County Championship Reform: Conferences or Divisions?

As everyone seems to be calling the NHS “our NHS” these days, I think it’s about time we renamed the championship “our county championship”. We all love it to bits but, like the NHS, it’s a bit sick. The ECB focus on T20 is pushing the competition to the fringes of the season and there’s a feeling amongst many supporters and players that there are too many teams.

You won’t be surprised to learn that I instinctively dislike this argument. There weren’t too many counties (well, maybe a couple too many) when the championship was strong in the early 2000s, and I couldn’t support destroying decades of history by abolishing a handful of smaller clubs now. However, with the ECB hellbent on milking the T20 cow, and a new franchise slogathon on the way, the calendar is rapidly becoming unworkable. So what’s the solution?

Well, according to The Times, some counties will ask the ECB to implement 3 conferences of six teams, with ten matches, and then end of season playoffs to determine a county champion. Or should that be “our county champion”? I think we can all agree that this is a radical idea indeed.

My initial reaction was that the proposal is completely barmy. Not least because the conferences might not even be regional. Apparently they might be decided randomly each year so there’s a chance that Yorkshire can still play Surrey etc. What’s more, if the idea of domestic cricket is to get the best players competing against each other (to prepare them for test cricket), then a move to conferences makes about as much sense as Rowley Birkin, QC after twenty double scotches.

The obvious disadvantage of a conference system is that promotion and relegation would be scrapped. This means a plethora of dead rubbers at the end of the season – which was one of the weaknesses of the original 18 team single division championship – plus a lack of competitiveness in general. If nothing is really at stake, how will our young cricketers learn to perform under pressure?

Although I’ve sometimes thought that three divisions (with promotion and relegation) might be a good way to keep the championship interesting and competitive throughout the season, whilst simultaneously reducing fixture congestion, I’ve never considered ‘conferences’ to be an option. After all, I’m a big fan of rugby union. And ring fencing the Premiership would make life incredibly boring for my team Worcester Warriors, who seem to be fighting at the bottom of the table every season.

It was with great interest, therefore, that I discovered that one of the main men championing this conference idea is Sussex’s chief executive Rob Andrew … who is very much a rugby union man. His reasoning? Well, if you’re a rugby fan you’ll have heard the following arguments many, many times before …

Andrew believes that ending promotion and relegation will ease the pressure on clubs, give them financial stability, and afford them the opportunity to blood young English players, take risks, and play entertaining cricket without the spectre of the dreaded drop hanging over them. He also argues that the threat of relegation makes clubs sign experienced foreign imports. In rugby this often means Pacific Islanders that aren’t qualified for England; in cricket it means kolpaks.

I have to say that I disagree with Andrew on this. The county championship was actually at its strongest at the start of new millennium precisely because kolpaks and overseas players raised the standard. There was a time when division one of the championship was one of the hardest domestic cricket competitions in the world – just ask Chris Rogers. Indeed, it’s only now, when the ECB have started rewarding counties for prioritising young English talent, that the quality has been diluted somewhat. And as a result, the leap from county cricket to test cricket is incredibly large once again.

However, there is one thing that makes me approach the subject of ‘conferences’ rather than ‘divisions’ with an open mind: I’m a big NFL fan too. And whatever one thinks of American sports, it cannot be denied that conferences work incredibly well stateside. The main positive is that every team has a chance to compete. You rarely gets a team languishing at the bottom for very long – unless you’re the ‘factory of sadness’ otherwise known as the Cleveland Browns. Check out the highly amusing video below if you think England cricket supporters have it bad!

Because the NFL doesn’t have divisions (and also has a well enforced salary cap) you don’t find a handful of teams monopolising all the best talent like you do in English football. I absolutely hate it when aspiring football clubs get stripped of their best talent, and I’m very worried that cricket and rugby are going the same way. Perhaps conferences will put an end to this worrying trend? After all, talented players won’t need to leave smaller clubs in the quest for division one cricket and international honours.

What’s more, although abolishing promotion and relegation would doubtless lead to more dead rubbers, one could argue that giving every team a realistic chance to win the county championship (in part by spreading talent around the league) compensates for this. Local people are more likely to be engaged with their counties if they think they might win something for a change. There’s also the chance that the end of season playoffs might capture the imagination. They won’t exactly be the Superbowl but they might create some interest.

