Previewing the review

Kit Harris dives deep into the ECB’s proposals for domestic restructuring.

It’s here. The moment we are all supposed to have been looking forward to, but have instead been worrying about. The initial proposals of the ECB’s men’s high performance review have arrived in our inboxes, and the time has come for discussion and consultation.

The rationale for the review has two elements. First, that domestic restructuring is required after a period of poor performance in Test cricket. This view has been thrown into relief after England’s happy summer, but the next unsuccessful overseas tour will bring back the brickbats. There are those who opine – strongly – that the county system has never been fit for purpose, Kevin Pietersen foremost among them. When Ben Stokes hit Worcestershire’s Josh Baker for 34 in a Championship over this spring, Pietersen cited it as an example of the inability of the county game to produce world-class players, apparently overlooking the fact that it had produced Stokes as well as Baker. Too many counties, and too many unambitious journeyman professionals, argues Pietersen, result in poor international performances. This is, at best, convenient revisionism; at worst, it is wilful ignorance. England’s men’s teams have been No. 1 in all three formats, won both World Cups, not lost the Ashes at home since 2001, and had the world’s highest-ranked Test bowlers and batters, including Pietersen himself – all while the county structure has consisted of 18 teams in two divisions. The demands of the international game may have become greater, but the quality of Championship cricket has not declined. If it was responsible for England’s struggles before May, it must also be responsible for England’s successes since.

The second rationale is that domestic cricket’s status quo is not working for the majority of English supporters, players or counties. This is largely true. Generally, the supporters want more meaningful cricket, with the best players on the pitch more often; the players also want more meaningful cricket, but do not want to be on the pitch as much; the counties want good cricketing and financial results.

What happens now

We have entered a critical phase. This is not merely a consultation: it is a negotiation. The ECB, however much we may suspect them of already having made up their minds, have made a great show of putting the ball in others’ courts. Members’ groups at each county have been preparing for this; their drumming up support on social media has been hard to miss. They need to be careful. They are being asked serious questions, and they must be mindful of the need to avoid gainsaying. Andrew Strauss, in his blog, anticipates “a healthy and constructive debate”. It is not obvious he will get one. A core of members at each county, some with a substantial foothold on social media, have made it clear they regard this as a zero-sum game.

The fringe #opposethehundred groups

Some believe this is an opportunity to kill off The Hundred. Not only are they wrong – the tournament is guaranteed until 2028, at least – but they risk giving the ECB an excuse to dismiss county cricket’s defenders as Luddites or trolls. A Surrey member at The Oval recently surreptitiously photographed a fellow spectator at a Royal London Cup game, and posted the image on Twitter, with an offensive epithet. The spectator’s crime? Wearing an Oval Invincibles hat at a Surrey game. Don Topley, the former Essex professional, now a broadcaster, took issue with this conduct (as did Surrey, who gave the member a warning for his behaviour) and was rounded on by a group of Surrey members calling themselves the Peter May Boys, who boasted that the new ECB chairman was “a big fan” of theirs. Almost every social media post about The Hundred carries a trail of unpleasant, and occasionally abusive, #opposethehundred comments. This background noise makes it a lot harder to have a coherent, progressive negotiation.

The county lobbying groups

Others believe they have won their war, since the initial proposals have promised the survival of all the counties, and each county will continue to have 14 Championship games next year. They are wrong. They have merely negotiated a ceasefire. The Lancs Action Group, perhaps the most organised county campaign, tweeted: “Brilliant news! Thank you to everybody who supported our campaign. A massive result for democracy.” It was not a result – the promise is only for 2023 – nor was it democratic. The can has just been kicked down the road.

The ECB’s proposals

The ECB’s initial proposals carry only those two promises. There are no others. They set out broad aims: a better international team, and a better county system. But they have asked us – the players, the supporters, the counties – to suggest how those aims can be achieved. This is how corporate consultations always work. This is what we want to achieve; how can we achieve it? It would be myopic and counterproductive to respond “just get rid of The Hundred” or “it doesn’t matter, as long as there is no reduction to the Championship”.

