Essex will have the opportunity to defend two red-ball titles in 2021, after the first-class counties agreed to a revised league-based structure for next season's County Championship, followed by a separate five-day showpiece final at Lord's, in which the Bob Willis Trophy will be once again be at stake.
Essex are the current holders of both titles, having pipped Somerset to the County Championship in 2019 after securing a draw at Taunton on the final day of the season, before claiming the inaugural Bob Willis Trophy against the same opponents at Lord's last month, again with a draw in which their first-innings lead proved to be the decisive factor.
The announcements follow discussions between the ECB and the chairs of the first-class counties, who are seeking to mitigate against further disruption from Covid-19 in the 2021 season. A full review into the men's domestic structure is due in 2022, for which the existing split of ten first-division teams and eight in Division Two will be taken as the default position.
Unlike this season's short-term arrangement, in which the 18 counties were split into three regional groups of six and played a single fixture against each opponent before the top two teams progressed to the final, next year's competition will feature three seeded groups, with 10 home and away fixtures, followed by a further round of games in which the top, middle and bottom two of each group form three new divisions, and play four further games against one another for a total of 14 fixtures.
The top team in this newly configured Division One will be crowned winners of the 2021 County Championship, and be awarded the traditional Lord's Taverners trophy, but the first and second-placed teams will then compete at Lord's for the Bob Willis Trophy, in a repeat of the showpiece finale that capped the 2020 season. Playing conditions for both competitions will be confirmed by the ECB in due course.
Seedings for the group stage of the County Championship have been determined based on the 18 teams' performances in the past two seasons, while a provision for local derby encounters has also been factored in (where it does not cut across the seeding) to enable Surrey and Middlesex, Yorkshire and Lancashire, Worcestershire and Warwickshire, Somerset and Gloucestershire, and Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire to compete in the same initial groups.
Ian Watmore, the new chairman of the ECB, explained the reasoning behind the restructuring. "Since starting in my new role last month one of my key priorities, as a huge supporter of red-ball cricket, has been to collaborate with the first-class counties so that we could confirm a structure for next summer's men's domestic season," he said.
"I am delighted that the counties have been able to reach this agreement less than three weeks after Essex won the Bob Willis Trophy final at Lord's.
"The success of that competition provides reassurance that this structure can help safeguard against any impact the global pandemic may have on next season while also ensuring the integrity of the County Championship.
"It must be stressed that this structure has been agreed for next season only and during 2021 we will review and consult with the counties and other stakeholders to decide the appropriate next steps for the men's domestic structure in 2022 and beyond."
2021 County Championship Groups
Group 1: Essex, Warwickshire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire, Worcestershire, Durham Group 2: Somerset, Hampshire, Surrey, Gloucestershire, Middlesex, Leicestershire Group 3: Kent, Yorkshire, Lancashire, Northamptonshire, Glamorgan, Sussex