The County Championship is set for its biggest shake-up in more than decade with a 14-match programme and a new first division of eight counties, with ten in the lower tier.
After months of debate, prevarication and hard-bargaining, the chairmen and chief executives of the 18 county clubs will assemble at Lord’s on March 1, when they will be asked to approved the new Championship structure.
Ostensibly, the proposed changes have been made to allow players more time to rest between matches and to prepare for the three different domestic competitions.
In reality, the proposed reduction from 16 to 14 matches per county has been enforced because the end of the domestic season now overlaps with the Champions League T20 competition.
Two county sides, the Twenty20 Cup winners and runners-up, qualify for the Champions League which seems to have been given an immovable slot in mid-September.
The consequence is that unless counties want to withdraw from participation in the Champions League, which is lucrative only for the two sides that qualify, or to continue with the current congested fixture schedule, something has to change.
A draft schedule for the 2012 season is circulating at the higher levels of the ECB and shows a 14-match County Championship and a ten match per-county T20 competition with the group matches played in a 19-day slot at the height of summer.
Next Tuesday’s meeting is described as the next stage in the consultation process but it will go a long way to shaping the 2012 fixture schedule. If there is an obvious majority in favour of the proposed changes a decision on the domestic structure from 2012 could be made at the next ECB board meeting.
There has been strong lobbying for a retention of the existing 16-match Championship by the Professional Cricketers’ Association and by former players who sit on influential ECB committees.
They argue that a system that contributed significantly to the recent Ashes success in Australia seems to be working well, so why change it? But there is counter pressure from some counties who do not want to see a reduction in the amount of Twenty20 cricket played.
A split vote next Tuesday would cause embarrassment for the ECB who set up a working party to review the existing domestic structure and to recommend changes for the future.
If changes are made to the Championship structure, it would be the biggest shake-up of the competition since two divisions were introduced for the 2000 season.
The current system has the benefit of symmetry as each county plays the other sides in its division twice during the season. Under the ECB proposals, counties in the second tier would play some sides twice, but others only once.
Critics argue that this comprises the integrity of county cricket’s oldest and most endearing competition.