Consequently, although I’m instinctively opposed to this three conferences plan, and would much prefer two divisions, perhaps the idea has legs … or at least longer legs than I’d initially thought. There’s no doubt that county cricket needs a shakeup, and I’m beginning to think that any change (within reason) is possibly better than no change at all. 

Of course, the best thing the ECB could do is to abandon the franchise T20 idea entirely. Then we might be able to return to a time when championship cricket was king (or at least played in the height of summer). However, because this is about as likely as the ECB dealing with the Ben Stokes saga sensibly – he wasn’t allowed to play in the Ashes because he might be charged, yet he’s suddenly allowed to play in the T20s now that he has been – we’ve got to work within imperfect parameters.

James Morgan

49 comments

  • MLB is a more logical comparison than the NFL, and the structure we should be looking to copy is the layered structure of the AAA/AA/A, but instead have international/elite/county/club, that provides good players with a clear progression pathway to the top, and a viable domestic product for both live and tv spectators.

  • I don’t like the idea, it’s a further reduction in the number of championship games played per season.
    I’d stay with 2 divisions, but both with 9 teams in, playing 16 matches each.
    It’s just another way for the ECB to free up more time, for their ridiculous franchise competition.
    Also I wouldn’t take too much notice of Rob Andrew, remember he employed Stuart Lancaster as England coach, when he could have had Nick Mallett.

  • I like your reference of the NFL which has 32 teams, although they actually only have 2 conferences (NFC & AFC) which are then subdivided on a (roughly !!!) geographic basis into N, W, S & E Divisions – each with 4 teams in (I’m sure most know this but just in case you don’t).

    The teams play the other 3 in their Division both H & A – ie 6 games. And then play both teams within their own Conference but from other divisions, and also the other Conference, and there’s a complicated method of ensuring each team has a relatively similar strength schedule, so one team isn’t playing all the best teams and another playing all the worst.

    You could split into 3 geographical divisions like NFL of 6 teams, to play each other home and away (10 games) and then 4 x cross divisional games – 2 from each of the other divisions. This would cut down on costs (travelling) create more local rivalries, and you’d get a rotation of playing the other teams once every 3 years.

    Personally I think it would be better to have divisions of 4 or 5 teams to reduce the number of divisional games but the issue is there that you can’t divide 18 equally between 4 (or 5) so you’d have to either reduce to 16 teams to get 4 x 4 or open up to 2 minor counties to create 4 divisions of 5 teams.

  • I never understood the purpose of introducing divisions, promotions and relegations, etc in the county championship in the first place. There’s not enough hard core support. Why can’t everyone play everyone else once? Please explain James. There’s been too much messing for messing’s sake in recent times. The more carrots you introduce to the counties the more likely clubs are to poach young talent and recruit foreign mercenaries.
    Don’t think you can use the NFL as an analogy, as it is their flagship sport, with huge support at all levels, so pretty much whatever system was in operation you would still get that interest and support. States have a much more potent cultural identity than our counties, unless you’re a professional Yorkshireman.
    When Surrey and Yorkshire dominated the county championship decades ago, crowds and interest were still huge compared to today’s 3 men and a dog. I don’t think your average cricket fan is all that interested in winning or losing, just seeing a good days competitive cricket, as very few people are able to spare 4 days to watch a full game.

    • Main priority is getting test cricket on the tv, but wouldn’t it also be helpful if we could come up with a domestic red ball product that was a bit more of a marketable tv proposition than the current shambles of a tournament?

  • A reference to this prioritisation of young English players. Is this definitely a bad idea? How long has it been in force, and what kind of success or failure stories have there been?

    • It was a good idea in theory (think it’s been in place for about 3 years) but with 18 teams there was plenty of opportunity to blood young talent in our domestic game anyway. Now the talent is spread too thin, arguably.

  • I have to say that dividing the CC into 3 groups (conferences? Divisions?) isn’t my first choice, I cans see some attractions in the idea providing the division ISN’T : a) fixed for ever; & b) regional. Having (as a Kent supporter) never to see us play, say, Glamorgan, Somerset, Lancashire or Yorkshire, would be a real shame. And the interest in ‘local rivalries’ would soon wane if such games were played twice or more every season. Instead I would suggest something based on these lines:

    1. The 3 groups for the next year would be randomly drawn each autumn.
    2. The other (T20/50 over) competitions would also be drawn, but in groups which avoided any repetition of the CC games for that season.

