Andrew Strauss warned 'hell will freeze over' before counties vote for cut to championship cricket

·7-min read
County Championship action - Counties to play less T20 cricket in Andrew Strauss reforms - GETTY IMAGES
County Championship action - Counties to play less T20 cricket in Andrew Strauss reforms - GETTY IMAGES

Sir Andrew Strauss has been warned “hell will freeze over” before county members vote for a cut to County Championship cricket proposed in the final report of the English game’s high-performance review.

The former England captain, who chairs the England & Wales Cricket Board’s Performance Cricket Committee, is facing a growing revolt against plans published on Thursday that would also see teams play four fewer Vitality Blast matches per season – with The Hundred completely untouched.

The recommendations from the review will be put to a vote of the 18 first-class county chairs at the end of next month, with two-thirds required to endorse the proposals for them to be adopted.

All but three of the counties are member-owned and some have already publicly committed to consulting their membership – and potentially to be bound by the outcome of any ballot – including Test-match hosting Surrey, Lancashire, Warwickshire and Middlesex.

A source at a club planning to consult their members about playing fewer championship games told Telegraph Sport: “Hell will freeze over before our members will vote for it.”

Middlesex and Essex are certain to oppose the cuts, with the former saying in a statement: “We strenuously wish to underline our position on being opposed to any reduction in the volume of first-class cricket played across the season and most importantly the County Championship, and we firmly stand behind our belief that this should remain at 14 games over the season.”

Essex’s board previously voted in favour of rejecting any potential reduction in championship and Twenty20 cricket, and chief executive John Stephenson told BBC Essex: “As it currently stands, we would not vote in favour of any reduction in the championship, any reduction in red-ball cricket and we wouldn’t vote for any reduction in home T20s.”

He added: “In my opinion, reducing the amount of red-ball cricket is not the way to produce better Test cricketers.”

Gloucestershire chair David Jones said: “We have not seen any financial costings that sit behind these recommendations and no board of directors can make an informed decision without understanding the underlying financial impact that would arise from voting for such changes.”

The chief executive of another smaller county said the recommendations would need “tweaking” to get the necessary support.

Middlesex said they expected their members to reject the proposals, Surrey said the views of the majority of theirs were unclear, as did Lancashire, who have promised a binding members vote.

That pledge was made amid threats by the Lancashire Action Group to force a special general meeting over the issue.

The group’s Ian Lomax said: “The vast majority of members across all counties will be dismayed with the proposals and we urge all 15 counties who are owned by the members to fight them.

“The T20 being cut to 10 games is a significant financial blow to all counties and do not forget the T20 had its biggest ever crowds the year before Covid.

“The report states that there is too much cricket being played but we all know that The Hundred was forced on clubs and its members without any consultation and that four domestic competitions into three simply do not go.

“When Strauss himself led the England Test team to No 1 in the world, there were 16 championship games being played, not 10.”

'We will not be rendered irrelevant'

The chairman of Kent, Simon Philip, meanwhile, said meetings would be held with other counties to “consider issues such as the needs of all our members, supporters, players and stakeholders, the financial impact, the unintended consequences and the possibly irrevocable change to the essential nature of county cricket”.

He added: “We will not allow our club to be rendered irrelevant.”

The final report from the review led by Strauss, launched in the wake of England’s latest Ashes debacle in Australia, features recommendations designed to trigger one of the biggest shake-ups of the domestic game in its history.

As revealed by Telegraph Sport, the report proposes a new-look County Championship from 2024 including a six-team “first division” and a 12-team “second division” split into two conferences, with promotion and relegation on a one-up, one-down basis.

That would see all counties guaranteed only 10 championship matches, with the possibility of one play-off game as well as up to three additional first-class fixtures played at the same time as The Hundred.

The proposals in the final report also include for counties to play just 10 Blast matches a season, which would leave them with a total of up to eight fewer fixtures across all competitions every year.

'Impossible to keep everyone content'

Strauss warned counties earlier this month that English cricket faced an exodus of talent unless reforms to the domestic game are adopted, amid fears that players could turn their backs on the counties and cash in on foreign Twenty20 leagues in order to earn more money for playing fewer matches.

Unveiling the review’s final report, he said he was confident enough county chairmen would vote for its recommended revamp but admitted “it’s impossible to keep everyone absolutely content”.

He added: “The game must be united if we are to achieve those ambitions and we must be open-minded to change. The most consistent message we have received, from players to fans and coaches, was that the status quo is not an option.

“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.

“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.”

Richard Thompson, the ECB chairman, said: “Decision-making regarding the recommendations around the men’s domestic structure ultimately belongs to the first-class counties. It is now right that they are given the time to digest those recommendations before consulting their members, staff and other stakeholders.

“We are aware of the challenges within many counties over the reduction in red-ball cricket in particular. 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.”

England at international disadvantage

Data released recently by the ECB shows that English players play 79 days of domestic cricket, which is more than any other country and leaves them with less time to prepare and rest when compared with other nations. It also leaves less time to prepare good pitches which in turn makes the step up to Test level harder.

The ECB’s data discovered that averages for English batsmen drop off significantly in Test cricket compared with county cricket whereas for India, Australia and South Africa there is little difference in comparison. Averages for seamers are also much higher in Test cricket compared with county cricket because they are used to helpful pitches in the championship.

As revealed by Telegraph Sport, the wide-ranging review also proposes the implementation of mobile ball-tracking technology to help determine pitch penalties in a bid to encourage spinners and rapid pace bowlers.

In a further attempt to improve wickets, the review advocates a pilot trial of the Kookaburra ball in the County Championship.

And the review proposes that counties are far better rewarded for producing England players, with a feeling among first-class counties and the ECB alike that teams producing players could be better incentivised.