What’s more, the published proposals give a steer towards certain solutions, by means of graphs illustrating the priorities the ECB perceive. Since they are asking for solutions, the implication is that the priorities are taken as read. This is a corporate, rather than a scientific approach. The analysis would not pass a low level of scientific scrutiny: they have been selective in their focus, selective in their data and, in at least one case, have misinterpreted their own graph. Be that as it may, focusing solely on domestic structural matters, seven priorities emerge.

First, the ECB believe English players are not sufficiently good in foreign conditions, and they want the domestic game to facilitate an improvement. Two months ago, it was reported that Championship games could be played overseas in March. This is a ridiculous idea. Quite apart from the economic and environmental cost of shipping the entire domestic circuit to another country for two weeks, the result would simply be to pit players who aren’t very good overseas against other players who aren’t very good overseas. You don’t learn to dance by dancing with people who can’t dance. And one can hardly promise the county lobbyists 14 games, only to move two out of their reach. The ECB seem to have realised this: they now propose a reintroduction of a pre-season North v South game – which could be called the Bob Willis Trophy – in the UAE, and the re-establishment of longer England Lions tours playing more red-ball cricket. This is so self-evidently sensible, it is mystifying why either practice ever ceased.

Second, the ECB dispute the narrative, often trotted out, that batting is harder in April or September, and that playing Championship cricket in those months panders to medium-pacers, and stifles spinners. The data, and this April’s matches, suggest there is some truth to the their argument. But playing the majority of the Championship at the fringes of the season is hardly helpful in acclimatising players to foreign conditions. Indeed, when Somerset prepared the sort of pitches often found in India, they were penalised; when the temperature hit highs more often seen in Adelaide, the counties were offered shorter playing hours. When current climes have presented foreign conditions, the ECB have balked at them.

Third, the ECB worry that English players choke in white-ball knockout games. They may regret having removed two of the one-day tournament’s quarter-finals. They would like to see sharper, higher-stakes one-day cricket, with fewer dead games and more of the best players. They will find few opponents, save for a handful who regret that limited-overs cricket was ever introduced in the first place.

Fourth, the ECB have a similar concern about dead wood in the County Championship. They present data showing that players have similar averages in Division One and Division Two. The inclusion of these numbers is telling, not because they show the divisions are of similar standard – which is what the ECB either believe they show, or want the reader to believe they show, though neither belief is correct – but because they are used as justification for reducing the number of teams in Division One. They will have a battle with the counties here. It is crucial to remember that none of these structural changes will get through without 12 counties voting for them. Division One previously had eight teams, all playing each other twice, resulting in 14 games; Division Two had the fudge of ten teams, not all playing each other twice. But the counties didn’t like that. They argued that this placed unnecessary pressure on their directors of cricket, who worked very hard for their team to be in Division One, and it was a pity for those who didn’t succeed. Division One was inflated to ten teams simply because more of the counties wanted to be in it. No matter that a team may be crowned champions this year without having played the runner-up twice. No matter that a team may be relegated without facing off twice against their rivals. The integrity of a proper sporting contest was eroded so that more could have prizes. If there must be 14 games, of course the top division should be the one that’s fairly constituted.

Fifth, the ECB have concluded it would be better to have the counties playing red-ball cricket alongside The Hundred, which is here to stay. Since there is a broad consensus for playing a better standard of one-day domestic cricket, an alternative must be found. It could, of course, be the Championship, not least because those who dislike The Hundred tend to be fond of county red-ball cricket. But it’s become clear that, once players go off to The Hundred, many counties are effectively fielding second teams. This seems neither coherent nor fair for the Championship. The most palatable suggestion is to play six standalone local cups – first-class cricket between three counties – which may develop young players and appease county loyalists, even if it would be a de facto Second XI competition.

