Another Restructuring Of County Cricket?

There were 10 overs played today in Southampton, as the game drags itself toward what is now a totally inevitable rain-soaked draw. Elsewhere, in what might have a much greater impact on those of you who have an interest in county cricket, there were reports of a potential huge shake up of the domestic game being considered by the ECB and the counties.

This may seem familiar, because there’s usually a restructuring every two or three years. The number of games in a competition, the formats, the time of year it happens in, the groups teams play in. Barely a year goes by without some major change to the domestic structure which we are all told will be a panacea to English cricket and fix everything. And it never does.

If there is one unusual aspect to these proposals, it’s that it doesn’t even give the new calendar which was due to begin this year a chance to fail. A ten-team Division One in the Championship, the T20 Blast shunted back to June and the 50-over competition being played during The Hundred were all innovations which were going to occur in 2020.

The proposals as Tim Wigmore lists in a (paywalled) article on the Telegraph website are:

  • Making the County Championship structure more like that of the Bob Willis Trophy, which has the teams divided into regions with playoffs to determine the overall winner.
  • Creating a 32-team 50-over competition, including the National (formerly minor) counties and possibly representatives from Ireland, Scotland and the Netherlands.
  • A reduction in the number, duration and cost of contracts for professional county cricketers.
  • Potentially allowing counties to abandon the County Championship whilst still playing white ball cricket.

These are, as it typical for the ECB, absolute bullshit. So I will go through them one-by-one and explain why.

A Regionalised County Championship

The Bob Willis Trophy has been seen by many as a huge success, and so why shouldn’t the ECB extend it so that it’s played every season? You’re guaranteed to see every local derby every year, any team has the potential to win the trophy rather than possibly having to negotiate promotion the year before, and costs for the teams can be reduced with less travel and hotel expenses required.

For those of you with long memories (a nice way of saying geriatrics), the first two already existed before 2000. The County Championship used to comprise of every county playing each other once a year. Every year had a Roses and London derby, and every team began the season on an equal footing. Not coincidentally, the England Test team was terrible for a lot of that period as well. It was determined that the large number of one-sided games featuring poor teams harmed the development of potential England Test cricketers, and the creation of a two-division structure would mean that the best players were exposed to a more consistent and higher level of competition.

This theory has certainly been borne out by England’s Test performance since these changes came in. In the twenty years before it happened, England won 39% of the Tests they played. Since 2001, they have won 63% of the time. There are undoubtedly other factors, central contracts were introduced at the same time for example, but I think it’s fair to say that the introduction of a two-tier league has done its job. Returning to the best teams playing the worst, just because they’re nearby, risks England also returning to the quality of Test cricketer they developed during the 80s and 90s. No one wants that.

Except Australians, I guess.

More generally, I would hesitate to take what has happened with the Bob Willis Trophy this year as proof that it would be a success in 2021. These are unusual times, and there is both a ton of goodwill and a hunger from most English cricket fans for any cricket game happening anywhere at the moment. I watched the European T10 competitions on Freesports in June for example, which isn’t something I would normally have done. There are also a lot of people who are currently working from home, or not going to work at all, who have the opportunity to watch county cricket streams now but won’t be able to next year. It may be worth mentioning that the improved multi-camera video streams and scheduling games on weekends, which I think are also significant factors in the success counties have seen in terms of viewers, could happen next year regardless of the competition format.

A New 32-Team 50-Over Competition

I can’t say that I have a strong opinion about a competition including amateur and foreign teams. Either the non-major county sides are cannon fodder for the professionals, which would be incredibly boring, or they are competitive, which would be a damning indictment of the quality of player county cricket produces. Neither seems a great outcome to me.

The more interesting aspect of it to me is the contradiction at the core of the ECB’s proposals: That they wish to reduce the overall number of professional English cricketers whilst also demanding that counties play a competition in a window where they lose a minimum of 96 squad members to The Hundred. Sussex had eleven players picked in The Hundred draft last year, which means that they will need a minimum of 25 white ball players in their first team squad next season in order to field a side.

You can have two competitions running simultaneously featuring 26 professional teams (8 in The Hundred plus 18 major counties), or you can cut the number of professional cricketers. You can’t do both.

Reducing The Number, Duration And Cost Of Player Contracts

I honestly can’t see many of the ECB’s suggestions in this area taking place. I am no fan of the players’ union, and they seem to regularly fail their members in several ways, but when it comes to ensuring the players are paid well they are very effective. Whilst there will no doubt be some changes to the agreement between the PCA and ECB to reflect the new circumstances since it was agreed in 2019, perhaps even a significant reduction of wages in line with the money English cricket has lost this year, the more extensive reforms the ECB envisages simply won’t be allowed to happen.

In that regard, the counties could learn a lesson or two from the PCA. The players’ union gets results because they present a single, united front to their employers (the ECB and the counties). The counties, who it bears saying have the power to dismiss the ECB chairman at any time and replace them with someone more amenable, somehow manage to take their unique position of strength in English cricket and throw it away by fighting amongst each other for scraps. Every damn time. It’s incredible.

Allowing Counties To Abandon First-Class Cricket

There are two significant obstacles to this ever happening: Most major counties are beholden to their members, who predominantly favour the County Championship, and it would seem impossible for the ECB to please both potential groups of counties. I would presume that county boards would only consider the option if it left them richer in the long run, with reduced playing staff numbers and less costs in hosting games, but that would ultimately depend on the ECB still giving those white ball counties a significant payment as they do now. Why would the counties who would never even countenance the ECB’s offer allow their rivals the chance to make more money by doing less? Why would counties who would consider the option support it if their yearly ECB stipend was cut?

As an aside, it baffles me how docile the members of the major counties are. Not unlike the counties within the ECB, county members typically have to power to remove their chairmen if they feel they aren’t being well-represented. Given the fury which the introduction of The Hundred received, and the devastation it is wreaking on county cricket, I am amazed that not a single person who voted for it has been forced out. If a  county chairman publicly contemplated leaving the County Championship, I’m not altogether sure that their members would be able to organise an effective opposition in time to stop it.

So, in conclusion, the ECB’s plans for the future of county cricket seem to be unworkable, ineffective, or directly harmful to English cricket.

I guess, in these uncertain times, it’s kind of nice to see that some things haven’t changed.

Any comments about county cricket, the Test which isn’t being played right now, or anything else are welcome below.