A County Championship To Rival The IPL?

Today, Steve Connor has an idea that would breathe new life into the Championship and maybe, just maybe, provide an international alternative to the IPL.

I’m writing this in a short lull between various T20 leagues ending and the Big One, the IPL, starting. This comes a week after learning that something called Major League Cricket will be starting in the US in the summer and attracting a surprising number of big names.

If you’re a fan of short T20 tournaments you are being very well served at the moment. And I’m not here to moan about the amount of franchise cricket. I genuinely enjoy T20 as a format. I follow the Blast, the Hundred (sorry) and I’m even starting to get into the IPL.

But when it comes to all the other leagues SA20, PSL, ILT20, CPL etc – I just can’t summon up much enthusiasm. Even when it’s the middle of January and I should be desperate for cricket I lose interest. There’s no sense of jeopardy or connection.

With the overload of T20 cricket around the world, I do wonder if people are craving something a bit different. So, I’d like to indulge in a bit of wishful thinking.

I think English cricket should, as they say, lean into its strengths a bit more. It seems to me that we have something unique in this country in the County Championship. It is probably the leading first class competition in the world – in terms of support and profile. Arguably, the Sheffield Shield or Ranji Trophy are a higher quality, I don’t know. But I wonder if there is scope to focus more effort on the Championship as a point of difference to endless T20. Anybody can put on a T20 competition. And it seems like everyone is trying. But not everyone has the foundations of the county structure in place.

I’m not naïve enough to imagine the humble Champo would overtake the IPL, but I do think there’s more that could be done to attract audiences bored with junk food cricket. Something more appealing to cricket purists. A haute cuisine alternative for the connoisseurs.

There are various ways in which this could be done. But to me the biggest, most effective change would be to allow more overseas players in the County Championship. Let’s say, 4 per team in Division 1.

Obviously the biggest names in white ball cricket still wouldn’t fancy swapping the PSL or IPL for trudging around the county circuit for months on end. But there are plenty of exceptional red-ball players that don’t get franchise gigs – we’ve already had Marnus Lasbuschagne, Mo Abbas, Kemar Roach, and Shan Masood playing Championship cricket recently to name just a few.

They wouldn’t even need giant contracts. The multi-million £ franchise gigs get the headlines but the number of players actually earning them is really quite small. Jarrod Kimber has talked recently about Chris Green – an Australian making his first class debut for New South Wales at 29. Having  been on the franchise circuit for a number of years he’s settled for a solid salary in Australian state cricket. Not everyone can be Kieran Pollard. I imagine a few Test players would earn as much on a solid county contract as they would being a back-up batter for MI Cape Town.

So, imagine 40-odd overseas Test-standard players lining up across Division 1 fixtures. 8 per game. This strikes me as something that could draw interest both domestically and overseas. There are a few quirks of scheduling and politics that work in the favour of counties. Firstly, Pakistan players being shadow banned from the IPL means their players are looking for opportunities elsewhere. Secondly, the BCCI seems happy for their players to play overseas red-ball cricket as they don’t see it as a threat to the IPL. Already we’ve seen the likes of Pujara and Ashwin playing in England. Thirdly, the English summer means fewer clashes with other major cricketing countries’ domestic seasons.

The knock-on effect would be to improve the standard of first class cricket in England. Some of the reasons that I’m starting to be more interested in IPL is the increased presence of English players, but also it’s clearly the best standard of domestic T20 in the world. So, I’d love to see the Championship become the best first class cricket going. And with the presence of some high profile overseas Test players it could, in turn, develop some proper domestic and international support. It could create a standard of compelling multi-day cricket that’s arguably a cut above some Test matches. And even if just a small proportion of T20 fans fancied something more satisfying, the Championship could be there to step in.

My suggestion might also raise the standard of Test cricket, particularly as the Future Tours Programme looks sparse for some countries. It would give opportunities to some great red-ball players that only have 20-odd Tests lined up in the next 5 years. Counties might also be more willing to give overseas slots to Irish or Afghanistan players if they have 4 available.

Yes, there is a risk of fewer opportunities for English players. And in the recent past there was a period of English talent being frozen out by pretty average Kolpak players. But if the standard is higher then it might drive English players to get better (and be the ones that make it). What’s more, teams in Division 2 could benefit from picking up those pushed out elsewhere.

So would it be commercially viable? As I said at the start this is wishful thinking. Maybe money could be freed up by the ECB, or some contracts even funded by overseas boards. But equally, whilst I don’t think fans would flood through the gates, having hours and hours of multi-day cricket happening provides a lot of (the dreaded word) ‘content’, which might appeal to TV companies or streamers. Even though cinemas are filled with superhero movies, there’s still some money to be made staging Shakespeare.

Is it really so fanciful that cricket fans could be served with two outstanding domestic tournaments happening at the same time? Maybe. But I can dream.

