire to reduce that to 12 matches a county, Harrison's words suggest that compromise is afoot.
The mechanism for achieving such a reduction has not yet been agreed but one method currently under discussion involves two divisions split into eight (Division one) and 10 (Division two) with all teams playing each other home and away in the top division and a less symmetrical arrangement in the lower one.
Blocks in the schedule to accommodate T20 cricket have been attempted before. While they are popular with players and coaches - who are able to concentrate on specific white ball skills in the period - it does leave competitions at the mercy of the weather. And in England, that is quite a risk.
The ECB is also two years in to a four-year development plan with its current T20 competition. That plan - which is based around most games taking place on a Friday night throughout much of the season - appears to be working, too, with attendances and revenues up around 20% across most of the country. Some county chief executives favour a slight change to the existing model, with the competition starting a month or so later to coincide more with school holidays and clash less with the exam period.
The ECB's challenge is to create a product - particularly a T20 product - that is attractive to broadcasters while not compromising the first-class game that helps create a successful Test side; itself a huge component in a valuable TV deal. The current broadcast deal runs until the end of the 2019 season.
Discussions with broadcasters to date have suggested there is limited interest in the current T20 competition, but a city-based tournament featuring fewer rebranded teams would appeal to them. To that end, the ECB has conducted detailed modelling of various potential T20 tournaments, including a two division system that seems to have the guarded support of a number of counties.
The problem with the city-based event - easily the most popular model among broadcasters - is that it may well be limited to eight or 10 teams. While that decision might not immediately impact the revenues of the smaller clubs, who would be compensated if there were no games at their grounds, there are fears that it could prove the thin edge of a wedge that sees some counties become largely irrelevant and, as a consequence, eventually insolvent.
Equally, some of those "smaller" clubs - the likes of Somerset, Sussex and Essex - have earned reputations as among the best hosts of T20 games with their packed grounds creating an excellent atmosphere.
If clubs do become insolvent, Harrison made it clear that they should not rely on the ECB as "the bank of last resort." The ECB has encouraged all counties to develop business models that render them less reliant upon the distribution of central funds but, with clubs having also been encouraged to invest heavily in ground redevelopment projects, the amount of debt in the county game is current estimated to exceed £150m. Several clubs - notably Yorkshire and Hampshire - have remained solvent only thanks to the intervention of wealthy benefactors while some smaller ones - notably Northamptonshire and Kent - have gone perilously close to the brink.
"The ECB is committed to ensuring counties are in a position to sustain their own business,'' Harrison said. "Ultimately we are not the bank of last resort, that's not the role the ECB should play.
"We are in the business of doing everything we can to put a structure in place for our county clubs to be as sustainable as possible."
Some might point to the ECB's cash reserves - now understood to exceed £50m - and suggest they can well afford to assist the counties a little more. Indeed, conspiracy theorists might suggest that many of the ECB's scheduling problems would be solved if a couple of clubs foundered.
Such a policy would be contrary to the constitution of the ECB, however, and the ECB has always insisted it requires large reserves in case of the abandonment of a tour - as almost happened with Pakistan in 2010 - which could leave the game owing vast amounts to broadcasters and other business partners.
The example of Northamptonshire might prove telling. The club is currently in dire financial trouble and has appealed to the ECB for assistance. It is understood, however, that the ECB is not completely comfortable with the current operation of the club and may insist on changes before any money is lent. In the past, the ECB has always been forthcoming with help and are currently owed almost £8m by the counties. It may be they are less helpful in future.
Confirming the ECB's more enlightened view towards involvement in the Olympics, Harrison said: "I think cricket should have the debate about Olympic representation. It does throw up serious questions for us with our season straddling when a summer Olympics takes place but these are questions we should ask and understand.
"England is often seen as a barrier to this discussion but that's simply not the case. If you do have a successful Olympic movement for your sport it can be transformative."
Where that leaves Giles Clarke remains to be seen. Clarke, the ECB president and their representative at the ICC, has previously stated that Olympic involvement for England would be "impossible" and called the idea "a complete non-starter."

George Dobell is a senior correspondent at ESPNcricinfo