    So, each season every team would play a majority of the other counties, 5 in the CC, and the others in T20/50 over competitions. And these groups will change every year, so it is likely that all teams would play all the other 17 counties in any 2 or 3 years period (better statisticians may be able to confirm or deny this!)

    I feel that the ‘regional fallacy’ of permanently ‘fixing’ regional groups would further depress the public interest in county cricket. But my suggestion, or something like it, could help avoid staleness.

    One final thought – if we reform country cricket like this, why do we need an artificial, construct like the ‘City Franchise’, which few, any, cricket supporters want and the game doesn’t need?

  • I think we need to be realistic and admit that there are too many games on the calendar. Further, while I might prefer that we killed off 50 over cricket, that isn’t how the financial logic goes at the moment. Given that, we should also admit that even before the CC season was turned into “Spring + Autumn” we already had troubles with games being decided by the weather, esp. at either end of the season.

    So, I think proposals for fewer games have to be put in place. Like you I might prefer 3 divisions rather than conferences, esp. b/c I don’t see NFL style competitiveness rules being put in place.

    Still, there are a couple of key frustrations that fewer games could address:

    1) With fewer games and a more rational calendar, maybe we can rethink the relationship with centrally contracted players (esp. batsmen) – it does the game no good that there are so few affordable opportunities to see the best English players play.

    2) At the very least I’d like to see the notion of “rain days” (an extra catch up day scheduled at the end of every game in case of bad weather) explored although I’d rather go the whole hog with 5 day games. I once did a spreadsheet for a couple of wettish seasons and the number of games drawn due to substantial weather interruption was between 1/3 and a 1/2. That’s no way to encourage developing spinners in particular.
    (Any downside of “dead rubbers” in conference games also has to be matched up to the weather losses in the current setup.)

    3) Fewer games only makes sense if it means we ditch the April/September setup and can put games into the real summer. If it does that, it has real value for teaching players about something beyond the “hooping around corners” swing conditions so beloved of Broad and Anderson…

    • Your point 3 makes me realize why the idea of fewer games is getting more traction: an even bigger T20 window in high summer. :-(
      Comparing Legside Lizzie’s Times article yesterday – whichsaid a few people wanted Stokes made available, including Harrison and Strauss, but the majority didn’t – with what happened today (Tadaa! Stokes is available), shows that what the Dangerous Duo want, they get. If this floating of the conference idea has Harrison or Strauss’s fingerprints on it then we’re staring into the future of cricket.

  • I think the reason NFL teams don’t linger too long at the bottom of the divisions is a lot to do with the draft system for new players. The Browns will get first pick of the best young talent graduating from college this year, so, with good planning they *should* be able to drag themselves out of the basement soon.
    Is it feasible for there to be a draft in county cricket? If not of young players (who appear from many more varied sources in the UK, compared to the NFL), then maybe of foreign stars who make themselves available to play. It would be 50% NFL draft and 50% IPL auction. A bit of excitement for March, seeing if Derbys outbid Glammy for Hardus Viljoen…
    It sounds a bit outlandish, but it might be the only way of avoiding the stagnation that conferences without promotion or relegation are sure to create.

    • Young American football players are generally taught the game at high school and university, both of which have enormous attendances at highly-paid professional coaches. The NFL have zero responsibility for youth development – they just pick up the cream of the crop at the draft.

      Do we really think this is a good example for English cricket, where the same organisations that play at the top level also run their own youth development programmes right down to U9?

      There are many things wrong with the CC.
      Dull matchups, crappy cold weather, mediocre standard with very few international players available, a preponderance of either bore draws or farcial forced results, zero tv coverage, an unfathomable points system, a terrible image with the public, and at least 50% of the country have no reason to support a team anyway.

  • I’m afraid to say James that rumour has it the Rugby Premiership is going to have ring fencing sooner rather than later. Which as you say could be tough on teams down the bottom like Worcester & London Irish, particularly as both teams rely on cash injections from wealthy team owners to stay afloat at the top level.

