This is the most depressed that I’ve ever been as an England cricket supporter. And I sense that many of you feel the same way. Therefore, I’ve taken some time out this weekend to quickly scribble down my thoughts on the current malaise. Apologies if this reads like a stream of consciousness…
Why am I so down in the dumps? It’s not so much that England’s Test team is bad – we’ve known that for a while – what’s upset me so much is that the debate surrounding the future is heading in completely the wrong direction. And that was always my biggest fear.
In recent days we’ve had serious observers – prominent journalists / broadcasters as well as former players – suggesting a whole host of misjudged ideas that would change the domestic (and in some cases international) game irrevocably without even guaranteeing any tangible benefit.
First we had Kevin Pietersen, who’s still pushing the same pro-franchise narrative he advocated during his playing days, suggesting that England need a Hundred-style first class competition. And this week we’ve had Jonathan Agnew proposing the abolition of the championship, too. I also noticed that Tim Wigmore, who I’ve always liked as both a thinker and writer, recommending that the Ashes be reduced to three Test series. I just can’t get my head around this latter idea. Why throw the baby out with the bathwater? England just need to get better.
Those who’ve been watching Sky, listening to the various podcasts out there, and keeping an eye on Twitter will have heard a host of alternative proposals as well. Some believe, quite rightly, that The Hundred should go (no matter how unrealistic this is). Others suggest that The Hundred absolutely has to be part of the solution (no matter how nonsensical this is). Meanwhile, some people have been giving up on red ball cricket entirely because, you know, people can’t concentrate for more than five minutes these days, apparently. The same people will then wax lyrical about the latest box set they’ve binged without appreciating the irony.
What strikes me when I see these ideas is that heads have clearly gone. There’s panic in the air, there’s still a lot of bad blood between Hundred advocates and opponents (who are spinning the narrative to settle old scores), and there’s no consensus on what the authorities should do… other than resign in disgrace, of course.
So what’s the answer?
First let me answer a slightly different question by telling you what I’d do if this was 2018 i.e. before the ECB’s franchise vanity project parked itself in the middle of the domestic calendar. I simply would’ve played more first class cricket in June, July, and especially August (when spinners traditionally come into their own) and then increased the quota of overseas players permitted. This would’ve raised standards immediately. And nobody would’ve argued with this plan.
Sadly, however, we’re no longer in 2018. And I can’t realistically see The Hundred going anywhere because it forms an integral part of the ECB’s bumper TV deal. Consequently, we’re saddled with it – the cricketing equivalent of herpes. The result is that the whole month of August is off-limits for anything other than the 16.4. And any other cricket played alongside it will be missing the best players and therefore devalued.
This obviously creates a massive problem. When the championship fixture list was announced last week, many people were hopeful that there would be significantly more red ball cricket scheduled for June, July and August. Instead, what we got was ever-so-slightly more. Many counties will play ten championship games in April, May and September and just four in actual summer. This means that they’ve effectively done very little to help England’s Test team. The Ashes recovery has basically been postponed for 12 months.
But what did people expect? We were never going to get more than a handful of games in summer because the ECB has already sold out first class cricket. The domestic schedule was hard to balance before The Hundred. It’s absolutely impossible now that August has been effectively taken out of the equation.
So now I’ll answer my original question. What would I, James Morgan, your average cricket supporter, actually do in far from ideal circumstances… other than detonating a big bomb under the franchise competition, of course?
Basically, there is no ideal solution here. Every potential measure will come with collateral damage. However, given that the Hundred has created a massive roadblock to progress, I see no alternative but to back the least worst option: the introduction of 3 divisions (rather than two) in the county championship.
Now don’t get me wrong. I don’t like this idea at all. I really fear for the counties in the third tier. And I also think it will lead to more promising players leaving their home-town clubs in search of a higher standard of cricket. But bringing in three divisions is the only way I think we can raise standards and simultaneously ease some of the current fixture congestion.
Rather than trying to shoehorn in 14 (or more) first class games per county, three divisions of six teams would reduce that number to 10. This seems like an acceptable (just) compromise. In an ideal world, I’d like to see more first class cricket than this but at least the benefit of 10 games is that every single innings would count. Therefore, aspiring young batsmen would have to learn how to cash in given limited opportunities.
It’s worth pointing out, of course, that the Sheffield Shield traditionally involves 10 games per side, too. The advantage that county cricket would have over the Sheffield Shield, however, is that the top tier would be underpinned by a fully professional second (and third) tiers; therefore there would still be plenty of opportunities for talented players to make cricket their vocation.
