I was at a Cricket Society meeting recently where author Stephen Chalke spoke passionately about county cricket, in the wake of his extensive research into the County Championship for his book “Summer’s Crown.”
As the domestic game in England prepares to make public it’s latest structural review, Stephen illustrated beautifully that the problems the game faces now are broadly no different to a century ago, as counties are propped up financially from external sources – nowadays the ECB rather than personal benefactors.
More qualified people than I are looking at the structure, but no one would argue there is a balance to be struck between the welfare of the players and the balance of the competitions as well as the revenue the clubs can generate for themselves. Sometimes though, less is more.
The one facet of the season that seems certain to change is T20 cricket, where there is a common consent that the group matches need to be played in one self contained block. From momentum of interest to recruiting players on a short term contract, it makes a lot of sense. The niggle is where to put it in the diary, as not all the teams have floodlights.
The 50 overs a side Royal London Cup has looked like the black sheep of the family but I have seen some excellent finishes in it this year and when Somerset’s Taunton home can be half full for a 10.30 start on a Friday morning in July – albeit a lovely one – then there an audience to be tapped.
So for what it’s worth, this is what I would offer to those forward thinking chief executives as they look to the 2016 season and beyond. The key stance I have taken is what one sporting club’s managing director I knew for more than a decade referred to as “an appointment to view”.
Firstly, any genuine league to me has to see teams play each other on a home and away basis, so lets keep the County Championship as two divisions of nine teams, therefore retaining sixteen first class fixtures. The pool stages of the T20 would be played in a sequence on their own without interruption, with the divisional structure of the 50 over competition structure being identical to the two divisions of the County Championship to cut down the travelling. To that end I would ask the ECB to provide teams with funding specifically so that each county can hire a team coach for away matches. I find the concept of players driving themselves to and from away games unacceptable.
My County Championship season would therefore start on Monday April the 11th, with Mondays being the regular start days for first class games. A schedule of nine rounds – half the season – would therefore finish on Thursday June the 9th.
This would allow for the 50 over matches played on Sundays once they are introduced, and I would like to see four rounds in this competition scheduled from Sunday May the 15th. Based on the matches I have seen this summer, I think you easily cut the allotted time for the overs to be bowled in each innings by 15 minutes, which would allow for an 11.00 start, and as the teams are playing each other in the Championship the following day there is no homeward journey for the players to worry about.
To take advantage of the longest days, the golden egg that is the T20 would start on a Sunday, June the 19th, to allow players a breather and some element of adjustment to the short form game. Controversially perhaps, I would propose a reduction to 10 group matches, with the teams reverting to three geographically based groups of six. While county treasurers may splutter at the thought, I would hope that reducing supply creates a demand with a time frame that doesn’t disappear far into the distance.
The remaining nine rounds of the County Championship season would resume on Monday July 18th, with the last four group games in the 50 over competition starting 24 hours earlier. and being completed on Sunday August the 7th.
While teams not involved in the quarter finals of either one day tournament would have no weekend cricket after this point, it would leave future Saturdays and Sundays for these high profile knockout games, with matches in the last eight of the T20 being held in the afternoon to avoid the unfortunate situation at Worcester earlier this summer. Moreover, the 50 over final – on Saturday September 17th – could be the last match of the summer, hopefully sending the game into the closed season on a high note.
Clearly this is a personal opinion, only a fraction of which may actually come to fruition, but I have tried to balance the needs of the various parties.
The schedule has to be something fans can understand without constant reference to the fixture list. Players need a rhythm to their season if they are to look for consistency of form, and cutting down on their travelling should reduce fatigue and hopefully injuries as well. Ring fencing the T20 group stages will make them more attractive to overseas players and to counties who know that they are only looking at funding a one month contract (although probably with an option for the latter stages).
So, we await the white smoke from Lord’s on this latest review. It will be fascinating to see what the rank and file elements of the game make of it.
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