  • ROOTO’s point is important. without a draft system, the stronger clubs will become stronger and the weaker will become weaker, probably to the point of non-viability.
    As for the lack of spectators, I have argued before that if the people won’t go to the cricket, then bring the cricket to the people. Why cannot first-class counties play away from home on club and school grounds on a regular basis?

    • The argument is usually that it is too expensive to prepare the pitch (apparently a pitch for a 4-day game takes a lot longer to prepare than a usual club standard wicket)

    • There’s an argument that the new T20 will help smaller clubs according to the Times article. Because they get the windfall without the debts accumulated trying to bid for and host international games in big stadiums. Not sure I buy this bit of the article to be honest.

      • What windfall?

        The BBL loses money, whereas the NWB makes money.

        I know, lets replace our profitable existing model with a cheap facsimile of a model that we already know doesn’t work.

        • I’m talking about the £1bn plus the ECB raised from selling the TV rights. This dosh will be distributed amongst the counties eventually.

          • But that has nothing to do with franchise cricket and everything to do with the presence of BT forcing sky to actually make a vaguely competitive bid.

            £220m per year is still a paltry sum that vastly underestimates what cricket could be worth if marketed correctly.

            £1.3m per year to each county in exchange for pretty much putting them out of business is an insult.

  • I like the idea of having 3 conferences. Fewer games at higher intensity will help breed better test players especially if the timetable can be got right. We’ve just lamented the lack of fast bowlers and spinners in the test team. Getting those right will only help.

    • Where is this law that says fewer games has to equal higher intensity? How do we know the result wouldn’t be fewer games at a lower intensity?

      Fewer teams at the elite level might lead to higher quality, and higher quality might lead to high intensity. Equally, more “big” games between big name counties might be higher intensity, or reducing the likelihood of a draw by adding a fifth day, or increasing the press coverage and spectator turn out. All these things might lead to higher intensity, and might also require fewer games. But reducing the games by itself isn’t going to do anything.

      • I agree that to get higher intensity you need divisions with relegation, not regional / non-regional conferences. It seems that this idea is the worst of both worlds – ECB pet ideas mixed with County chairmen’s instinct for self-preservation.

  • The issue with the County Championship is that it is being marginalised in the calendar. Potential Test players are playing in “green conditions” in April, May and September. On that basis we need to play New Zealand every year as this does not prepare them for the conditions in Australia or India and elsewhere.

    There has been discussion that the England coaching should be split between Red Ball and White Ball Squads. I think that going forward we’re seeing the same with the actual playing squads as well. If that is the case then perhaps there needs to be a level above County Championship – a Regional Championship of perhaps 4 – 6 teams that play in the height of summer on pitches that are akin to Test Match conditions around the world – fast pacy tracks such as The Oval, and turning tracks to replicate India. This way the cricket is better – and we get to see if they are potential Test candidates.

    That is assuming the next generation of players want to play Test Cricket.

    • That’s pretty similar to my suggestion. My only quibble is that not many people would be interested in “north west” vs “south east” so you’d be better off “promoting” some of the bigger, more famous counties, as this keeps the sense of continuity with the past, whilst allowing them to contract any player from a county within their region.

      Personally I’d go

      Yorkshire (North East)
      Lancashire (North West)
      Warwickshire (West Mids)
      Nottinghamshire (East Mids)
      Essex (East Anglia)
      Surrey (London)
      Kent (South East)
      Somerset (South West)

      Not only is this a list of the most successful and prominent county in each English region, its almost an exact copy of the most successful counties of all time, AND of the current top division of the CC.

      Possibly harsh on Middlesex, but you can’t have everything.

  • I’ve floated this idea a few times and I like it. 16 first class games, along with the requisite 50 and 20 over tournaments, is just too much cricket to fit into a season. The main knock-on effect it has is on the quality of pitches – it’s very difficult for groundsmen to produce consistently high quality surfaces that bring everyone into the game when they’re stretched to the limit and having to reuse a strip for virtually every match after about June. Less cricket improves the surfaces available for all cricket – you get wickets with truer pace and carry which improves virtually every format of the game. How often do Championship games get played on featherbeds where the ball barely gets through to the keeper at ankle height? And how often do we see a televised 50 or 20 over game on a used strip that is absolutely turgid, and it turns out 230 is a decent score as batsmen can barely time a shot against someone running in with the keeper up to the stumps bowling at 65mph? Better, truer wickets in turn encourage better batting techniques, as batsmen are more likely to be punished by seeing their edges carry through to the slips, and faster bowlers, as you actually get some reward for bending your back and bowling with some pace. It would also mean you could start the season later, not cramming so many games into April. All in all it’s a positive move for mine.