Whereas many talented cricketers are lost to the game in Australia – they choose other careers because there are limited opportunities with so few teams – county cricket could create a logical pyramid and pathway to the international game. Therefore, at least there would be some logic to this move.
Although this system wouldn’t be perfect – and sadly I don’t have an algorithm to work out what else would go where in the season at this point – at least there would be more breathing room for both the domestic 50 over competition and The Blast. The introduction of The Hundred meant that some other form(s) of the game were always going to be compromised somewhere along the line. Bringing in 3 divisions can at least reduce this damage.
Whilst my preferred option would obviously be to set fire to The Hundred and then pour a whole oil tanker’s worth of petrol on top of it, I’ve come to accept that this isn’t going to happen. Therefore, as we can’t drive through or jump over the 16.4, we just have to manoeuvre around it. It’s a bloody sad state of affairs, of course, but when your game is run by people who don’t necessarily have first class cricket’s best interests at heart, your range of options is rather limited.
It’s all so depressing. After all, everyone could see that this problem would ultimately present itself. The ECB should have known. But I guess it’s hard to notice the bleedin’ obvious when your eyes are transfixed upon the big fat bonus you’ll collect for creating something that nobody actually asked for.
The reason we’re all depressed about this is there appears to be no sign of a rethink on the horizon, though the county fixtures for next season gives the championship a few fixtures in high summer, so there might be as they say ‘reasons to be cheerful’ in the short term.
There are only one or two more championship games in summer. Pitiful really.
At least there seems to be acknowledgment of the criticism that last year’s structure engendered, however small it’s a concession. I know we all believe it might just be window dressing, but it may be the start of the sea change necessary to balance out the game.
There are plans to extend this in 2023, so we’ll see what happens then. They can’t use the excuse they did this season that there wasn’t enough time to make major alterations in an already planned program.
I share your feelings, but think you may be being defeatist about the 100 if you see media deals as being an impediment to getting rid of it. What is being bought is short form cricket as a commodity. The 100 could easily be replaced by T20, indeed the BBC, for example would probably welcome that. The main impediment is Harrison. As long as he stays, the 100 stays as he’s staked everything on it. But if he goes …and therein lies the problem. The ECB individually and collectively is responsible to no one but itself. The only way in which we would make progress is if that were to change. I can see a scenario in which that might happen but it would take massive pressure from the media and from the counties to make it happen. In days gone by, the MCC would surely have intervened in defence of red ball cricket but they too are now run by money men rather than cricketing people, which tends to make me pessimist also.
The fundamental issue with the 16.66 is that they’ve copyrighted the format and are banking on a big fat ker-ching every time someone else uses it (like they singularly failed to do with T20). There are many more with a finger in the pie (or stakeholders in WEF parlance) than Harrison.
Who are they, Simon ? Surely the ECB are the ones with the main vested interest. I understand the plan, but so far there is no sign of anyone else adopting it.
Indeed and why would they? There are umpteen T20 Leagues around the World, who wants some shortened version of it?
…and if you do, it already exists. It’s called T10.
What can I say James. It’s too terribly depressing with no immediate solution in sight. The custodians of the game have little interest in first class cricket unless it suits their own agenda and provides mega money for the coffers, including their own bonuses.
3 divisions is an idea worth thinking about, but I’m not sure if the relegated counties would be in favour. It’s a better concept than most of nonsense that I have seen written, but who knows which way the cookie will crumble.
It’s in the lap of the gods.
I get the sense that the fixture list is going to be much more Championship-friendly in 2023, in terms of summer fixtures. It’s as if there wasn’t enough time to do a proper re-think for the coming season – which is probably fair. Not that I have any confidence in the ECB coming up with anything that is much use. As you say, the Hundred is fixed.
That being so, is it impossible to envisage at least a couple of rounds of the Championship while the Hundred is running? Weakened teams, I hear you say. But last season I actually followed the Royal London One-Day Cup with more interest than for many years, with the mixture of “non-Hundred” Test players and rookies on display. Perhaps a similar scenario would be feasible for a couple of matches, at least.
I have no idea of the financial rewards of offer for Hundred contracts, but if central Test contracts could be as attractive, or more so, we could see Test players sitting out the Hundred and getting much needed red-ball practice, albeit against some weakened attacks. It’s not ideal but I think it could work.
England Test central contracts are already virtually a million – how much money do they need? Also, how much more would bowlers need to earn to find bowling a max. of 24 balls less attractive than the possibility of bowling 40 overs at Mount Wherever? Finally, I can’t imagine the ECB will allow England players to opt out en masse of their pet project….
