No doubt the proponents of the new T20 competition for 2020 would like to see themselves as radical visionaries. It is true there are some bold changes in the pipeline – the notion of counties has been swept away. Instead there will be eight new teams, not necessarily cities, designed to cover most regions of the country, with two of them in London. The only certainty is they will all have catchy names, designed “to attract a new audience”.
The teams will be based around the conurbations of the nation although it is rather inconvenient that the population of the UK is not so easily concentrated in major cities as in Australia. Players will be drafted in a riveting process that will be an entertainment in itself. Who knows? Those fortunate enough to live near Bristol or Southampton may have the thrill of welcoming a Yorkshireman into their side.
There will be three overseas players per team, much razzmatazz and the expectation that some games may be shown on free-to-air television, a notion that now seems an unusually high priority among those at the England and Wales Cricket Board.
These are significant changes. Yet there remains the feeling that here we have yet another fudge, the likes of which we have seen many times over the decades, when the priorities of the centre and the counties have clashed. That conflict has always been difficult to resolve and it remains so, though in this instance the prospect of an additional £1.3m per annum prompts those in the shires to give their support to the new proposals.
Perhaps the neatest example of conflict, albeit a small one, was when the ECB introduced 45-over cricket in 1999. The counties wanted to stick with the 40-over game for commercial reasons; the ECB wanted 50 overs. Everyone eventually settled for 45 overs which David Acfield, then the chairman of the ECB’s cricket committee, memorably observed was nearer to 50 overs than 40.
In those days the centre often sought change for cricketing reasons, which were at odds with the counties’ priorities; now the motivation seems to have changed. At the ECB they are driven by the yearning to enhance the next round of TV contracts.
The 2017 fudge relates to T20 cricket. To achieve a balanced domestic schedule is theoretically simple. What is surely required is the best possible Championship, the best 50-over competition and an all singing/dancing T20 tournament, which excites and delivers cash in abundance. But in reality the fudge comes with the prospect of two T20 competitions in the same season. Those counties who will not have the privilege of hosting the new competition must have the opportunity to play T20 matches on their grounds in what is, by definition, regarded as the inferior – or occasionally “the mediocre” – T20 tournament that is currently the NatWest Blast.
One major T20 extravaganza per season makes the most sense. It could have been the new regional concept, although the notion that this will uncover thousands of new fans remains fanciful whatever the marketeers may say.
It might have remained a version of the old Blast, which already contains some tried and trusted “brands” – I think that is the correct terminology – such as the Roses match, the trans-Thames clash between Middlesex and Surrey or the West Country derby between Somerset and Gloucestershire, most of which already sell out.
Instead, with the prospect of two T20 tournaments in 2020 there is the quiet expectation even among some of those plotting the brave new world that the Blast will fade away and more upheavals to the domestic structure will be required early in the next decade.
Oddly enough the impact of two T20 competitions dominating the calendar in June, July and August of 2020 is likely to affect 50-over cricket more than the Championship. After the riveting conclusion to the Championship in 2016 there is no appetite at the moment to diminish the number of fixtures below the current 14. However, do not expect to watch Championship cricket in shirtsleeves very often. The skeleton fixture list for 2020 has seven Championship rounds before the end of May and five rounds from 31 August.
But 50-over cricket at county level is now deemed peripheral. In 2020 this will take place at the same time as the new competition. So our best white-ball cricketers will not be participating. Quite how this tallies with Andrew Strauss’s oft-repeated determination to make England much more competitive in the most prestigious of all white-ball international contests, the 50-over World Cup is hard to understand.
So the new proposals are likely to leave existing fans confused and exasperated. But this is nothing new. For a so-called conservative game the domestic schedules of the English cricket season have changed year after year in a vain search for a satisfactory solution.
Even this summer, with no new competition to accommodate, there are significant changes. Championship matches will tend to start on Fridays this year rather than on the Wednesdays which were becoming the pattern and the Blast takes place in two blocks rather than rolling throughout much of the season.
In Australia, where the Big Bash, the source of so much envy at Lord’s, has uncovered new audiences for cricket, there has been no such confusion. There is a reason for that. In Australia, unlike in England, there has never been an existing fan base for domestic cricket, so change there is far less painful.