  • Not a fan of conferences because I don’t think it the best of getting the best players on the same pitch and I find Rob Andrew’s comments ridiculous because a lot of the kolpaks that are signed are with limited overs cricket in mind where there is no threat of relegation. In 2020 the way the English summer will look is two T20 comps, one 50 over comp and the County Championship.

    Personally I think the hosts of the new T20 should be able to opt out of the current blast and the remaining grounds should be able to host their own, while there are two still T20s they don’t have to run at different times of the year. I am still giving this six weeks from Mid July to the End of August because it gets bums on seats and casuals don’t sit in the cold.

    The Current plan is for the 50 Over comp to be during the City T20 IMO it isn’t a elite domestic event without the 100 of the best white ball players but having split the T20s it can have its own window again. I would split it into three groups (from two) which reduces matches by a few in the knowledge the Lions play so much 50 over cricket the really talented guys will get enough 50 over Cricket.

    With the CC I would pretty much do nothing, a third tier for me is just relegating teams to the minor counties by a different name any player in that tier will have no chance of getting selected unless they are already as consistent International performer. Sides like Northants are T20 sides who have a sideline in playing four day cricket

    If we have decided that reducing the teams is the thing that will save the England team away lets at least front stab them, It will be amusing if Sam North-East gets an England call up his summer because in a smaller team system he would have fallen out of professional cricket when he didn’t take it it straight away

  • Keep it simple. Some of these ideas here are rather confusing to say the least.
    Shouldn’t think the casual watcher would have a clue. The present championship would work perfectly if games were scheduled at the right times. They won’t ditch 50 over cricket because of the World Cup.
    If you reduce the number of games in the CC you’ll loose most of your county members: it’s already gone from 16 to 14 and they don’t reduce your membership fee accordingly. The counties will loose too much regular income.I dispute that “only one man and his dog” watch. While not T20 crowds Surrey regularly get 2500 a day for the CC. Last April 7000 attended over 2 days. Yes cold April.
    Two questions
    1. Should the main focus for the future of cricket be money and slogfeasts?
    2.Do we want to develop Test players or not? You won’t do it with no 4 day cricket in the summer and more t20 – franchise cricket which is not much different from conferences.

    • I imagine the benefits of creating a marketable red ball tournament they can sell to a tv provider would soon outweigh the costs of a few old farts giving up their memberships.

  • A compromise between the regional and random options would be to have pairs (i.e. rivals) and then randomise. So you ensure that, for example, Yorks and Lancs are always in the same group and therefore the Roses match isn’t lost, but retains the diversity from year to year.

    Overall, the idea is interesting. It shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand. But is it the best thing for the English game?

    • Its a small county. Although Yorks vs Lancs is the best known rivalry, its not the only one. Yorkshire vs Surrey also has a lot of history, as do plenty of other matchups.

  • Who needs Harrigraves to destroy the CC when some counties seem hellbent on doing it themselves?
    My club, Worcester, has tended to at least try to punch above its weight and here we are, at the start of a new season,
    preparing to try and secure our place in Division I, with a squad of youngish players who we have, in the main, developed ourselves. So bollocks to Rob Andrew and his supporters. Instead of trying to bring everyone down to your level, grow a pair and strive for something better.
    There are days when I despair about the future of cricket. This is one of them.

  • This is my first post on here. Thank you all for an interesting read about my favourite sport.

    There are some interesting suggestions to try to keep First Class cricket – and by extension Test match cricket – alive, or at least breathing.

    There is a fundamental flaw in the plan to have an NFC style conference setup for cricket because it fails to address the way poor NFC teams can get better; that is by getting the first oick in the draft for new talent.

    My idea for resolving this is a Thatcherite solution of following the money. The better you finish in the County Championship the more money you have earned from limited-overs cricket you get to keep to spend however you as a county cricket team sees fit. The lower down you finish the more you are forced to spend on your County side – and receipts will have to be provided!