Compromising with the 16.66 isn’t the way to go imo – there’s no solution while it exists. The option of a revamped Blast is still there with only ECB greed and ego in the way.
Again, I would concentrate less on the time of year and more on improving pitches (strong punishments for scores outside 250-450), widening the talent pool (how about a min. number of English U25s in each team like the IPL – we copy everyhting else in the IPL but why is this rule never mentioned?) and de-coupling the CC in any TV deal (Sky paying not to show it has always been absurd – the CC wouldn’t be peak-time BBC but it should be able to propser on a niche cable channel with a solid viewer base attractive to certain advertisers). A quota on ex-public schoolboys would be amusing.
Of the pundits quoted, I’d listen to KP on coaching and batting but not much else. This is what happens when you over-rely on imported labour – they have no loyalty to the body they work for because they have no rootedness in it. The elite know this which is why they promote it and make everyone too terrified of being called “racist” to complain. It’s all about profit maximisation and has nothing to do with race. Agnew’s position I find particularly revolting – he wants to smash the ladder he himself climbed up on. The BBC is sickening for giving him a platform and for their hostility to the counties – scrapping them can’t come soon enough (and won’t under Johnson with his fake plan delayed until after he knows he’ll have gone and his successor will scrap the scrapping).
The three division CC will just be a stepping stone into some counties stopping playing red-ball cricket and becoming white-ball only outfits. It’s what Rob Andrew was parachuted into Sussex to oversee (the county of Ranji, Tate, Dexter, Parks, Snow and CC winners less than two decades ago).
BTW the teams England have been selecting in the WI T20s have been ridiculous. If this tour has any purpose, it’s to look at some of the younger players. Who doesn’t know what Vince, Dawson and Jordan offer by now? Middle-aged journeymen clog up the pathways in English cricket and three divisions with dire consequences for relegation would actually make that worse.
Yes, James, you echo my fears and those of many others very accurately.
Here’s an idea. Given that the Hundred is not going to go away any time soon, could it be divided into two blocks, with a first bite ten days at the end of May which would largely be in school half term. Each team would play three matches in this slot. This would just leave four games per team over a couple of weeks August, plus the semi final and the final. There would be some days with games at two venues, where television coverage could be shared between Sky and BBC. Of course, there might be difficulties around getting overseas players to come twice, but the remuneration they are receiving should put paid to any objections on their part.
By the way, like Tony Bennett, I really enjoyed the one day cup games I saw in 2021, diluted teams and all. But with the one days games scattered through the season, they wouldn’t have to be diluted all the time.
Good suggestion about three divisions. How about in addition, merging the Hundred with the Blast so there is one franchise very short form competition?
It’s commonly accepted that there is now one competition too many. The ECB will be loath to abandon the 100, and I believe that contracts were signed for 5 years, so presumably through to the 2025 season.
We have good one day international teams, and don’t want them to decline when, hopefully, action is taken to improve the first class structure. This means that our top players need to play regularly in 20 and 50 over competitions.
I therefore suggest that the current T20 competition be abolished and the 100 be relaunched as the 120. It should comprise a premier league and a championship, and the two together would comprise 18 teams, based on the current counties. Current franchises would presumably have to stay for the five years, and if they want to keep their current names (Oval Invincibles, Welsh Fire etc), they can. Other counties can choose their own names but, for example, Kent would probably be the Spitfires, Sussex the Sharks and so on. There would be promotion and relegation between the two divisions, although this might not be possible till after the initial five years due to current contracts. Every county/franchise would have a womens team and play double headers as at present in the 100.
Totally agree. But I think the ECB are wedded to their absurd format.
Oh no this is just totally confusing.
The 100 will not survive 5 years in my view. Why? Because most of the spectators last year has freebies. This year they will have to pay. With the T20 being played before the 100 Mr and Mrs Average ain’t gonna go to both. I’d be surprised if it last more than this year. apart from the fact that they’ll suddenly realise we are not playing hardly any meaningful 50 over with the next WC looming. I think the ECB have forgotten we are the current holders!
There is overwhelming support out there to get the Test team sorted over and above this silly franchise nonsense.
I hope you’re right and think you could be. It’s interesting that the stupidity of the decision in relation to 50 over cricket has largely been overlooked because of the attention given to the mega stupidity of the 16.6 !
No one seems to make the point that no matter how many CC games are played in the summer the ‘stars’ are virtually banned from playing for their counties unless the Gods at the ECB decree it using no formal mechanism that I can see. Even when internationals aren’t being played, many with central contracts just potter about on the golf course. How is that going to improve batting technique?