A new-look County Championship comprising a first division of six teams, trials of the Kookaburra red ball, and a reduction of T20 Blast fixtures from 14 to 10, are among the 17 recommendations made in the men's High-Performance Review, published by the ECB on Thursday.
The review, colloquially described as the "red-ball reset", was commissioned in the wake of England's crushing defeat in the Ashes in January, and was led by Andrew Strauss - the former England captain who also served as interim director of cricket following the sacking of Ashley Giles earlier in the year.
The report's recommendations are split into four categories, covering the specifics of high-performance, the need to equip players to compete in all conditions around the world, the creation of a domestic structure that is "best for counties, players, fans, and England men's team", and the overarching need to inspire future generations to take up the game.
Speaking at Lord's on the eve of the publication, Strauss insisted that the onus was now on the first-class counties to digest his recommendations, in particular those pertaining to the domestic schedule, and embrace them for the greater good of the game. However, at the counties' request, there will be no change to the existing domestic structure until 2024.
Strauss, who captained England to victory in Australia in 2010-11 and whose Test team was the last England side to be ranked No. 1 in the world, said that the changes were necessary both for England to return to the pinnacle of the sport across all formats for a sustained period, but also to safeguard English cricket against what he described as the "shifting tectonic plates" of the global game, amid the current proliferation of T20 franchise leagues.
"The game must be united if we are to achieve those ambitions and we must be open-minded to change," Strauss said. "The most consistent message we have received, from players to fans and coaches, was that the status quo is not an option."
Fifteen of the 17 recommendations can be voted on by the ECB board and implemented without recourse to the counties. The remaining two, however, relating to the T20 Blast and the restructuring of the County Championship, will require a two-thirds majority in a ballot of the 18 counties, and will almost certainly be met with opposition from members who face a reduction in first-class fixtures, and executives who rely on revenues from home Blast matches in particular.
The proposal as it stands is for a six-team first division, and a 12-team second division, split into two conferences, the winners of which will face each other in an end-of-season promotion play-off. The first-class season would begin in May, with matches to be held in June, July and September, either side of a window for the Hundred in August.
In a bid to ensure a more broad spread of first-class fixtures at the height of the summer, the review proposes a heightened focus on Lions fixtures in that August window, as well as a series of "festival" games involving local rivals that would be distinct from the County Championship. The One-Day Cup, which this season took place in the Hundred's shadow, would be moved to April to become a season curtain-raiser.
"I encourage people to consider our proposals as a package, and I welcome the opportunity for informed debate on the recommended changes to the men's domestic structure," Strauss added.
"There are no easy answers on the men's domestic structure. The recommendations have prioritised a more coherent schedule which is more manageable for overworked players, coaches and groundstaff while providing the quality and quantity of cricket that fans want to watch and which meets our high-performance objectives.
"That includes playing first-class cricket in each month from May until September, increasing the standard and intensity of the LV= Insurance County Championship and ensuring more opportunities for the best players to play across all domestic competitions."
A trial of the Kookaburra ball is also proposed, in place of the Dukes which has a tendency to swing and seam for longer and therefore encourages a proliferation of medium-pacers in county cricket. Combined with a greater focus on pitch preparation - a key consideration this week in light of Glen Chapple's criticism of the surface during Lancashire's two-day victory at Chelmsford - Strauss hopes that this will help to mimic overseas conditions and better prepare England's bowlers for future tours.
To that end, the report also recommends a North vs South red-ball competition to be played overseas in the pre-season, featuring the star performers from the previous year's Championship, and plans for England Under-17 fixtures against international opponents.
Amid concerns that, under the new proposal, smaller counties would inevitably become feeder clubs for the more successful Division One teams, the report also calls for more incentive-based payments for counties to produce winning teams, and hence future England cricketers.
Richard Thompson, the ECB chair, said that the board and executive unanimously support the review's recommendations, and urged the counties to put aside their concerns for the greater good.
"We are aware of the challenges within many counties over the reduction in red-ball cricket in particular," Thompson said. "Those concerns have been taken on board and reflected in the recommendations. If there is a reduction in the volume of cricket for a sensible and workable schedule along with seeing the best players more often, I believe that is a good trade-off, particularly as it will improve England's chances of success in the future.
"It is important that heading into next season that the first-class counties are aware of what they are playing for in 2024."