    The top side can spend 100% of the money on advertising the T20 matches for the following season, the bottom side can spend none of it on that, and must spend all of it on the FC CC team, coaching and advertising.

    It could even be extended so that the worse England perform in Test cricket, the higher the levy taken by the ECB from the counties limited overs revenue that MUST be spent on improving the English test side.

    Of course it won’t happen because the old boy network won’t allow it. It would make the Labour Party’s 1983 manifesto – the longest suicide note in history – seem like a toddler’s letter to Santa!

  • Talk about a non issue…

    Australian cricket is strong because grade cricket is strong. You could have 2 teams playing one match per year over here and it wouldn’t increase the intensity or standard.

    Of all the things that are wrong with English cricket the structure of the first class leagues hardly registers. Saying that there’s probably a lot of club sides that would give at least Leicester and Derbyshire more than a run for their money.

    Cricket on free to air, the scheduling, the management and an avalanche of white ball rubbish are far more important.

    • At last… amateur Cricket has to be strong to produce strong counties. It’s not rocket science.. yet, we are dumbing down amateur Cricket, it’s far weaker than ever and only getting worse..

      No wonder counties are having long term paid pros who are quite frankly. Crap

      • Yet there’s no connection between amateur cricket and first class.

        In fact you can play cricket for 30 years without ever once playing your favourite game, 2 innings 4 day.

        How many of the 400 first class cricketers last year came from the private schools? Was watching the age group county kids the other day and…. well… I doubt any of them knew what a council estate was.

        Is it possible for a working class kid to get into one of those squads? Probably, but I suspect it’s the exception rather than the rule.

        Maybe we should call it upper class cricket rather than first class and stop pretending that they are the best our country can produce.

        • I can only go off the 4 countys I’ve seen first hand and tbh, age group county squads and teams are meaningless. I wouldn’t pay any attention to who is or isn’t in a county under x team.

          You see better players not in the squads but there are always the odd decent player in them.. it’s the majority who are essentially there to make up the numbers but little jimmy loves being a ‘county’ player and so do the parents so me. Leave them to it

        • The other thing to remember is that the people ‘coaching’ county age groups aren’t the best coaches, they are just the ones volunteering basically.

          Plus, we’ve seen from the ashes and the lack of quality being brought though, even those 1xi county coaches aren’t the best either

          • Probably true. I’ve seen some good coaching, some bad coaching, and a lot of really, really, old-fashioned coaching at county level.

            Problem with cricket coaching is that because the benefits of improved technique aren’t instant, its a game of asymmetric information. Most junior players and parents have absolutely no idea whether the guy coaching them is any good or not, or indeed which of the four coaches giving little Johnny advice they should actually listen to.

    • The problem is that there is no clear pathway between amateur or junior cricket and international cricket. The stepping stones are two far apart, with no clear mechanism by which players move up.

      We have this hotch-potch of premier leagues, minor counties, universities, and county 2nd XIs, along with a variety of age group representative teams and academies. Which one is the smoothest path to professional and international cricket? Does anyone even know? It all needs to be streamlined.

      And then at the professional level, there is this tacit understanding that players from the Div 2 counties need to move to the Div 1 counties in order to progress their careers, except when they don’t. Again – why not just streamline and formalise this?

      Aussie cricket works because there is a clear hierarchy. The national team picks from the state teams, the state teams pick from the 1st grade teams in their state, and the 1st grade teams pick from the 2nd and 3rd grade teams etc etc.

      We should do something similar. The national team selects from the elite level counties, the elite level counties select from the remaining counties in their region, and the counties select straight from the premier league clubs in their county.

      This would simultaneously raise the standard, make it easier for young players to see what they need to do to get a professional contract, and vastly improve the spectator base. (I’d have been much more likely to support Warwickshire as a kid if it was effectively representing the entire west midlands).

  • I thought the idea of the county championship was to be champion county. If you have divisions then all those counties not in the top division can’t win it, so the winners are not true county champions. Merely division winners.

    • The idea here – as I understand it – is that the top county in each ‘division’ would play off to determine the Champion County.

  • If the CC is to survive I suspect there will be drastic surgery. Maybe even an element of restricted overs – hmmm how about 20 a team in the first innings?
    As for 50 overs, lets boot this dinosaur into touch and lets get back to a Sunday league of 40 overs. The first and still the best.

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