Steve Connor


  • Well done would say that 4 overseas players per team would hamper the development of domestic players. Years back before white ball it didn’t seem to hinder anything, in fact the upside is that inspiring young players benefit greatly playing with the best Internationals. Problem now is they’ll pick T20 first of all because, well, it’s 4 hours instead of 4 days for obscene amounts of money. That leaves you largely with second string “Internationals” arguably not as good and probably no better known to the punters than Joe Roots brother.
    In saying that this year counties are allowed 4 overseas, but only two per team maximum. Surrey for instance have Abbott, Latham, Narine and Roach but not all season. We know why: too much International Cricket particularly the hit and giggle. Surrey get big crowds for domestic crivket, average 2000+ per day for the Championship. Conversely Northants or Leicestershire are lucky to get 400.
    But I think your idea has merits and needs some thinking about. But please please don’t support the wretched 100! The bloody thing has even pushed the Ashes out of August.

  • We used to have a similar system where each county had at least a couple of overseas players, who actually stayed for the season, with many setting up permanent homes here, though the core of them were South Africans who couldn’t play international cricket anyway. The modern equivalent is much more mercenary, as the increasingly congested international schedule means its impossible for top players to commit for the whole season without declaring themselves unavailable for their countries, so we get players signing contracts to play in just one competition. I’m not sure it would raise the standards for home grown players, who would have less opportunity for selection. We see in footie, which is albeit an extreme example of this evolution, how the premiership has restricted home grown opportunities, even for our best players. The other thing is money, for an an ready strapped county structure, how can most afford the wages. You’d just get the richest counties scooping up the cream and creating an elite, again like the premiership. Im not sure the attraction for the punter of seeing this cream would offset the problems they create.

  • I think I’d definitely support going to 3 overseas players. 4 might be too many but I’d be open minded.
    I don’t worry about young players coming through because we have 18 first class clubs – far more than any other country. There are therefore still plenty of opportunities for our young players.

    We shouldn’t forget that the strength of the Championship was extremely high – the toughest domestic first-class competition in the world according to the likes of Justin Langer – precisely because of all the overseas players and kolpaks that everyone used to moan about in the noughties. The result? England’s Test side was extremely strong. It was during this period approx 2002 to 2011 that we won the Ashes home and away, plus we rose to No.1 in the rankings.

    • It may be the strongest domestic competition, largely because of the amount of teams it involves, so giving opportunities to a greater pool of talent, but it attracts precious few punters. As with all successful entertainments you need an audience. I’m not sure our brief claim to be no1 test nation can be attributed to overseas player involvement either. It may have been a contributory factor but the swings and roundabouts nature of the rating system makes it an unreliable indicator as it’s in a continuous state of flux.

  • There is a continual need to mess around with the championship it seems.

    In the last 3 years we have had Harry Brook and Ollie Robinson come into the side, and Ben Duckett and Ben Foakes have also come in and done well following recalls. There are other fringe players like Matt Potts, Rehan Ahmed and Will Jacks, as well as Saqib Mahmood and Luke Wood, who have also shown promise.

    The fact that some of these players have managed to come in and hit the ground running (I am talking about tests here) shows the Championship is doing its job.

    I would leave well alone.

  • Though County Cricket is really big in the UK, it is almost non-existant in other countries as here in South Africa and i’d imagine many other major cricketing nations, no one really knows much about it. In fact, even before the IPL was invented, no one in SA knew much about County Cricket, the cricketers playing in it or the teams as it is not broadcast here. The only thing we really did know is about the few Proteas players who played in it.

    I agree with Steve that some of us cricket enthusiasts definitely feel we are being short changed by the array of league T20 cricket around the globe and would prefer a more enduring, more engaging game where money isn’t the be all and end all.

    I think your suggestion is quite a good one as many quality cricketers are classed as ‘red ball specialists’ and hardly ever play due to them not being bought by league T20 franchises. Such players such as your Labuschagne’s, Abbas’, Khawaja, Elgar etc would benefit much from playing in a revised County Championship.

    I for one think that this idea could potentially work as it has its own market compared to T20 leagues and is something that should be looked at. I for one also think it would improve the standard of County Cricket and will actually provide a springboard for English players to improve their own game as well. All in all, great idea, possibly something that could potentially even engage international audiences much more which would generate a lot of revenue particularly if broadcast rights are not that expensive.

  • Hi- Thanks for all of the comments on this article. Interesting stuff as always, particularly interesting to get an overseas perspective on the Championship from Sulaiman.
    As I say it would be nice to imagine the Championship being the place fans around the world turn to for red-ball cricket. I’m always kind of in awe at how the Premier League has managed to embed itself around the world. To the extent that I’ve come across die-hard Liverpool, Man U fans etc from South Africa, US, Aus etc. I’m not saying that would be repeatable for cricket but wouldn’t it be great if the eyes of the cricketing world was on, say, Surrey vs Lancs and because there were 12 Test players (English and Overseas) involved…
    Anyway – also wanted to recommend this podcast I listened to this week. It’s sort of related – I don’t agree with everything Jarrod talks about here but I think it’s very insightful on the economics of cricket and how much it is undervaluing itself. And how fluid things have been in the past. https://open.spotify.com/episode/0t1ys59IvUcYZ7JEMhivPU


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