Sixth, the ECB want to make sure the Blast does not fade; there have been concerning trends in this direction, even before the pandemic. It was common, then, to hear the refrain that there were too many Blast games. Other matters have since drowned that out but, with The Hundred in full swing, there is a view that the Blast is in even more need of tightening up.

Seventh, the ECB are convinced their players play too much, and rest or train too little. A county has, on average, 79 days of cricket in a domestic season, of which a player plays 47. In the next-busiest Test-playing nations, those numbers are respectively 71 (in India) and 43 (in South Africa). English players spend 45% of their time training, and the rest playing. Australians train 67% of the time, Indians 74%. Whether it is the case that English players have too many matches is not considered; the fact is they have more matches compared with others, and the ECB are adamant that the volume must come down.

The questions being asked

Especially with regard to that last point, the envelope has been pushed across the table. The ECB are in effect saying: “Very well. You want the Championship to remain at 14 games. You don’t like The Hundred, but it’s staying. We want to reduce the number of playing days from 79. Tell us how we will do that.” And a coherent, workable answer must be given. If it is not, the ECB will lop off Championship games in 2024.

They are also asking – and the county lobbyists should consider this too – how the Blast schedule should be optimised “to maximise narrative and attendances”; whether a one-day competition should take place in April, with smaller groups, more knockouts, and the best players available; and what is the optimal number of teams in Division One to guarantee best v best?

A workable scenario

Consultation requires compromise. The ECB have not compromised on The Hundred, and the fans have not compromised on the 14 games. In that, both sides have got what they wanted. But, unless there is a survival plan, the hangman will soon come knocking again.

For the sake of completeness, here is one scenario for the 2023 season, which gives a reduction of eight days of cricket, and brings the English game level with India on 71 games:

● The Bob Willis Trophy (North v South) overseas at the end of March. There could be an annual rotation between the UAE, India, Sri Lanka, the West Indies and Australia.

● The Royal London Cup over four weeks, opening on Sunday, April 2. Four groups of five (comprising the 18 counties, plus North and South representative teams from the National Counties) in a single round-robin, breaking to quarter-finals. The quarter-finals and semi-finals to be played in the final week of April. The final to be played, at Lord’s, on the May Day Bank Holiday. Four group games instead of eight.

● The next 12 weekends would have Vitality Blast matches on Friday evenings, after school. If they’re going to be during examination season, Fridays are the best bet for giving the children a break from studying. Counties will be in three groups of six, geographically divided to facilitate travel to away games; they will play each other twice, alternating home and away games. Counties will have five home games. The 11th and 12th Fridays would each have two quarter-finals. Ten group games instead of 14.

● LV= County Championship matches would start on the Sundays of those 12 weekends. Sunday is important for audience growth, particularly (as children grow older and more interested) an inherited audience from the previous Friday’s Blast game. Weekdays are important for the county traditionalists, and the corporate market, both of which are crucial for counties’ balance sheets. Each county would play ten games in this block of 12 weeks, and have two weeks off. The First Division to have eight teams, each playing the others twice.

● The next free weekend (Saturday 29 July) would be Vitality Blast finals day.

● The Hundred beginning on Tuesday, August 1, continuing in its present form, with the eliminator on Friday, September 1, and the final on Saturday, September 2.

● The six Regional Cups to run alongside The Hundred, each being single round-robin between three counties: Northern (Dur, Lan, Yor); Southern (Ham, Sur, Sus); Western (Gla, Glo, Som); Eastern (Ess, Ken, Mid); North Midlands (Der, Lei, Not); South Midlands (Nor, War, Wor). The winner to be decided on points. Eight days of cricket, the same as The Hundred.

● LV=County Championship matches would resume the following week, with four remaining to be played by each county, one each week of September.

Here’s how it would look.

Modesty forbids me to say it’s a solution that ticks all the boxes, but I’d be fascinated to see a proposal that ticks more of them.

Kit Harris is Assistant Editor of Wisden Cricketers’ Almanack.

Previewing the review