Back to the future for county cricket progress

Only English cricket could spend such time, effort and money on a “comprehensive” review of how best to order the structure of the domestic season and come up with something which, as it stands at the moment, would in 2012 exactly mirror the shape of the summer just two years ago in 2009. Progress, eh?

The Clydesdale Bank 40 could yet, of course, be changed into a tournament with four initial groups of five, with quarter-finals, as opposed to the current three groups of seven, with just semi-finals and final, as this is the subject of yet further discussion, but don’t hold your breath.

Already there are mutterings – or even more strident voices – from counties such as Somerset, Sussex and Essex who favoured the retention of the 16-match group phase of the Friends Provident t20 rather than the confirmed revision to a 10-match group stage in 2012 (five home games, five away) before quarter-finals and finals day.

They argue that, despite England and Wales Cricket Board agreement to provide additional financial compensation (at a level so far unrevealed), the loss of three home Twenty20 Cup matches per season will have a serious effect on their overall income from staging cricket.

Essex, for instance, took almost £70,000 in gate receipts alone from each FPt20 game they staged in 2010; Somerset earned £40,000 per home game from Twenty20 gate revenue, Sussex £35,000 and Gloucestershire, another county who opposed a reduction from eight home games to five in the competition, a more modest £16,000 per match.

This significant opposition to the reduction in domestic Twenty20, despite the general overall agreement reached which includes maintaining the integrity of a 16-match County Championship, is why I believe the CB40 will remain in its current but unsatisfactory form – from a cricket purists’ point of view – of seven teams per group playing 12 matches (six home and six away) but only the top sides in each of the three groups being guaranteed a place in the semi-finals.

Even though the counterplan for 2012 of reducing the CB40 too to four groups of five (which therefore produces only four guaranteed home games per county) is balanced by the introduction of a quarter-final stage – which for four lucky counties would give them a money-spinning additional home tie in late August – it is unlikely to prevail because in this format 10 counties out of 18 would lose two guaranteed home games.

Add those two CB40 games to the three FPt20 already taken away from them, and that’s five lucrative days they will have to do without.

From a purely cricketing viewpoint, however, and the prime need for county cricket as the England national team’s nursery to provide the right balance of strong competition with the chance for rest and proper preparation, a combination of 16 four-day games, 10 Twenty20 games (plus maximum of three knock-out phase) and the proposed eight CB40 games (plus maximum of three knock-out) seems perfectly sensible.

Every county would thus play a minimum of 82 days’ cricket in a summer currently stretching from early April to mid-September (the county season is 167 days’ long in 2011) and a maximum of 87, given that the FPt20 finals day features both semi-finals and final.

Even a county player who appears in every match for a county which also reaches the final of both one-day competitions would therefore have 80 days without actually playing cricket in the proposed 2012 format.

Most of those would, of course, be taken up in travelling and practising, or both, but it is also self-evident that there would still be plenty of available time for rest. The vast majority of county players, indeed, do not take part in every game anyway, either through selection policy or injury.

As ever, though, there are in reality no such simple solutions in the world of county cricket – just ask the counties!

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